Cape Cod: When the coast is clear
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Posted by: Brian Rathjen
You do not need a GPS, map or sign to let you know when you are riding onto Cape Cod. You can smell it. You can feel it, and you can see it. Things immediately take on a more nautical Cape Cod feel.
We planned well for the post Labor Day traffic, and although still crowded in spots, things moved along smoothly as we headed around the arm that is this Cape. The geologic history of Cape Cod mostly involves the advance and retreat of the last continental ice sheet (named the Laurentide, after the Laurentian region of Canada where it first formed) and the rise in sea level that followed the retreat of the Ice Age.
The entire Cape is made of glacial moraine and sand, and the geography here changes with the sea, storms and time, although man tries his best not to let it change too much.
Along the main US 6 (the same US 6 that crosses the NY/NJ/PA region on its way cross country) you will find salt ponds and tidal streams, and if you are my wife Shira, you will find Hallet’s Homemade Ice Cream. They have been making and serving ice cream here since 1889, possibly making it one of the oldest ice cream parlors Shira has yet found, and I will tell you this: It was the thickest and creamiest I have had in a long time…and we eat a lot of ice cream. Hey, everyone needs a vice! You could point bricks with this stuff.
We did actually have a plan this day and that was to find a certain U.S. Coast Guard Boat, Motor Lifeboat CG36500. On the night of February 18, 1952, during a raging 70-knot nor’easter snowstorm, four Coast Guardsmen (coxswain Bernard C. “Bernie” Webber, Andrew Fitzgerald, Ervin Maske and Richard Livesey) set out on the 36500 to rescue crewmen on the tanker Pendleton which had broken apart in a storm. Incredibly, they returned to the Chatham Life Saving Station with 32 survivors—on a boat designed to carry half that number safely. All the “Coasties” received the Gold Life Saving Medal for their bravery under these almost impossible conditions. The film The Finest Hours was a spectacular telling of these brave men and that fearful night.
I had heard that the boat was at the Orleans Historical Society, but although they had plenty of memorabilia of the boat and tales of that night in 1952, the 36500 would be found a few miles away, thankfully once again in the water at Rock Harbor.
To see the 36500 restored to her former glory and to think of what it and these men did nearly 65 years ago brought forth quite a feeling. If you have never heard of this story, or the film The Finest Hours, do yourself a favor and just watch the trailer; that should lead you right to watching the film. Hey, the new Captain Kirk is in it, so you have that, if nothing else.
Continuing on towards Wellfleet, we spent some time at the Marconi Beach. It was here that Guglielmo Marconi broadcast the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and Europe in 1903, changing communications for the planet forevermore. Today the first Marconi station is all but gone, with just remnants of the foundation left by the ever-changing coast and powerful Atlantic.
Still, it was the coast and cape that we came for, and the coast and cape does not get any prettier than here at Marconi Beach. Well, we came for that and some real seafood too! Wellfleet is known for its oystas, its lobstas, and its chowdas, and we found all of that harbor-side in Wellfleet at Mac’s Seafood, right on the wadda’.
While we were gorging…I mean dining…we could see deep and darkening skies rushing in from the west, and the earlier talk we had heard of a severe front coming through played true as we beat it back to the main road and the Wellfleet Motel (always squeaky clean!) just in time to grab a room and cover the tank bags before the deluge. Timing is everything, they say.
The strong front that rolled through at dusk the previous night had left the atmosphere dry, crisp and cool; perfect riding weather in my book. I was up at dawn and strolling towards the motor inn’s café in search of that morning cup of Colombian go-go juice when I spotted an odd, small tar snake on the otherwise pristine blacktop of the lot.
It looked oddly out of place and had a yellow band on one end. It was no bigger than my index finger. Not a tar snake, but a baby ringneck snake, a very common and just slightly venomous coastal snake. I thought maybe the parking lot, that was soon to become very busy, was not the best place for a diminutive black snake so I prodded him a bit and got him squirming into the nearby grass. Good deed for the day done, it was time for coffee.
The plan from the very beginning of this sojourn was to avoid the crowds and heavy traffic of the summer on Cape Cod, but still it seems that folks here drive in a different rhythm, and pulling out into or crossing main roads to stay on the smaller country lanes was sometimes a challenge when dealing with Cape Codians. And I thought Rome or the Dominican Republic was tough!
We particularly chose small roads that followed, more or less, the general direction towards Provincetown, or P-Town as it is known locally. This allowed us almost totally clear and twisty roads that would run along the coast, bay and the small salt streams and ponds that dot the cape. In an hour we were hugging the huge dunes that line Route 6 near the end of Cape Cod., We parked the bikes along the tiny road to Race Point and spent some time at land’s end.
Dropping into P-Town, we hoped to grab a spot and bit of waterside breakfast. We made a quick stop at the Pilgrims Monument. The tall tower stands like a sentinel above the town and was built between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the first landfall of the Pilgrims in 1620 and the signing in Provincetown Harbor of the Mayflower Compact.
For years Provincetown stood as a working fishing village, populated with mostly fisherman and their families, but in the last few decades its charm has morphed into “le tourist entrapment” and what is now P-Town. Full of over-priced shops and far too touristy for us, we still made the attempt for a landing and breakfast, but parking is almost non-existent here, and the lots that were open wanted $20 per bike to park.
We took one quick lap of the town, and I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise as “Entitled Pedestrians” walked out in front of the bikes, texting or listening to their iPhones and oblivious to the world. As pretty as they once might have been, I have no use for “make believe villages” like P-Town these days—let the tourists have it.
We rode back out to Route 6 and stopped at something of real note: a sign right outside Provincetown that reads “US 6 West Bishop, CA 3,205 miles / Long Beach CA 3,652 1953 Alignment.” This is the start of US 6, which you can ride from Cape Cod to California, and I wondered how the road would change as it winds its way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
We did finally find breakfast back in Truro, before heading back to the Atlantic side of the Cape and the Nauset Lighthouse. The small structure has been doing duty since 1838, but was almost taken back by the sea due to the constant erosion and changing Cape Cod coast. The Nauset Light was to be dismantled by the Coast Guard, but a private trust raised the funds to save it, and it was moved some 300 feet in 1996 to its present location and still serves ships at sea today. It is considered one of the most photographed lighthouses in the northeast, and looking at the images you can see why.
The day before, when we had searched out the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG36500, we learned that the rescue happened out of the Chatham Coast Guard Station, and so we began to meander down towards that coastal town.
Cape Cod has an unusual terrain. We have said that it is mostly a left over from the Ice Age, but the unusual thing is that it is mainly crushed rock from those thousands of years ago and lacks almost any glacial erratic boulders from this epoch. Except for one big one—the Doane Rock. Our route just happened to pass near by it, so I pushed for a short detour to stop by and see the Doane Rock for ourselves. Shira brings me to art museums and lighthouses; I bring her to ancient psychiatric hospitals and big rocks. Doane Rock, an “erratic” is the largest exposed boulder on Cape Cod. It stands 18 feet high and extends below the ground an estimated 12 feet. Harriman State Park is full of these and some are far greater, but when you are the only girl in town you get noticed.
Crossing back and forth along the Cape we rode by the Eastham Windmill. This looked like another digital moment, so we stopped and by doing so learned that this windmill is the oldest on the Cape and was built back in 1680. It has been moved a number of times since then and seems happy and content in the park in the Eastham historic district where it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1999.
Continuing along anything but US 6, we headed towards the Cape Cod town of Chatham. Echoing our stop the previous day at Marconi Beach, we visited the famous Chatham Marconi Site. Although today the Cape is known for summer vacations, the wonderful coast and great seafood, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Cape Cod was also a center for communication technology, and it is good to know that, in our age of instantaneous communication and the internet, that worldwide communications really began here. The Chatham Marconi/RCA wireless facility changed the world, made maritime communications a reality, and during wartime, helped the U.S. and its allies to defeat the Nazis. Today the buildings house a marvelous museum, and the folks there were very helpful and knowledgeable on the history of the facility. We thought we’d stop in for a short bit, but spent a good hour exploring and learning about how this place saved lives, beat the Germans and changed the world.
Our second stop in Chatham would be the U.S. Coast Guard Life Boat Station. It was here on February 18, 1952, where the SOS came in from the freighter Pendleton, split in half off the Cape Cod coast and sinking. The brave Coast Guard men took out Motor Lifeboat CG36500 from here and made history as well. After reading the books and seeing the film it was wonderful to see where all this actually occurred, although our late summer day of blue skies and 70 degrees was far different from that deadly mid-winter storm in Cape Cod years ago.
By this time it was getting towards mid-afternoon, and we tried our best to stay on small roads back down and off the Cape, stopping for coffee and ice cream in Osterville, a cute little town that was home to its share of famous folks such as David Hartman (Good Morning America), Gene Rayburn (The Match Game), Lee Remick, This Old Houses’ Bob Villa, author Kurt Vonnegut and Andrea Still. Who knew?
Once again the atmosphere changed as we rode off the Cape with the salty tang of the air and the distinct Cape Cod feel giving way to the southern sprawl of Boston. Still, we managed to continue along, recapturing the Rhode Island and Newport coast vibe as we tried to hug the coast. We took a place outside of Newport for the night and in the morning made one last stop at Twisted Throttle in Exeter, Rhode Island. Twisted is like a superstore for riders, and they have quite the set-up there, especially if you are a serious and traveling motorcyclist.
Shopping done, we swung inland and away from our coastal adventure, quickly riding into Connecticut and then along the smallest and most curvaceous roads we could find, heading in the general direction of the Hudson River at Bear Mountain. By early evening we were crossing back into the New Jersey Skylands region and our home.
The Cape Cod region offers a unique blend of American and maritime history. Although beyond crowded and almost un-rideable during the summer (especially weekends), the fall and spring allow riders to enjoy what most of the locals know: Cape Cod is a beautiful part of the U.S. and has roots deep in history, its people and the sea. It is well worth exploring at the right time of the year.
Brian Rathjen is the publisher of Backroads Motorcycle Tour Magazine, a northeast regional, and is a long time MOA member. For more information, visit www.backroadsusa.com.