2000s Archive

Alone Again, Naturally

Originally Published December 2003
For one man, Provincetown provides a paradoxical sense of belonging in isolation, the odd feeling that sometimes the best way to find companionship is by yourself.

On a map, Provincetown, Massachusetts, is just a little dot at the very tip of Cape Cod. It’s not one of those spots that people pass through on their way to somewhere more interesting because it is, quite literally, on the way to nowhere. The last group to just stop by and then move on arrived in 1620, on a ship called the Mayflower. (The Pilgrims bumped into this crook-shaped peninsula by mistake before they made their way to Plymouth.)

The first time I arrived in town, I knew there was no mistake. And I quickly learned that—for me—the best time to visit is the off-season. I instantly recognized that the arm of land enfolding Provincetown Harbor keeps this small universe frozen in a lovely little time warp, just as it shields me from the outside world and whatever problems I’ve left behind. I’m always certain that the clocks have stopped in my absence, and I pick up right where my last visit left off, lapsing into a routine that comes naturally, whose pace and pattern are established almost unconsciously. I believe that this is how my life has always been and how it always will be.

I wander—sometimes purposefully, other times aimlessly—through a town not quite closed down for winter, selfishly choosing how much I want to take in, but greedily craving more. There’s a narcissistic delight in feeling that the more I get—whether it’s tranquillity and isolation, an ideal meal, or an odd loneliness that makes me extremely happy—the more I want. I walk along the beach each afternoon to watch the sun set and enjoy the fact that it’s virtually deserted. I’m grateful to be alone and experience the comfort of others—people in their homes quietly settling in for the evening, their television sets flickering against the darkness outside—at a distance.

I awaken each day to the feeling of being aboard a ship; all I can see out my windows is the bright morning light reflecting off the water. Even cloudy days, filled with more variations and shades of gray than I’d ever imagined, have their own special magic. The wind passes over the water, making it ripple as if a large school of fish were coursing just below the surface. The clouds are so low that the sky is just a puffy planetarium ceiling that will soon open to reveal the most ethereal light. A sense of calm floats over the town, and scenes from a romantic movie that plays inside my head unfold before my eyes: a man at work on an oil painting that takes in the vista of Cape Cod Bay. His blue sweatshirt doesn’t look quite warm enough for the weather, but his mittens seem to provide all the protection he needs from the cold. Another artist is sketching the Town Hall in charcoal. Ordinary, yes; but somehow very special, too.

The idea of a routine within my vacation, or perhaps it’s more like a vacation within a routine, is especially inviting when I participate in annual events. At Thanksgiving I am just one of the locals when I head out to watch the lighting of the Pilgrim Monument. Last year a small snowstorm had passed through, but—as if on cue—the flurries ended just before dusk. The gate to my yard was slick and shiny with a thin layer of ice, and the wind was blowing as I pulled a heavy wool scarf tighter around my neck and my ski cap further down over my ears. There were about two dozen people gathered when the clock at Town Hall chimed six times and all eyes gazed up as the monument went dark. “Other way, guys,” someone shouted, and a few seconds later everyone clapped as brilliant lights streamed down and out from the monument, transforming it into a giant granite Christmas tree. I’ve never been much for tradition, but I smiled as the wind whipped my face and I silently turned back toward home.

I head to the outskirts of town to seek a different sort of quiet and peace of mind, slowly driving along roads hemmed in by sweeping sand dunes that sprout random patches of tall sea grass. I revel in the unspoiled beauty that surrounds Provincetown as I stop at Herring Cove Beach, where late afternoons often find the parking lot populated by a row of cars surreally poised as if at an old drive-in movie theater. When I take my place among them, I’m struck by what a weirdly pleasing sensation it is to be so completely alone in the cocoon of my car, and yet feel so much a part of something. The sun begins to set and the world becomes a prism of changing colors. Rising off the deep blue, almost black ocean is red, orange, yellow, a pale green, and then the perfect sky blue. Dogs are running everywhere on the beach as we all take in this flawless moment.

In a pleasant twist on an age-old notion, I realize that familiarity breeds content. I have no real roots in Provincetown, no family or friends, no financial interests at stake, but this tiny slip of a town has become as familiar and as comfortable to me as home. My mental transformation is so complete it allows me little leaps in reality, accompanied by an immutable understanding that I can be absolutely alone and feel absolutely fulfilled. When I’m here, everything about my life makes sense. And every time I leave—the Pilgrim Monument slowly fading to a gray blur in my rearview mirror—I’m certain that whenever I return, everything will be just as I left it.

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