January snow drifts down onto Long Nook beach. A piercing cold wind off the Atlantic knifes through even heavy overcoats and thick boots. Within minutes, the cold becomes unbearable. It is time to climb back up the sand dunes, which tower fifty feet above, to the Ford station wagon, now alone in the parking lot.
The Outer Cape--the final hook in Cape Cod that stretches 27 miles from Orleans to Provincetown--is a desolate place during the winter.
In Wellfleet, the summertime invasion of thousands of tourists is now nothing more than a memory; the population has dwindled to under 2000 people. The doctors, lawyers and businessmen who own summer homes on Indian Neck and Lieutenant Island are gone to their warm offices in Boston and New York and their equally comfortable homes in Wellesley and Scarsdale. But some, the year-rounders, remain for the cold winter months.
For the year-rounders, the winter means isolation, bad weather and hardship. The small towns that line the Outer Cape--Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truvo and Provincetown--depend economically almost exclusively on tourism. The creation of the National Seashore in 1961 insured the tourist trade during the summer by protecting the beaches and ponds of the Cape, but after Thanksgiving, few visitors are attracted; the motels, shops and restaurants close, and unemployment soars. In the winter, food stamps become a common sight in Wellfleet's First National supermarket and the number of welfare recipients and those on unemployment climbs.
Who are the winter people? Why do they stay?
For some, the Cape his always been home. For David, and his wife Sandy, until recently these had never been a question of where they would live. In Wellfleet's cemetery many of the gravestones from the nineteenth century bear David's last name. His roots are deep. He first left Wellfleet for four years to attend the University of New Hampshire, where he not Sandy, and they returned together when he graduated.
Yet they have contemplated leaving their small one-story house which is Midden on the bay side of Route just before the Wellfleet. Truro town-line. Rising building costs have prevented them from buying a larger home, a move they have wanted to make for their two children. So late last fall. David, who teaches math in a public high school, applied for jobs in western Massachusetts. Their plans fell through, however, and with the economy in its present shape he cannot afford to give up his present job and hunt for a new one.
So now in the winter, when he isn't teaching, David spends his time reading and writing novels. Sandy often accompanies him on long hikes from their home to the beaches on the oceanside. It is a quiet and undisturbed time for the two.
Pete greets the winter with a stole acceptance. He is a tall man in his mid-thirties, originally from New Sweden, Maine, who bears an uncanny resemblence in Paul Newman. He enjoys the winter. During the crowded summer season he talks wistfully of the isolation ahead: of being able to drive his Jeep up Route 6 and recognize the inhabitants of every car he passes.
He has been on the Cape a long time; years ago he lived in a mobile home on the beach in Provincetown, fishing and running his four-wheel drive over the dunes. Now, he runs a cottage colony in Wellfleet that stays open from the late spring to the early autumns. To relieve the boredom and loneliness, he paints and draws away the long January and February hours. Pete cautions anyone rash enough to think that staying in Wellfleet through the late fall and winter will not exact a cost. It does.
"January and February on the Cape are brutal," Jimmy says. "especially February," Jimmy a dark Irishman from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, and Louise have lived in Wellfleet two years. They are fortunate in finding work year round, in the summer, they both work at a restaurant in North Truro, in winter he works construction, sporadically, and she is a bank teller is Provincetown, Neither of them enjoys the job, but feels it is worth it.
The two like many others on the Cape: have traded their economic security (both were successful teachers before coming to the cape) in exchange for an unhurried, solitary and peaceful existence. On the weekends they walk the beaches, or visit the ponds in Wellfleet that Thoreau made famous. And they enjoy driving to Race Point beach in Provincetown--the tip of the Cape--and photographing the sunsets.
While the year-rounders like David, Sandy, Pete, Jimmy and Louise miss a great deal--they are shut off from the outside world and are plagued by a seasonal economy--they also gain something by their stubborn refusal to leave. They remain in touch with the changing sea and the moody weather of the Outer Cape, closer to nature than the city-dweller. There is time for reflection and thought, for walking and reading, for watching the spring finally appear.
The wife of a New York professor who summers in Wellfleet once aptly observed that only the rich and the poor really get a chance to see the sun set over Cape Code Bay. The rich monopolize the view from their bayside summer homes, and when they leave, only the poor remain on the Cape to watch during the winter months.