Thoreau and the Three Seasons on Cape Cod

Henry David Thoreau’s most famous pronouncement about Cape Cod is, “A man may stand here and put all America behind him.”

He was standing in traffic on a Friday afternoon waiting to get over the Sagamore Bridge.

Thoreau knew there were only three seasons on Cape Cod.

It’s a scientifically proven fact that there is no spring on Cape Cod. The same ocean temperatures that have kept the Cape from being brutally cold all winter, do not warm until July. So the winds that blow through what would be spring are so frigid that there is no actual spring. You can look it up.

The three seasons are winter, when everybody on Cape Cod goes to Florida; tourist season, when everybody who lives on Cape Cod stays home because they can’t get on the crowded roads or beaches; and hurricane season.

The good people of Cape Cod have turned Thoreau’s book into a marketing machine. They’ve taken him out of context. Thoreau actually tried to warn us about the three season of Cape Cod.

Listen to what he has to say about tourists and traffic. These quotes are all from his book “Cape Cod,” published in 1865.

“We decided to go by way of Cohasset. We found many Irish in the cars.”

“…we were told that the Cape roads were very “heavy…”

“…having two or three thousand busses…”

He warned us about the traffic getting to the Cape.

“The places which I have described may seem strange and remote to my townsmen, – indeed, from Boston to Provincetown is twice as far as from England to France; yet step into the cars, and in six hours you may…see the Cape.”

Even Thoreau knew it took six hours to get by car from Boston to the Cape.

He wrote about the crowded beaches.

“…they spent their summers by the sea, for the sake of the sea-breeze,…”

“We found that nearly all the passengers were bound for the beach…and many other persons were flocking in from the neighboring country. There were several hundreds of them streaming off over Cohasset common…”

“…there was hardly room to turn around…”

Thoreau thought the Pilgrims got it all wrong when they stopped here.

“I cannot but think that we must make some allowance for the greenness of the Pilgrims in these matters, which caused them to see green. We do not believe that the trees were large or the soil was deep here. Their account may be true particularly, but it is generally false. They saw literally, as well as figuratively, but one side of the Cape. They naturally exaggerated the fairness and attractiveness of the land, for they were glad to get to any land at all after that anxious voyage.”

Thoreau tells us what he really thought.

“It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. “

He also wrote extensively about hurricanes and winter winds.

“A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit.”

“All the while it was not so calm as the reader may suppose, but it was blow, blow, blow, — roar, roar, roar, — tramp, tramp, tramp, — without interruption.”

“Though we have indulged in some placid reflections of late, the reader must not forget that the dash and roar of the waves were incessant. Indeed, it would be well if he were to read with a large conch-shell at his ear.”

“…where in winter the winds howl and the snow blows right merrily in the face of the traveler.”

“Over this bare Highland the wind has full sweep. Even in July it blows the wings over the heads of the young turkeys, which do not know enough to head against it; and in gales the doors and windows are blown in, and you must hold on to the light-house to prevent being blown into the Atlantic…If you would feel the full force of a tempest, take up your residence on the top of Mount Washington, or at the Highland Light, in Truro.”

Thoreau actually liked the cold, bitter wind.

“The clear and bracing air, and the storms of autumn and winter even, are necessary in order that we may get the impression which the sea is calculated to make. In October…especially if you have a storm during your stay, that I am convinced is the best time to visit this shore… Beside, an outward cold and dreariness, which make it necessary to seek shelter at night, lend a spirit of adventure to a walk.”

“Mild as it was on shore this morning, the wind was cold and piercing on the water. Though it be the hottest day in July on land … take your thickest clothes with you, for you are about to float over melted icebergs.”

Did Thoreau like the fishing? Here is what he had to say about fishing.

“I confess I was surprised to find that so many men spent their whole day, ay, their whole lives almost, a-fishing. It is remarkable what a serious business men make of getting their dinners, and how universally shiftlessness and a groveling taste take refuge in a merely ant-like industry. Better go without your dinner, I thought, than be thus everlastingly fishing for it like a cormorant.”

“…when I asked what the fishermen did in the winter, answered that they did nothing but go a-visiting, sit about and tell stories…”

Did he travel to Cape Cod on business?

“Until quite recently there was no regular lawyer below Orleans.”

Thoreau warned us about all the retirees on Cape Cod.

“The old people appeared remarkably well preserved, as if by the saltness of the atmosphere, and after having once mistaken, we could never be certain whether we were talking to a coeval of our grandparents, or to one of our own age. “

Did he travel for introspection?

“Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squawl and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.”

Thoreau thought that none but the most hardy souls would ever set foot on Cape Cod.

“At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them. If it is merely a ten-pin alley, or a circular railway, or an ocean of mint-julep, that the visitor is in search of, if he thinks more of the wine than the brine, as I suspect some do at Newport, I trust that for a long time he will be disappointed here.”

The “all season” choice for Thoreau: the wine versus the brine.

Don’t believe all you read on the internet. While all of the above quotes are taken directly from H.D. Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” (1865), some of them are slightly out of context. And, don’t write in – I know when the Sagamore Bridge was built. And, I know when Thoreau referred to cars he meant railroad cars. So there.

In truth, Thoreau did have some nice things to say about Hurricane Season on the Cape.

“Notwithstanding the universal barrenness, and the contiguity of the desert, I never saw an autumnal landscape so beautifully painted as this was.”

“Coming from the country as I did, and many autumnal woods as I had seen, this was perhaps the most novel and remarkable sight that I saw on the Cape. Probably the brightness of the tints was enhanced by contrast with the sand which surrounded this track.”

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