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Cape Cold: The Quiet Joys of Winter

Never mind about the summer. In summer you aren't allowed to park on Commercial Street. In summer you can't park anywhere. I've known people who had to turn around and drive 15 miles to Wellfleet to abandon their cars, then hitch a ride back to Provincetown with people who didn't yet know there would be no place for their car, either. In summer the dogcatcher prowls in her square steel truck. The crowds will make you think you've stumbled on Mardi Gras. No one in the post office will speak to you civilly. I even have it on the very good authority of Donovan, who used to paint my fingernails at the West End Salon, that the local watering holes water the drinks in summer.

"Really," she said, tilting her emery board in my direction. "I know all the tricks around here."

But in Provincetown in winter, there are no tricks. Everyone who has someplace else to go has packed up and gone there, leaving the town running with just a skeleton crew. The same apartments that in summer cost as much as having your child's teeth straightened rent for peanuts in winter, and rooms at the best inns and guesthouses are available at flophouse prices. Most of the restaurants close. The ones that get boarded up for the entire season, like Café Blasé, I hate, good-time Johnny-come-latelies, not caring enough to give us even a bowl of soup when it's cold. Other establishments turn off their lights for a month or two, a long winter vacation, and they can be forgiven. But my heart belongs to the few diehards, the Governor Bradford and the Lobster Pot and the Post Office Café, that stay open all year round because they know that some of us are still here and would like to have a place to go.

The movie theater in town is closed for the winter, which means you have to drive to Wellfleet to see a film; likewise for ice cream. But what you lose is merely a whisper compared with all you gain. No one can shut down the Atlantic Ocean, or roll up the bay to keep it fresh for the tourists. In winter, the things that the teeming masses flock to see in summer are yours alone. Imagine a day at Niagara Falls, all the carnival lights turned off, or the Grand Canyon, with every viewing scope ready and waiting for your eyes only. In Provincetown in winter I drive to Herring Cove Beach and park my car in a spot I can only dream about in summer, a spot I don't have to pay for, and watch the sun set over the wet black caps of diving seals. If I am feeling magnificently bundled, I walk through the beach forest and over the weird lunar landscape of the dunes, where the sand sweeps and piles, shapes and un-shapes and reshapes itself, so that I know to look very carefully, since I will never see this particular vista again. And yes, it's cold. Damn cold. But you bless the cold that has swept most tourists all the way down Route 6 and back across the Sagamore Bridge. The cold has allowed you to see the ocean as it is occasionally meant to be seen: alone.

Or the bay. Go there in the morning, when the fog is so thick you can walk right into the water without seeing it. It's like living inside a Fellini film. Or go in the late afternoon, when the fishermen are coming back in boats that are red and yellow and blue, their traps full of lobsters, one of which may be your dinner. The light on those late afternoons is like nothing else you will experience in your life, and while Joel Meyerowitz did a brilliant job of capturing it in his classic book Cape Light, it is better still in person.

To be in Provincetown in winter is to be both anonymous and known. It's a quiet breed who wait out the cold there, but even when you're just passing through, they remember you, speak to you, because they know you're one of them. You see what is good about the place even when it drizzles for a solid week. The man who poured your Irish whiskey Saturday night will wave to you on Sunday morning.

The most remarkable thing about Provincetown in winter is that every day is approximately 72 hours long, a phenomenon that I have always felt deserved some close scientific study. I've gotten more work done before noon in Provincetown in winter than I have in an entire month at home. So that when you do venture outside to kill off some of the huge amount of time you have accrued, you may be plenty willing to talk to strangers yourself. Only a few stores might be open, but everything you find will be on sale, and if you ask the shopkeeper in the most offhand way whether he could possibly let you have it for less, he will very probably cut the price in half. I've made some of the most extraordinary buys of my life in Provincetown in winter, maybe because I am a more patient shopper when nobody else is around.

I am also a better drinker, because with days as long as these, there is nothing the matter with throwing away an hour or two in a bar. When I am feeling fancy and in want of a view, I go to the top of the Lobster Pot, where in winter they give you free chicken wings and bowls of chowder on lucky occasions. A good gin martini and a bowl of clam chowder can keep you going for a week. On other nights, everyday sorts of nights, I go to the Governor Bradford and shoot pool or play backgammon with whoever happens to be around. I throw my money away on the jukebox and talk to the strangers I feel I know. The walk home is fierce, and everyone screams as he or she steps onto the street and is bent by the wind, but it is a tiny town, one we refer to as the last city in America, and no one is ever very far from home.

ANN PATCHETT is the author of the novels The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, and The Magician's Assistant, which is just out from Harcourt Brace. She lives in Nashville.

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