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In Barnstable, 6A skirts bayside wetlands (and a fishing shack). The East Coast's largest marsh covers 4,000 acres here. (Jared Leeds)

A Road Less Traveled

Cape Cod's two-lane Route 6A offers a direct conduit to a New England of yesteryear

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Landscapes, like beauty, may well be colored by the eye of the beholder, but steering along tree-shaded Route 6A on a mild summer day, with blue inlets of Cape Cod Bay on one side and white picket-fenced houses on the other, I'm tempted to conclude this may be the most appealing stretch of America I know. The 34-mile, two-lane road, also known as Old King's Highway, begins in the west where Cape Cod thrusts out of the Massachusetts mainland and ends in the east where the peninsula narrows and veers abruptly north. (Another fragment of 6A, perhaps ten miles or so, lies at the outer reach of the cape, near Provincetown.)

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In between is a world of wonders: salt marshes and tidal flats that are cradles of marine life; woodlands reminiscent of the Berkshires; genealogy archives that draw would-be Mayflower descendants; church graveyards containing headstones dating back to the early 1700s; a thriving playhouse that has launched the careers of Hollywood stars; and museums that swell with visitors when the cape's temperamental weather turns soggy.

"6A's charm is no accident—it involves a lot of self-control," says Elizabeth Ives Hunter, director of the Cape Cod Museum of Art, in the town of Dennis (pop. 13,734), the midway point on the route. Every community along the way is subject to rules set by the individual town historic commissions. And they are absolutely inflexible. Signs, for instance. I drive past the Cape Playhouse in Dennis several times before finally spying a very discreet wooden slat bearing its name. "That's written large by 6A standards," managing director Kathleen Fahle assures me. "If we ever touched that road sign, we would never be allowed to put it back up again."

The theater itself has barely been altered during its 77-year existence. On its inauguration day, July 4, 1927, heavy rains leaked through the roof, forcing the audience to huddle under umbrellas at a performance of The Guardsman, starring Basil Rathbone. "That wouldn't happen today," says artistic director Evans Haile, although he does admit that some pinhole-size roof punctures do exist. Fortunately, most productions take place in fair weather. On a warm Saturday evening, I enjoy a rousing rendition of On Your Toes, a 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical.

Bette Davis began her career here as an usher, and Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck all honed their skills here before taking Hollywood by storm. Already a superstar in the 1950s, Tallulah Bankhead arrived, pet leopards in tow, for her Dennis engagements. Actress Shirley Booth, star of the 1960s sitcom "Hazel," performed here often late in her career, during the 1970s; she bequeathed to the playhouse her 1953 Oscar (for best actress in the role of Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba).

The theater harks back to an era before air conditioning, when Broadway closed for the summer. Plays and casts survived by touring the country; vacation retreats became important venues. Back then, performers could easily find lodging in Dennis. "We had 'landlady houses,' owned by widows who welcomed actors as guests," says Fahle. But as real estate prices soared, the notion of inviting strangers to lodge for weeks at pricey vacation homes lost its appeal.

Sharing the same plot of land as the playhouse is the Cape Cod Museum of Art. "From late June through July, we go for very accessible exhibitions," says director Hunter, citing marine scenes by Cape Cod painters or, more recently, the patriotic quilts and paintings of Ric Howard (1912-96), an illustrator who designed Christmas cards for the White House before retiring to Dennis. "By August, we are moving into edgier works," such as the recent retrospective of Maurice Freedman (1904-84), a New York City painter strongly influenced by the colors and patterns of the German Expressionists—and lured to Cape Cod by its summer light.

All of the museum's 2,000 works of art have a Cape Cod connection. The artists must either have lived or worked on the peninsula at some point—although this criterion has been broadened to include the nearby islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. "They are geologically related to Cape Cod," says Hunter with a smile.

The cape was formed by a glacier that retreated some 15,000 years ago, leaving behind the bay and the sandy peninsula that is constantly battered and reshaped by the Atlantic Ocean. By 8,000 years ago, the rising ocean had separated Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard from the peninsula's southern coast. "The basic fact of life around here is erosion," says Admont Clark, 85, a retired Coast Guard captain and founder of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, in Brewster (pop. 8,376), a few miles east of Dennis. "Every year, about three feet of beach are washed away and deposited elsewhere on the cape." It is pretty much a zero-sum game in the short run. But over a century or so, some ten inches of coastline are lost altogether.

During the past decade, two lighthouses, wobbling on bluffs undercut by constant waves, had to be placed on flatbed trailers and moved to more stable locations. Islets and inlets are repeatedly exposed and submerged, forcing harbor masters to update their maps frequently. Residents pay close attention to approaching storms, boarding up windows and otherwise battening down.

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