A Road Less Traveled

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

In Barnstable, 6A skirts bayside wetlands (and a fishing shack). The East Coast's largest marsh covers 4,000 acres here. (Jared Leeds)
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To walk Cape Cod's beaches and tidal flats is to be made aware that the terrain and waters shift by the hour—or the minute. The tides can fatally fool even the most knowledgeable old-timers. In the reedy wetlands behind my beachside bed-and-breakfast, I encounter the carcass of a seal, marooned by a rapidly receding tide. Clark recalls an ill-fated, 90-year-old farmer who scoured the flats for clams all his life. "One day about ten years ago the clamming was so good that he wasn't watching the rising waters around him," says Clark. "He drowned trying to swim back."

On an outing with Irwin Schorr, volunteer guide for the Museum of Natural History, I experience the vitality of this landscape. At his suggestion, I jump on a patch of grass—and bounce as if it were a mattress. "It's because of the constant tidal flooding," says Schorr. "Water is absorbed in between the grass roots and filtered underground into our aquifer."

When marsh grasses die, their stalks are absorbed into a spongy network of roots, forming peat. Bacterial decomposition nourishes crabs, crayfish and snails that in turn attract larger marine life and birds. Along the edges of a wood-planked walkway, I peer at fish—sticklebacks and silversides—feeding on mosquito larvae. The tide has risen so high we have to take off our shoes, roll up our pants and wade barefoot. A snaking column of recently hatched herring, glimmering in the tide, streaks toward the bay. Their timing is exquisite: within an hour, the water has receded so far there is a hardly a puddle left in the marsh. "The tide here rises and falls seven to nine feet every day," says Schorr.

Ranger Katie Buck, 23, patrols Roland C. Nickerson State Park, at the eastern end of the main part of 6A. The 2,000-acre preserve is a forest of oak, pine and spruce, populated by deer, raccoons, fox, coyotes and enough frogs to belie any global amphibian crisis.

"Sometimes there are so many they stick to the door and windows of our station," says Buck.


The park was named after a banking and railway tycoon who used it as a wild game preserve in the early 1900s. Roland Nickerson imported elk and bear for weekend guests to hunt. In 1934, his widow donated the property to the state. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted 88,000 trees and built roads and trails throughout. The park is so popular that campsites, especially those for trailers, must be booked months ahead. The biggest attractions are "kettle ponds," some as large as lakes, created millennia ago by huge melting ice chunks left behind by retreating glaciers. "The water here is a lot warmer than the ocean or the bay," says Buck.

For me, sunny mornings are for visits to old church graveyards. On the grounds of the First Parish Church of Brewster, I meet up with John Myers, 73, and Henry Patterson, 76, parishioners and history buffs. First Parish was once a favorite of sea captains; many are buried in the adjoining graveyard. Each pew bears the name of a shipmaster who bought the bench in order to help fund the church, whose origins go back to 1700. But such generosity did not guarantee everlasting gratitude. "The church was always short of money, so ministers would periodically decree that the pews be put up for auction," says Patterson.

Etched on a wall is a list of long-dead captains, many of them lost at sea. Land was no safer, as many of the 457 headstones in the graveyard attest. Some belong to soldiers of the Revolution or the Civil War. But far more mark the remains of loved ones whose premature deaths could provoke bitterness verging on blasphemy. For the 1799 epitaph of his 2-year-old son, the Rev. John Simpkins wrote: "Reader, let this stone erected over the grave of one who was once the florid picture of health but rapidly changed into the pale image of death remind thee that God destroyeth the hope of man."

Patterson and Myers discovered, too, some dark footnotes to Brewster's history as they sifted through the church archives. At elders' meetings going back more than two centuries, sinners confessed to adultery, drunkenness, lying and theft. The most scandalous case involved that quintessential American optimist, Horatio Alger, the famed author of 19th-century rags-to-riches tales for young readers. After two years as minister of First Parish Brewster, Alger was dismissed by the church board in 1866 on charges of "unnatural familiarity with boys." He never returned to Brewster nor took up the pulpit again anywhere. "We probably launched his literary career by firing him," Myers deadpans.

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