Years ago, a merchant marine I met in a bar explained it was “lower” because of the way sailors read a compass. Or maybe because of the winds. “The same way Maine is known as ‘Down East,’” he concluded. (I never really got it.)
This part, also known as the Outer Cape, extends from Wellfleet through Truro to Provincetown and is different from the rest. It is very narrow. You never feel out of reach of the ocean. This affects the light – lines look sharper, colors brighter –and that light has been attracting artists since the late 1800s.
President Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore. More than half of the Lower Cape is park land, never to be developed.
Interestingly, the look of the land – sand dunes and scrubby pines – is not natural. When the Pilgrims first landed, in Provincetown before deciding to establish themselves at Plymouth, the Cape was covered in deciduous forest. Settlers, however, cut down all those trees, for firewood and houses.
Historically, the Outer Cape was always remote, so you see the prim farmhouses still in Wellfleet but that gives way to the rough country ways of Truro. And Provincetown is its own thing. In an old book on Cape history (it might still be sitting on the shelves of the Truro library), I read that Provincetown was settled from the sea by sailors and was known, to the pious citizens who could see its lights from Wellfleet, as the Province Lands, also Helltown. For many years, because of sand dunes, a road could not be maintained to Provincetown. As soon as a railway could be built (it ran along the bayside beaches of Truro because no one valued ocean views then), the artists arrived, also gay people. (The Atlantic House a Provincetown bar that has been gay-friendly for at least 100 years, is commonly considered the oldest gay bar in the United States.)
My favorite thing is how everybody basically gets along, from New York sophisticates (Someone once told me that all the psychologists and psychiatrists in Manhattan are in Truro during the summer months) to native Cape Codders, fishermen and lobstermen who can trace their family tree back to original settlers. To this day, some natives pride themselves on having never set foot off-Cape. When I worked in Provincetown as a college student, I once sheepishly admitted to the chief of police that I wandered all over town alone at all hours of the night. “Darling,” he said, “you are as safe anywhere in town as you would be in your own bed."
Two years ago, a bear wandered onto the Cape, all the way to Provincetown. Somewhere else (such as Texas, sigh), the first you might hear of this would be some idiot proudly crowing that he shot himself a bear. But on the Cape, people worried that the bear shouldn’t be darted and moved because he had as much right to be on the Cape as anyone else. Wildlife officials had to keep his new whereabouts secret so people wouldn’t try to visit him. So, OK, that’s foolish. (It’s all fun and games until the bear kills and eats your dog.) But it is sweet.
So, more than 300 words. But that’s because I really love the Cape.