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ON THE FIRST TRAIL OF THE PILGRIMS
Present-Day Aspects of the Route of Myles Standish and his Scouts along the Tip of Cape Cod
Cape Cod reaches like a vast fishhook into the sea, the tip of the hook Race Point, Long Point the barb. It is as if the children of giants had come down to the coast to play and had modeled a hook in sand that Providence ordained should remain for all time, a sign for the nations. For here if anywhere has been notable fishing. On a November day in 1620 this hook caught and held for Massachusetts the expedition of the Pilgrims that had planned to sail for the mouth of Hudson River. Hence the epic which is William Bradford's account of the adventures of these argonauts is a New England epic. Had not the Cape caught and held them, who knows if there had been any story?
The present-day pilgrim to Provincetown comes by the Mayflower route, in part, at least, if he come by sea, following in the wave-washed track of destiny. Like Gosnold's ship, like that which bore Captain John Smith, and like that greatest of all small vessels which carried Bradford and his friends, his ship glides by Race Point, coasts the long convexity of sand to and round Long Point, and heads northwest as if to go out to sea again, but is fairly caught by the barb of the hook, and landed. Between Boston Light and the tip of the Cape the voyager gets a taste of that same sea which Bradford and his friends breasted for two long months. If the sweet summer winds have been off shore for long enough there is little trouble, even for the landsman in this sea. It is likely to be smooth and smiling as an inland lake. If on the other hand the salt vigor of the east winds has shouldered it for a day or two the pilgrim of to-day may well hail the sight of the sand hills of the Cape with a joy as great and a hope of early relief as intense as did the lone voyagers of 1620. Fish out of water that rolls like this bite eagerly at the hook of sand and are. happy when they are landed.
The summer voyager of to-day finds this land which was so lone, this sea which was so bleak to the Pilgrims, teeming with humanity. The harbor waters sparkle within their rim of sand and toss innumerable boats on their bright waves. Provincetown grows steadily between the sand hills and the sea and stretches daily nearer Long Point at one end of the curve and the North Truro line on the other. The town which began with a single little row of houses and the long slant of the beach for a street, is now miles long, has grown somewhat back among its sand hills, and is steadily topping some of them. The fishing-hamlet seaport of a half century ago is rapidly merging in the summer resort of to-day; is fast becoming a Pilgrim shrine also, whither come Mayflower descendants to comfortably worship their ancestors. So far as the old town goes little of its early quaintness remains, and that withdraws more closely within itself day by day. The hardy English fisherman and sailor stock that settled the Cape, such of it as remains, is smothered under Portuguese and summer boarders; not had people these, but vastly different. The wind and the sea make minor changes in the Cape itself from year to year, especially this end of it. The waves give and the waves take away sand bars, now making an inlet where none was, now closing one that has existed perhaps for centuries. The winds pack the sands hard in drifts of rounded hills where ance was a tiny valley, and again they come and take these away and establish them elsewhere as suits their vagrant fancy. Race Point, within the friendly shelter of whose barb the Mayflower fleet first cast anchor, is Race Point still, but I doubt if anyone can surely locate that pond on the margin of which the Pilgrim mothers did that first tremendous two months' wash. The caprice of the shifting sands may have whelmed and re-dug it a half dozen times since then. A century ago that little creek at what is now North Truro, that blocked the way of doughty Myles Standish and his men, sending them inland on a detour, was open still to the sea and a port of safety for the North Truro fishing boats. A half-century later a storm brought sand and so effectually closed this little harbor entrance that the North Truro fishermen have ever since launched their boats from the bare beach and the little inland sea thus enclosed has become a long, narrow, fresh-water pond, on which the Truro children skate in winter while their elders cut ice for the shipment of fish and the retention of summer visitors.
But after all it is only man's changes that make the tip of the Cape and its near-by narrowness different in our day from what it was when Myles and his men trod it with matchlocks ready and matches lighted, spying out the land. These as yet have not gone so deep but you may find portions that seem as wild and untrammeled now as they were then. Indeed they may well be identical. That a row of sand dunes has moved before the winds a half mile east or west matters little to the eye. They are sand dunes still, and the vegetation which grew up on them in one place or was wiped out, cut off by gnawing sand particles and blown away by the wind, or buried beyond all hope of resurrection in the over-riding drifts is the same to-day as it was three centuries ago. On this primal wildness of the Cape the march of human progress has in some measure encroached, but it is a long way from obliterating it yet. I fancy a man, choosing his route, could start at Race Point and go down the land by beach and by dune, to a point far beyond the one reached by the second, farthest, land-exploring expedition of the Pilgrim scouts from this point, without seeing more evidence of human settlement than the wheel tracks of a road deep in sand or a glimpse of the towering turrets of the Pilgrim monument which dominates the landscape for a long distance. Through this same length of Cape wind, of course, the hard ribbon of a State-built automobile road and the railway. But it is easy to lose and forget these.
In fact, you need but to climb sand hills and slide down sand declivities a very short distance north of the center of Provincetown itself to be as near lost as the Pilgrim scouts were and to find those dense thickets of thorny growth which they complained were like to tear their clothes and their very armor itself off their backs. No doubt the greenbrier was responsible for much of this wreckage of Pilgrim habiliments. Most varieties of this wild smilax, of which we have a dozen or so in this country, are to be found in more southern latitudes. But we grow here in eastern Massachusetts commonly the Smilax rotundifolia which climbs to tree tops, is as strong almost as cod line, and is well set with vigorous thorns. In the moist hollows among the sand dunes this vine finds good sustenance, puts forth growth, and barricades gullies sometimes an almost impenetrable entanglement of its thorny ropes. I have rarely seen a tropical tangle which is more impenetrable than one of these. It climbs and twines among beach plums and scrubby wild cherry shrubs, weaving all together in a dense matting. To Pilgrim warriors fresh from English fields or Dutch meadows this thorny wild tangle must have been embarrassing indeed. Even without the greenbrier the rich growth of blueberries. high and low blackberry, wild rose, bayberry and sweetfern, may well have sorely tangled and tripped their unaccustomed feet.
All these are growths of the bottom lands, the hollows among the sand dunes back of the town. Within some of these are little fresh ponds in which grow waterlilies and the usual aquatic plants of such places. Here amid the prevailing wildness are many little beauty, spots which, could the Pilgrims have come to them before the winter frosts had wrecked the vegetation, might have tempted them to stay. Passing on down the Cape you soon leave these behind and get into the higher dunes on the narrowest part where vegetation has little chance for its life. Here for a mile or two one might well think himself in Sahara. The sands, blown hither and thither and piled in fantastic shapes by the winds, are as clean as those of the beaten sea beach, as free from all suspicion of humus.
Yet if you will cross Sahara in most any direction to the camel's-hump hills which are scattered over its border as if a caravan had become petrified there, you will find the humps sprouting vegetation, a vegetation that is sparse, perhaps, but to your astonishment is glossy and luxuriant of leaf. Afore than one of these mounds represents a drawn battle between whelming sands, wind-driven, and a vigorous wild cherry tree. How such a tree finds its start in these shifting, scouring sands is a puzzle. Yet once started it is easy to follow with more or less accuracy the course of the war which lasts years. The winds take the young shoot for a nucleus and pile their sands all up about it, yet may not quite cover the very tip, for there the varying draft whirls the topmost sands away again. The sand really helps. It mulches the young plant and protects it from the winter cold and the gales, from the summer heat and the drought. Each year the thus protected plant grows joyously more straight shoots, to be whelmed again almost to the tips by the sand, and so the merry war goes on till finally we have a dune twenty-five or thirty feet high, with the trunk and larger branches of a wild cherry tree for a core, its smooth, hard-packed surface wreathed with green leaves and often bearing rich, dark fruit for the delectation of all who pass.
These brief, hill-top oases do not relieve the desert-like wildness of this narrowest part of the Cape, however; they merely serve to accentuate it. From them you see the vasty blue velvet of the ocean outside the Cape and think it but a brief plunge to it through the glittering sands. Yet as you go toward it you find that one sand ridge hides another and that the valleys between hide brackish meadows in which grow strange plants, fleshy of stem and stubby and thick of leaf, as if they were degenerate offspring of land plants that had most unhappily intermarried with sea weed. On the margins of these witch pools it is a pleasure to find growing good old sturdy homely dusty-miller. Whatever broomstick-riding hags infest these weird hollows of windy midnights, here stands that plain common-sense Puritan to shame their reveries. Cineraria maritima may not have come in the Mayflower, but some ship from England brought him and he is a Puritan without doubt. If the witches do gather in these wild hollows of Cape Cod's desert I warrant you he gets after them with a tithing rod and drives them back abashed to their own chimney corners.
Passing the desert you find the Cape widening again and growing green with vegetation. Yet something of the witch impress is on it still. In the distance you see forests of pitch pine which as you approach show branching trees of seemingly luxuriant growth. As you stride up to these trees you find them shrinking in stature while yet keeping their proportions and luxuriance, and finally you march, a modern Gulliver, through this Liliputian forest that may not reach higher than your shoulder. Here was a Pilgrim's progress for Myles and his men that may well have added an eerie touch to their expectation of wild men of the woods. Such a forest -- and I have no reason to believe the North Truro forests have changed much in just three hundred years -- might well produce trolls or giants, as well as Indians. I can fancy the mail-clad explorers glancing at the glades of these enchanted woods with a bit of superstition in their apprehensions, saying prayers out of one side of their mouths and charms against evil spirits out of the other. Nor can one blame them, thinking what these hills are in dreary November weather, with snow squalls hiding the sun and the wind complaining among these loneliest of forest trees.
In late summer it is different. Out of the gray reindeer moss and poverty weed which are more prevalent than grass on the sands beneath these trees spire slender scapes of Spiranthes gracilis, the tiny orchid that someone named ladies' tresses, not because the flower looks like them but reminds of them, being wayward and fragrant and lovingly blown by all winds. Here is goldenrod, and wee asters are just opening their baby-blue eyes to the approaching autumn. Wood warblers trill in the absurd forest, and the rich aroma of its leaves subtends the lighter fragrance of the blossoming wild flowers. In feathery glades among these Truro trees one might forget that winter is to come and bring bleakness and desolation unspeakable to the land with him. But if winter does not always warn, the sea does. Not so deep in any witch hollow can you hide, not so far may you wander in enchanted forests, as to escape its call. The trees murmur continually the song of the surf, and the crash of its breakers echoes continually in the air overhead. The wind song in the trees is not menacing, it is simply a minor melody, full of melancholy, as if it knew sad things and could but let them tinge its music. But even on quiet days when the south wind drifts gently in over the bay there sounds from the air above these mellow glades the growl of white-faced breakers that are never still on the northern shore. Out of the northeast they roll over gray-green leagues of cold sea, and as they bite deep into the sand of the shore behind Peaked Hill Bar, and drag it and a11 that is on it down into their maw and hurl it all back again, beating it on the beach and snatching it and beating it again, it roars inarticulate threats that make the onlooker draw back glad of a space of summer-dried sand between him and its depths. If this threatening undertone lingers in the ear even on a summer day with the wind warm and fragrant from the south, how must it have sounded to the Pilgrim explorers in a November northeaster?
And yet, for all the November bleakness to come, for all the ever-warning growl of the sea, I wonder, had the Pilgrims arrived at Province town in late August, if they would not have stayed. Nowhere in New England would they have found the late summer huckleberries sweeter or more plentiful, nowhere the beach plums rounder or more prolific. Here was to be gathered in handfuls bayberry wax for their candles, and its aromatic incense floats over the Provincetown hills to-day as rich and enticing as then. There is little hope of fertility in the sand banks, to be sure, yet in the cosy hollows between these the homesteaders of to-day plant corn and beans, pumpkins and peas, and their gardens seem as luxuriant and productive as any that one might find in Plymouth County. The native trees of the place seem dwarfed, as I have said. But in the town itself are willows and silver-leafed poplars, planted by later pilgrims, which have reached great size, a willow in particular in the older part of the town being at least five feet -- I would readily believe it is six -- in diameter. There must be fertility somewhere to grow an immigrant to such girth.
Here too, rioting through the old-time flower gardens and out of them, dancing and gossiping by the roadside and in the field, sending rich perfume across lots as a dare to us all, is Bouncing Bet. I cannot think of this amorous, buxom beauty as having been allowed to come with a shipload of serious, praying Pilgrims or any later expedition of stern-visaged Puritans. I believe she was a stow-away and when she did reach New England danced blithely across the gang plank and took up her abode wherever she saw fit. Thus she does to-day. All over the Cape she strays, a common roadside weed and a beauty of the gardens at once. Out of this point where the Pilgrim epic first touches our shores she comes, with the memory of the visitor, a welcome garnish to the long sandy trail once trod by Myles Standish and his armor-clad scouts.
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