The great and terrible beauty in Robert Frost’s work.
I experience my first touch of regret
for a voyage undertaken
too early, while wholly too late.
~ Melissa Duckworth, from the poem “Adrift”, first published in The MacGuffin, 2004
On my last day in Provincetown there was one place I’d never been: The Dunes. While most known, probably, for the presence of dune shacks—where famous writers and artists stayed to work—they’re also a popular tourist destination. But when we pulled the car over at an entrance point on Route 6, I had no idea—although I’d seen pictures—what venturing in would mean.
In 1974, my father wrote a paper called “Robert Frost: An Alternate View.” Not a very exciting title, I know, but accurate. His paper establishes that “the stereotyped portrait of Robert Frost is that of an American romantic—a “Farmer Brown,” so to speak—who loved nature and wrote affectionately about it” and then posits to the contrary: that “Frost is presenting a view of natural process which is always uncaring and often cruel and heartless” and that he “pictures a dark and hostile world bent on breaking the spirit of man.”
My journey into The Dunes brought his thesis alive. Just like in Frost’s poetry, everywhere there was a strange beauty born of nature’s violence. Sea grasses whipped in the wind left intricate geometric patterns in the sand; a tree repeatedly brow-beaten by storms seemed to be rooted on both ends, forming a graceful arch; a freshly-dead seal carcass’ blood gleamed like a ruby against a monotonous beach. Simultaneously, there was the ugly presence of man-made objects in various states of decay. A rusted washing machine; shattered wine bottles; cracked and sand-filled plastic containers; splintered painted boards. This lent the landscape an unsettling air: these objects were alien beings in a warring world in which they couldn’t possibly survive.
But, as my father wrote, “The darkness, however, offers a strange fascination that entices man. It is a lure of beauty that is commingled with a lure of destruction.” The Dunes is a beautiful and irresistible danger-fraught wasteland.
Like many situations in life.
 Charles W. Petersen, Robert Frost: An Alternate View. (Unpublished: April 30, 1974), p. 1
 Ibid., p. 3
 Ibid., p.17
 Ibid., p. 8
This was taken from a high point up off of Route 6 and shows The Dunes, where we were headed. The body of water you see in this photo has an interesting history. Originally, it was called East Harbor, and was Provincetown fishing fleet’s winter home. 1868, however, brought the construction of a dike to accommodate a railway and a roadway (where several seasonal resorts and cottages sit now). In 1910, the US Geological Survey re-named the body of water Pilgrim Lake.
The name stuck until 2008, when the USGS agreed to change the name back to East Harbor. If you’d like a much more detailed history, here’s a great article by the Provincetown Banner’s Kaimi Rose Lum.
The video below shows the full panoramic view: from this hill, you can see Truro, P-Town, and the bay beyond.
* WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT AHEAD: ANIMAL CARCASS. IF SQUEAMISH, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO CONTINUE, OR SCROLL QUICKLY DOWN THROUGH TO THE NEXT RED TYPE YOU SEE*
Major. Score. Well, for me, anyway. When we were sitting on this quiet beach with not a soul around us, we noticed two large sea birds picking away at a carcass—a stunning dollop of red against miles of brown monotony. “That looks like a seal,” Pete said. I don’t know how he could tell what it was from that far away, but it turned out he was right. I’ve never actually seen a beached dead mammal up close, and having volunteered at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and helped out with animal rehabilitation, this was exciting—and a perfect example of what I’d discovered on our journey about the violence of nature.
Although Pete noted he thought it odd there were only two birds around the carcass—two birds who politely stepped away and let me take my photos and then returned when I was done—the markings in the sand indicate that there probably had been more than just these two at one time. I also thought—because of the brightness of the blood, the moistness of the innards, and the lack of smell—that the animal had been killed very recently (within the past twelve hours, maybe?) and most likely washed ashore and was left behind as the tide started pulling out. I took these photos at 12:45, and the last high tide was at 11. So it could have either been left behind just then, or left behind earlier, when the tide pulled out at 4 in the morning. I’d probably have a better answer if I’d paid attention to how wet the sand was. I’m regretting that now.
Of course, nobody knows when or how this poor creature died. But I have my romantic notions about shark attacks and boat propellers because of the way the body is twisted. While there’s a possibility that the seal washed up intact and then a large animal ravaged it, I don’t know if coyotes or whatever would have left this much meat behind. WHERE ARE YOU, BRUCE SHILLINGLAW, MARINE BIO GUY EXTRAORDINAIRE? YOU’RE GOOD AT THIS STUFF! COMMENT!
Because I just wanted more for the record, the video below is a roundabout of the carcass. There’s no sound except the wind, so it’s actually eerie.
* END GRAPHIC CONTENT*
The video, below, shows Pete checking it out. It’s an old washing machine, turned upside-down, and it’s full of wine bottles and trash.
There’s an abandoned geology lab in Truro, so we geared up and headed out. Despite the fact that Pete said it wasn’t the place he was thinking of—there was an even cooler place just down the road—the lab was not only a beautiful example of art in decay, it was crammed with dated core samples and littered with items that didn’t seem like they’d belong in a geology lab. I love stuff like that, so I think it made a pretty fine “big ticket item.”
So I’ll give you the big news first: WE THINK WE CAUGHT TWO EVPs. I stress the word think–they’re still being looked at. An unexplained whispering in the “Pill Bottles” video, and an unexplained moan in the “Pete with Butt” video. I wish my camera had better audio, but there’s something definitely there. I have sent both videos off to qualified people with forensic experience in sound and better equipment. We’ll see what happens.
In the alleged EVP in “Pill Bottles”, I think the key will be if we can actually understand what the hell it says without totally front-loading. What we do know is that it’s not the wind (it was a still day and there was no wind in the building), it’s definitely broken into specific words, it wasn’t me (holding the camera and I’m rather loud) and it’s not Pete — his voice, although soft, is clearly masculine; this whisper has that spooky androgynous quality I’ve heard on far too many of Nathan’s EVPs.
As far as the “moan” in “Pete with Butts,” I can’t deny it could’ve been natural causes, although I think I would’ve heard something with my own ears if it were that loud — we were both very aware of sounds around us for safety reasons and pretty much stopped to listen if we heard something odd. But I must admit, those woods are full of coyotes, and people do walk their dogs there. If we can clean it up enough to hear it better, we may be able to identify it as an animal.
There’s very little about this location that pops up in any online research; however, I’m certain the NPS on the sign is an acronym for National Park Service, which manages, of course, the Cape Cod National Seashore. What I did find online was a very interesting Geologic Resource Evaluation Scoping Summary prepared by John Graham of the Geologic Resources Division of the National Park Service (US Department of Interior) and published on July 15, 2008. This fourteen-page PDF may give us some clues about the work they were doing in the building.
First, the document details exactly what they do know about the area’s geologic make up, and discusses extensive mapping procedures, especially of the area they call “North Truro”, which is where this lab is located. I have a feeling that this lab may have been partly responsible for some of the information contained in the report and many of the maps, possibly, that he refers to which have now been “digitized.”
Second, the building is littered with core samples. In the report, Graham talks a great deal about “stratigraphy” — a branch of geology that studies rocks and their layering. As far as I can remember, one of the practices used in any of the types of stratigraphy (I won’t go into it here, you can look it up or just read the PDF) is coring.
Third, there were several signs in the building that must have been put out in areas where terns were nesting, and this would tie in with the core sampling, maybe, because terns are particularly susceptible to disturbances in their nesting areas. These signs might have been used to tell people where they weren’t allowed to core.
Fourth, Pete did find a few rolls of unused paper that would have been used in a seismograph. In Graham’s report he specifically points out that seismic activity in Cape Cod is monitored, due to an earthquake in the 1700s. According to him, if such an event were to happen today, Boston would be in a lot of trouble.
Of course, what we don’t know is why this place was shut down. Perhaps someday we can get to the core of it. Someone’s got an answer somewhere. But until then what we do have is speculation, and Pete’s romantic spin on things. He quickly pointed out that the abandoned biology lab we’d visited back on January 23 was full of the evidence of partying: tons of beer bottles, graffiti, two-thirds-full packs of cigarettes. All we found at the geology lab was one beer cap from a Newcastle, but Pete was pretty sure he knew who it belonged to, because he had a friend who’d come up there once by himself and had one beer but then left. “We found one beer cap,” he said. “Not a six pack, not a pack of cigarettes, no graffiti, nothing recent, nothing. Now, it’s the furthest point out, and it’s also the highest point, and who the hell wants to be hammered walking back from that shit? But, you know. Do you get what I’m saying?”
Yeah, I get what you’re saying, Pete.
These are all totally wild guesses on my part and I could be completely wrong, but it’s fun to think about. If you’d like to read John Graham’s report, it’s available here as a PDF hosted on this blog: CACO_scoping_summary_20081223. For purposes of citing the original source, which is the appropriate thing to do, here’s the link where it can be found online: http://www.nature.nps.gov/GEOLOGY/inventory/publications/s_summaries/CACO_scoping_summary_20081223.pdf. If you want a good ghost story or two, head on over to the “Read My Work” tab and check out “Screams of Autumn” or “Wailing Station.”
Photos and videos below; my little camera doesn’t do well with audio, so I put transcripts of what was said in the videos below each one. Keep in mind, also, that when we finally get around to analyzing those EVPs, we may not be able to decipher what it says due to the audio’s low quality. But for now you can try to listen to the whisper and the odd sound and make your own call.
About Walking on Insulation (Video)
This was a room at the back of the building which wasn’t locked, but the door to get in was badly warped. Pete managed to shoulder it open, though, and the ceilings are rapidly approaching non-existent–most of the material has fallen to the floor and is so decayed and wet you can’t even tell what it is (it also felt grossly squishy, like walking on sponges). The room featured several collapsing racks of geologic core samples that had been left behind. Most of the samples are dated, but don’t have any information as to the location from which they were taken.
Walking on Insulation Video Transcript
P: There’s racks and racks of core samples back here.
K: My God. I don’t even want to know what all this shit is we’re walking on right now.
P: It’s just old, smushed insulation.
Working Crank (Video)
Working Crank Video Transcript
P: Look at that, it still works.
P: That [wheel] makes it go…the crank makes it go up and down.
K: It still works?
P: Yeah, yeah. (Eerie sounds) Reminds me of that old game Myst.
About Pill Bottles (Video)
Of course, these weren’t really bottles of pills. They were probably sand samples; we couldn’t get into the mess to really pick any up and identify them. This was also the room–you’ll see it in the video–where there are signs warning about disturbing nesting terns. In addition, listen closely–with good headsets, or try to load it through your i-Tunes, it helps–to the moment before I say, “wanna go hit the warehouse?” This is the first of the alleged EVPs we picked up.
Pill Bottles Video Transcript
K: Just, the deterioration on that roof is like–
P: Did you ever see so many pill bottles in your life?
P: Those look like sand samples, maybe, or I dunno, that’s what it looks like.
[Unexplained whispering JUST before K says ‘wanna go hit the warehouse’; neither of us spoke, this could be an EVP, I’ll have to check it out. We will keep you posted either way in a future blog post.]
K: Wanna go hit the warehouse?
P: Get what you can from here [referring to photos]
About Pete with Butt (Video)
Honestly, I just shot this because he was holding paperwork and reading it with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and for some reason this cracked me up. But the paperwork he found was pretty interesting, so I’m sharing this here. He’s been to this location before and noted that there was much more paperwork in the drawers of the desk, but since the last time he visited, the drawers have completely rusted to the point where they can no longer be opened.
Also note that this is the video that contains the second alleged EVP that sounds like a moan. It’s noted in the transcript.
And no, we didn’t leave any cigarette butts behind. We’re explorers, not litterers.
Pete with Butt Video Transcript
P: It’s a contract work schedule.
K: Really? (Thumping of boots on broken door; to self): Gotta make sure this holds (unexplained moan or sound in background immediately ensues. This is the second thing that may be an EVP we have to check into. We’ll keep you posted whether we think it’s legit or not).
P: Contract work to commence immediately on June 1, 1976.
K: Oh my God, it’s like the old typing.
About Attic Ladder (Video)
This was the total jackpot of this place, I thought, because of the awful memories it evoked for me. This video was when we first discovered the stairs, and we’re talking about it; this is just before Pete convinced me it was safe enough for me to climb up there (he did it himself, first). The roll of paper you see him checking out on the desk is the one that I suspect would have been used in a seismograph that I mentioned earlier in this post.
No transcript for Attic Ladder Video — it’s me and I’m loud.
Riches in the Ruins
In writing, as with any kind of intense pursuit, it’s important to have a balance while you’re doing it. I came up here to the Colony with a lot of work to do, and I’ve certainly achieved that. I even managed to get out to a few things—an art gallery opening, a wonderful dinner party at the Mailer house, a poetry reading. Last weekend, however, after working intensely for three or four days and only attending these events in the evenings, I realized I was feeling a little caged in. I wasn’t getting out enough.
Enter my next-door neighbor, Peter, and his friend Duff. They live here year-round and I definitely hold them among the coolest people I’ve ever met. During the first week I was here, I’d discussed with them my passion for abandoned places and urban exploring (something I do, in reality, very little of—I mostly just look at other explorer’s photos). And they had a surprise for me: some abandoned jewels just down the road apiece. Would I like to go? Hell, yeah!
So this past Sunday, although it was a bit nippy, it was sunny and a beautiful day to be out—in many ways, there’s no better weather in which to visit an abandoned place. All that beauty (especially by the sea) is so incongruous with the empty places, the rotting places, the places where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the echoes of the lives that happened in them. I came home inspired; a new short story is cooking in my brain as we speak. In an odd way, all that incongruity—and being away from my keyboard for a full day—restored my balance.
Here are photos and videos of our day–we visited a base, most of which is now nature preserve and open to the public; some of it is still in use by local organizations, but the base ceased operations in 1985. The other building was a biology lab, and I’m not sure when that closed–although its closing pre-dated the late 1990s judging from graffiti on the walls.
Apparently, there are a couple more places, but we ran out of daylight. Here’s to hoping I get an opportunity to go see the rest before I leave!
Organized tour? NOT.
Walking Tour #1: A bit of background.
“[There’s just] all kinds of stuff out here…”
Next few pix: Seriously? This place is reminiscent of the set of The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, precursor to The Omega Man (Charlton Heston, 1971) and I Am Legend (Will Smith, 2007). [If you’ve never seen The Last Man on Earth, or don’t even have any clue what the hell I’m talking about, you owe it to yourself to rent it now.]
These are all single family homes.
There are four streets of them…
Peter on the Roof.
Home sweet home! Those trees’d be a pain in the ass if your dinner party guests had to get through them to find your front door. Yup, that’s me. Martini, anyone? May I bring your slippers?
Broken merry-go-round on the playground.
Many years ago, parents sat on this bench and watched their kids:
Here’s a shelter where people, most likely, waited for transportation:
We were pretty fascinated with this cover, which we could have probably pried open if we’d had a crowbar. Check out the design, the year, and the strange symbols. Drunken mischief? Or does somebody have, like, food and stuff socked away down there (I didn’t put the photo here, but beneath this cement platform there are what appear to be air vents).
Fallen electrical equipment. The storms out here do get pretty wild.
I’m not sure what caused this hole. It was in one of the front windows of a home–a window that would have most likely looked into the family room. Where a Christmas Tree probably would have been.
Interior. What’s with all the weird art?
Dormant dining room.
These trees reminded me of scenes in Sleepy Hollow.
Walking toward the sea.
The Abandoned Beach Cliff Adventure. This is truly great!
Nathan shot this while we were chatting.
An abandoned cistern. This view struck me as reminiscent of the pool area from which the piranha escaped in Piranha (1978).
I was fascinated by this creepy picnic area.
THE ABANDONED LAB
Obviously, someone was here before us…whoever it was drank his beer, but left a near-full pack of Marlboros.
From this point forward, we’re going counter-clockwise through the place. This was a loading door of some kind — the opening was large enough to fit a small vehicle through.
This is the area to the left of the door.
Notice this spiral painted on the wall–it looks like the same spiral painted on the man-hole cover I pointed out earlier. Weird.
Ceiling damage in one of the back rooms.
I’m always fascinated by fuse boxes that no longer work. This one I particularly liked because I swear it’s the same model I had in my house growing up. Or maybe they’re all the same anyway? I don’t know.
Could you imagine working in this dark hole? I think it would depress me.