On a cold January day last year, we turned off the highway into Provincetown's East End to fuel up on molasses cookies and hot drinks at Angel Foods. Once fortified, we proceeded slowly down the length of Commercial Street -- a nonstop carnival worthy of early Fellini in the summer -- and marveled that our old Peugeot was the only car on the road. How amazing was this?
Then it started to snow, big flakes seesawing down from a blue sky. The meteorologists call such events "lake effect" snow, the result of moist ocean air passing over a frigid land mass. It was the kind of snow only Hollywood could imagine, and for just a moment, we felt as if we had wandered onto a movie set, or at least into one of those magical-realism Volkswagen commercials. We rolled down the windows and listened. Not a sound beyond the purr of our engine and swish of our wiper blades. Silent snow, secret snow, Conrad Aiken might have quipped.
This is Cape Cod in winter, far different from the land known best as a summer place.
Sometimes in winter, when the wind twists around from one direction for days at a time, the bones of Cape Cod's past poke out of the sands of Sandy Neck in Barnstable. Pocked and hollowed, they are whale bones from the stranded blackfish that early settlers set upon with their flensing knives.
Winter is the Cape's own flensing season. As cold settles over the landscape, it reveals the bare skeleton of the uneasy truce between solid land and fluid sea.
Cape Cod is no more than a momentary exception in terms of geological time, a heap of sandbars that got too big for their britches and rose from the waves. From the stone Scargo Tower in Dennis, we behold a geology as jarring as those barely buried whale bones. Stripped of the lush undergrowth of alder, birch, bracken, and the ubiquitous poison ivy, Cape Cod's knobby spine of glacial rubble bears witness to the last ice age, which seems, in winter, not so far removed. The earth is just a momentary gift stolen from the sea.
Yet the sea itself is oddly stilled. In the height of summer, the saltwater cordgrass and tall reeds of the marshes around Mill Creek in Sandwich mark one of the liveliest places on all of Cape Cod. Small crabs and newly hatched fish fry skitter through the trickles of brackish water. Veritable flocks of red-winged blackbirds hang out on the tall reeds, casting their cheeky calls back and forth like teenagers jiving each other in a clam shack parking lot. The marsh, a gelatinous colloid that seems neither land nor water, fairly quivers with life.
The Sandwich Boardwalk crosses this primeval muck with a thousand feet of planked walkway. In summer, every step squishes. In winter, every footstep taps like the hollow plonk of a drum without snares. Layered panes of ice recorded successive high tides through a kaleidoscope of crystalline patterns. The marsh was waiting in suspended animation. Wind sounded through the frozen reeds with a high-pitched keen.
The ocean at Sandwich continues its relentless roll in winter, but farther out in Orleans, where the elbow of Cape Cod's dogleg clinches in on itself, the shallows of Rock Harbor and Skaket Beach looked like a vision from the Arctic. Great plates of ice piled up, sliding one on top of another, forming miniature icebergs until the entire jagged heap of winter had come to rest in the quiet harbor and the violent sea stood stilled.
Just across the narrow isthmus on Nauset Beach, the ocean gnawed at the shore, a marine wolf harrowing the soft flesh of the beach. It was a chilling sound. Erosion-smoothed stones, some as big as a mittened fist, tumbled over one another as each wave curled ashore and receded. The stones rattled in a rising tone as the swells washed in, then receded, basso profundo, diminuendo.
At Nauset Beach and all along the Cape Cod National Seashore, dog after happy dog romped unfettered. Banned from many beaches all summer, they frolicked freely along the strands as their owners in snow boots and parkas slogged through the loose sand, trying to keep up. Labrador retrievers bounded into the surf, barking with the sheer joy of it, snapping at the spray of whitecaps. Dogs know nothing of anticipatory melancholy, and they are the better for it.
One March afternoon last year, a canine trio at Nauset Light Beach drew our attention to something amiss on the shore. We waded through the sand that had buried most of the 60 steps from the glacial escarpment down to the beach, and followed their alarms to a spot not far from the partially exposed piers of the first Nauset Light, long since inundated. Hardly larger than a Lab itself, a black-skinned, peg-toothed cetacean, gutted by some marine predator, had washed up on the beach. In an hour, the tide would scour away even this winter sorrow.
On that January day when we stopped at Angel Foods in P'town, we drove silently through the brief snow out to Race Point, crossing the Province Lands barrens where snow skirled in dervish dances in the desert hollows. At Race Point Beach, sand had reclaimed more than half the parking lot. High in the icy sky, black-backed gulls stood still against the onshore wind.
We had only stopped for two cookies and to-go cups steaming with coffee and chocolate. Even the winter traveler can find golden lamps to punctuate the blue light of the season, fogged windows of village shops that form oases of human comfort. On Cape Cod, though, winter is a time of magic as delicate as snowflakes, as insensate as the sea.
Based in Cambridge, Patricia Harris and David Lyon are the authors of the "Cape Cod Compass American Guide" to be published this spring by Fodor's/Random House.