There’s something special about staring out at the ocean from a Cape Cod shore. You may find yourself sun dazed in a beach chair vacantly staring at the gorgeous vista of Nantucket Sound, or fearfully standing watch over the Atlantic before a hurricane, like a soldier stationed at the border on the eve of war; the circumstances don’t matter. You’ll still look out upon the waves extending as far as the eye can see and feel… something.

A typical Cape Cod horizon. Herring Cove Beach, Provincetown

It’s hard to describe and it’s likely different for everyone, but the origin of the feeling is, at least to me, crystal clear. On Cape Cod, you can never really see that far away from you. A densely populated flat spit of sand, Cape Cod lacks both the elevation which allows mountaineers and pent-house owners to gaze into the distance as well as the emptiness which permits a farmer in the flat state of Kansas to see a truck coming from ten miles down the road. There just aren’t any open spaces. On Cape, any attempt at finding a visible horizon will be blocked by something or other, be it a beach forest or a colonial with a mansard roof. This rule has only a few exceptions; you could climb to the top of the Pilgrim Monument, or you could look at the ocean.

This particular geographical quirk has many side effects that often go unnoticed. For example, those of us who grew up on Cape Cod may not realize an abnormality in the ability to see the sun both rise and set over the ocean, a treat usually reserved for islanders and pilots. Another is that, while locals are aware of Cape Cod’s distinctive shape, it is a disconnected awareness, a cognitive dissonance wherein any of them could flex their arm and point out any particular location, but they would still call a drive north a journey to the lower cape. 

When I was younger, whether due to my excessive amount of travel or my even more excessive amount of free time, I found myself thinking about this situation very often. This thinking manifested itself in a number of ways, but perhaps the most interesting was my quest to find a single point on Cape Cod where one could look out and see both the bay and the ocean without turning their head. 

I don’t know when or where the idea first came to me, but I do remember that as I searched, I came up with a number of rules. The first: no cheating. I can’t use a boat, an airplane, or some trick with mirrors. I had to be standing on Cape Cod and be able to see both bodies of water without turning my head. The next rule established what counted. Since I thought just going to Race Point (the very tip of Provincetown which separates the ocean from the bay) was too easy, I decided that I had to see the oceans bisected by land. I also had to see at least a route to the greater ocean beyond. That is to say that if there was an inlet on one side and a beach on the other, as long as the inlet was visibly connected to an ocean it would count. P-town’s East Harbor wouldn’t count but the Greater Wellfleet Harbor Area (which is, by the way, of critical environmental concern) would. Lastly, I could use any building or structure that I could gain access to, with the exception of the Pilgrim Monument. I didn’t want to make it too easy.

The view from the Pilgrim Monument, a prime example of the oceans bisected by land.

This fun idea that I had kicking around in the back of my head eventually became something of an obsession. For a variety of complicated reasons I attended some of my high school classes in Barnstable and some in Eastham, about 30 miles away, so I spent quite a bit of time in transit nearly every day. I would experiment with different routes and, when I had time, make stops at places like Fort Hill or the National Seashore Visitor Center to see if I could pull it off. Every one of these pitstops ended in failure. 

The view from Fort Hill in Eastham – only the Atlantic Ocean is visible, not the bay.

Eventually, I had recruited a number of companions; friends who were local to the significantly thinner stretch of land from Orleans to Truro. Each one joined the quest in the exact same way. I would casually mention it to them in conversation and they would excitedly reply that my search was over and that they knew exactly the place to look. Once the school day ended we would pile into one of our cars and drive there, only to find that it just wasn’t possible. That person would then join my quest, spread the word, and the cycle would repeat. 

Once our team was fully assembled we had gone through all of the obvious spots: The Dune Crest Hotel, Pilgrim Heights, and just about every hill in Truro. While some of them allowed for a glance at either ocean, none provided the chance to see both in the same eyeline. Eventually, however, we got our first creative idea. 

Dennis is not necessarily the thickest part of Cape Cod (the upper cape has a stranglehold on that title) but it is certainly wider than most. When describing my challenge, Dennis would certainly not be the town that comes to mind. However, Dennis was home to Scargo Hill and, more importantly, atop Scargo Hill, Scargo Tower. The one hundred and sixty foot hill with a thirty foot tower on top allowed for gorgeous views of Scargo lake below, but, more importantly for our purposes, it also allowed for a view of the forearm of Cape Cod far in the distance beyond the bay. None of us could remember if it was quite high enough to see over the piece of land that must have been Wellfleet at the ocean beyond but it was certainly the most viable idea we had had in weeks. So, that day, after school, we raced to Dennis as fast as we could.

Scargo Tower in Dennis

On the ride we couldn’t stop talking about the weather. It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a chance that fog or rain or anything else could obscure our victorious viewpoint. When we arrived, however, we all simultaneously realized that our memories may have embellished quite how clearly one could distinguish the water from the land on the horizon. Another failure. 

The View from Scargo Tower. Scargo Lake is visible, as is the bay; however, the forearm of Cape Cod and the Ocean beyond are hidden from the naked eye.

Next came a *really* genius idea. Stylized typing is difficult and meanings can often be lost, so allow me to explicitly state that that last sentence was entirely sarcastic. Our bordering-on-braindead idea was to go to the Province Lands Visitors Center, framed perfectly to observe the ocean waters northeast and northwest of Cape Cod (we were looking for water to the southeast and southwest) and then simply turn around. Brilliant, I know. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that, at a location which is only accessible after driving down “Beach Forest Road”, all that we could see was a beach forest. We couldn’t see one ocean, let alone two. Needless to say, my two hour drive home after that experience was not one filled with a reinvigorated passion for the search.

The Province Lands, a large beach forest observable from the back side of the Province Lands Visitors Center. Neither the ocean nor the bay are visible.

After this point, our quest had ended. My merry bunch of friends would still hang out after school most days, in particular on Fridays, when we would attempt to have adventures mimicking the one that half of us were now too ashamed to complete and the other half thought was simply impossible. However, this is not the end of the story. We had stopped searching, but our final attempt may have found us.

One Friday, on our way to Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, we encountered something strange. For some reason, we weren’t permitted to turn right down Marconi Beach Road and were instead redirected left down Marconi Station Road. I had never been this way before but I had heard of it. Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian fascist who stole credit for inventing the radio and had also set up a station in Wellfleet from which he had sent a number of the transatlantic radio transmissions including the very first one. 

I asked my companions whether we should be alarmed that we weren’t allowed to go to the beach. They responded that the road was something of a misnomer, as the station had fallen into the sea a long time ago, and that there was nothing there now but a parking lot with beach access and a small observation deck. As soon as the words “small observation deck” left our driver’s mouth, we all began to notice the fact that we were driving uphill.

The observation deck at Marconi Station, Wellfleet

No one wanted to say anything for fear that we might jinx it, so we sat in silence for about one point three miles. I was running through the calculations in my head, as I’m sure my friends were as well. We could obviously see the Atlantic Ocean, and Wellfleet did happen to be the thinnest part of Cape Cod when looking at a map. The bay would be right there! When the car parked I heard my friend utter an almost silent “go” as we all ran to the observation deck as quickly as we could.

It was so very close. Just the slightest turn of the head was required to see Marconi beach on one side and Silver Spring Harbor on the other. However, the observation deck wasn’t merely a flat floor. There were wooden railings along the edge that one could cling to for support… or perhaps, that one could stand atop, providing just the tiniest bit of extra elevation and the potential to move one’s head back just the slightest bit more. As The tallest member of the group, I knew what I had to do. 

It had been raining that day and the railing was a bit more slippery than anticipated. When I finally stood to my full height atop the barrier, I had just an instant before I fell into the sand dunes below. 

After that, I climbed back onto the deck rather than walk over the dune and do even more damage to the infamously fragile local flora and fauna. I spent the next half hour being scolded by the national park ranger on duty and feeling regret for attempting something so obviously doomed to fail. The tourists and beachgoers nearby had asked me if I was feeling alright. When I returned to my friends, however, all that they could ask was about whether I had done it or not. In that instant before I fell, had I seen both the bay and the ocean without turning my head? Had we finally won?

I could lie to you, like I did that day, and say that we had. That I got one good glimpse and was finally able to witness the enormous and graceful shape of our home. That I had finally seen the arm. Or, I could tell you that I didn’t. I could tell you what any logical person would deduce, which is that an extra five feet and nine inches of elevation is very unlikely to make a difference in visibility, and that I would need a firetruck with the ladder on top to even try. Or, I could tell you the truth.

The truth is that I just don’t remember. I didn’t have time to focus before I was losing my balance. By the time I extended my knees it was already too late. 

The view from the Marconi Station observation deck. This photo was taken from ground level. Silver Spring Harbor, and thus, the bay is slightly visible in the far right horizon of this image

I’m sure that there is a deeper meaning to this story. Something about changing your perspective, looking beyond yourself, and seeing the bigger picture. Or maybe it’s the cliché that the real treasure was the friendships that we made along the way. But from the perspective of the person who actually lived it, this story has only one possible lesson to be learned and it is this: 

You should never walk on a sand dune. The annoying sea grass that prickles at your feet actually holds the dune together, which in turn, provides a habitat for a variety of plant and animal species which are already at risk or endangered. It only takes one or two steps to seriously damage or kill this beach grass and there can be lasting repercussions for doing so. If you’ve made it to the end of this astonishingly long blog post, please consider donating to one of the many local environmental preservation groups working on this and many other problems on Cape Cod, such as the Association to Preserve Cape Cod at apcc.org, the Harwich Conservation Trust at harwichconservationtrust.org, or the Friends of the Cape Cod National Seashore at fccns.org

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