When will Cape Cod go away?

Leave all of America behind

Cape Cod in Massachusetts: Kennedy hideaway, artist colony and parade for eccentrics

Text and photos: Volker Mehnert

Hasn't America always dreamed of the West? About conquering the prairie, crossing the Rocky Mountains, sunny California and finally the Pacific? It must have been the poor swallowers, the have-nots and those who arrived late, who followed this dream. Because while they were making their arduous journey across the continent, others had already reached their destination on the east coast: Cape Cod.

The Kennedys, for example: Joe and Rose, the founders of the most successful American dynasty, stayed in Boston and never even dreamed of the West during their vacations. Rather, they bought a piece of land on the nearby Cape Cod peninsula for their vacation with their nine children, and over the decades the originally modest domicile has grown into the legendary "Kennedy Compound". From 1930 until his death, John F. Kennedy not only regularly spent the summers there sailing and playing golf, Cape Cod was also his political refuge: “Whenever I have a difficult decision to make,” he said, “I go to the Cape and walk along the beach. The cape is the place where I can be alone and think. "

The cult around the person of the president, who was assassinated in 1963, is the main cause of the onslaught of tourists, onlookers and high society voyeurs who literally besiege the property in Hyannisport during the summer months. Here you want to experience live what can otherwise only be read and seen in boulevard magazines. In order for the family to be able to move about freely on such days, the police sometimes have to cordon off the driveways. Then the bourgeois admirers of “America's Royalty” take refuge in the excursion boats, which promise a glimpse of the Kennedy's residence from the sea. The myth is more alive than ever.

And Cape Cod knows how to market its prominent residents. the golf courses on which the president once played are still popular (photo left). And as early as 1963, after a visit to Hyannis, the writer Kurt Vonnegut mocked the fact that a café was labeling its desserts with the names of the family members: "A waffle with strawberries and cream was 'Jackie', a waffle with ice cream was 'Caroline'." there is also a Kennedy Museum in the city, which underlines the naive worship of the Majesties of Massachusetts with photos and videos: the teenage JFK with his buddies playing football, the adult JFK on the golf course and sailing, Jackie in chic summer costume, Bobby in the swimming trunks under the parasol, the extended family at a picnic. The museum saw the greatest number of visitors in 1998 after the tragic plane crash of John Kennedy Jr., when it exhibited a series of photos from his childhood, making it a meeting point for the mourning and the curious.

A gigantic fish hook in the Atlantic

For Cape Cod, the presence of the Kennedy clan was not only beneficial in economic terms. John F. Kennedy recognized the importance of the unique coastal landscape and, shortly after taking office as President, had the East Shore and the Outer Cape declared a National Seashore. In this way he integrated a large part of the peninsula into the national park system of the United States and prevented the urban sprawl that is spreading in the southern sections of Cape Cod. Thanks to Kennedy and the National Seashore, the eradication of the landscape stops the further you venture out into the Cape Cod, which used to be one of the richest fishing grounds in North America, but now no cod swims around it.

Cliffs, beach and then just the sea

The peninsula curves into the Atlantic like a giant fishhook: a hundred and twenty kilometers long, with almost five hundred kilometers of coastline. Within the nature reserve there are fifty kilometers of uninterrupted beach, hardly touched by people, because building is prohibited. Even the summer rush to the beaches does little to change that. The large open space by the sea is retained because the tourists, packed with umbrellas, cool bags and picnic baskets, do not stray very far from the few designated parking spaces where they are allowed to park their oversized SUVs.

Sailing and Golf: The Memory of John F. Kennedy

However, this part of the cape is being radically turned inside out by the forces of nature. It is a young landscape, created fifteen thousand years ago by the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers. The remaining life expectancy is of course much shorter: the Atlantic will simply wash away the Cape within the next five thousand years. The wind and waves nibble a meter or more off the sandstone cliffs on the east coast every year. Beaches are disappearing, sandbanks appearing, dunes are being blown away, islands are coming and going.

Cliffs, waves, lighthouses

The highland lighthouse narrowly escaped the voracious forces of the sea a few years ago. Before he fell down the cliffs, he was moved a few hundred meters inland in a costly operation. The wildest and most beautiful coast of Cape Cod lies in front of the lighthouse. "Here you can stand and leave all of America behind," wrote the writer and nature lover Henry David Thoreau a hundred and fifty years ago. At that time he marched across the entire peninsula for weeks and then wrote an exciting report about this excursion.

With Thoreau's book in your backpack, you can go on one of the most delightful hikes on North America's coasts. You walk the same path that the author took back then, along the beach and on the sandstone cliffs, read a chapter in his book every now and then and wonder how little the landscape seems to have changed, although the dunes and the coastline have moved vigorously since then no longer runs where Thoreau saw it. But the descriptions of the cliffs and the beach, of waves, shells and seagulls, and even of the debris that washes up here, could have been written yesterday.

Beach colony - a rarity on the Cape

At some point on the way north, the Parabolic Dunes appear, a desert-like dune landscape that is blown into ever new shapes. You can literally watch the wind and waves remove land and sand in one place and deposit them elsewhere. “Here,” wrote Thoreau, “the solitudes of the ocean and the desert have come together. Not even a thousand people could seriously bother them, they would lose themselves in the vastness of the landscape as well as their footsteps melt away in the sand. ”It is still like that today.

The artist's landscape

At some point the artists discovered the beautiful country. One of the first was the American impressionist Charles Hawthorne, who opened the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown on the northern tip of the peninsula in 1899. It was especially popular with ladies from the Boston high society, who liked to surround themselves with a little artist and bohemian atmosphere during the holidays. Eugene O'Neill first appeared as a playwright in Provincetown, where he began his literary journey to four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature. The one-act play "In the Fog of Cardiff" was performed in 1916 on an improvised open-air stage on the planks of the landing stage, where the fog actually lifted and the water of the rising tide could be heard lapping.

O'Neill was born on Cape Cod as an artist, so to speak, the writers John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac only used the landscape and solitude of the peninsula temporarily for undisturbed work. Norman Mailer spent forty-five summers in Provincetown, eventually moving to his beloved "Wild West of the East." Painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko received their basic training in an art school in Provincetown, but Edward Hopper in particular painted the Cape Cod landscape in the American consciousness and shaped the postcard image of the peninsula.

Even in midsummer: a tranquil coast

Dozens of oil paintings and watercolors with dunes, lighthouses and the typical wooden houses as motifs were created during the summer holidays, which he spent in his own house in Truro from 1934 until his death.

A un-American biotope

In the wake of artists and bohemians, Provincetown has turned into a fairly un-American habitat. Homosexuals from all parts of the country came because of the unconventional atmosphere, were initially outsiders, but now they own houses and shops and determine the course of everyday life in the former fishing and artists' village. They are fleeting existences that come, stay for a few years and then move on. There are hardly any real Cape Codder born with "salt in your hair, sand between your toes and herring blood in your veins".

Especially during the summer, the city serves as a refuge for the American dream of outsiders and becomes a stage for non-conformism. Lesbian couples push their strollers down Commercial Street, tattooed men and women with bare chests populate the beaches, flashily dressed transvestites emerge from honest-looking bed and breakfasts at dusk, intimidated homosexuals from the provinces admire the confident New York gays in their squire and tight-fitting leather clothing. They all practice the suggestion of Henry David Thoreau in their own way and leave America behind - but not entirely. Because in the midst of this eccentric parade stroll tourists from the Upper Cape and day-trippers from Boston who are amazed that something like this is possible in their America and, of all places, on the coast of the pious pilgrim fathers.



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