Today, I awake at the ungodly hour of 5a.m. A cool breeze whisks away last night’s rain front, and I decide to take a short walk before I start writing. This place is a writer’s fantasy, just me, the page, and my manual Remington. Miles from anything, with an outhouse, water you pump and haul from a well, and no electricity or heat, the dune shack is rustic, and if you don’t like mice, the paperwork says, don’t come. I absolutely adore it.
I put on a sweater and a jacket because it’s still a bit chilly, grab my phone and camera, and head out. Around my shack, yellow heather blooms, moss-covered hillocks fall into wild cranberry bogs, and copses of scrub oak and pine tuck into rolling dunes. Occasional signposts warn you to stay on the paths, as the vegetation is delicate and foot traffic can inflict lasting damage. But I can choose from an endless network of paths so I wander.
Every day, more prints appear—of coyote, fox, rabbits, raccoons, mice, and deer, along with one set of footprints that I find a bit unsettling—those of the person I’ve called, “Mr. Peanut Man.” Mr. Peanut Man has sizeable feet, and the soles of his shoes look like, you guessed it, Mr. Peanut. And every day, in every outing, I come upon them. Where is this guy? Why don’t I ever see him? Is he only out at night?
I am very alone out here, not another shack in sight. Since the 1920s, writers and artists have been attracted to this place for its solitude and serenity. But, after a few days, if a voice is carried over the dunes, I want to run out and see where a human might be. And, I have to admit—the nights can be a little eerie. I wonder how far my screams might travel, and if anyone at all would hear me or know where to find me if they did. I’m tired of wondering about Mr. Peanut Man and what he’s really up to, so I decide to take another path that veers further inland, where it seems he has not ventured.
I spin in circle after circle, taking panoramic shots with my phone. I see another vista and head that way to take more, and the stupid phone dies. So, my camera takes better shots anyway. But, I’m not exactly sure where I am now. I spot a dune shack high on a distant bluff and decide to head towards it. As I near, I realize this must be the shack just over the line in Truro. I’ve come much further than I thought. But I’m fine. I’ll just head to the beach, bang a left, and find the path to my shack. I’m sure to pass the sandbar where the seals congregated by the hundreds last year. From there, my path is about 20 minutes away.
Instead of seals, I see hundreds of squawking gulls along with a few ballsy cormorants and terns. It’s getting hot, so I take off my jacket and my sweater and wrap them around my waist. I want to rest a minute and get some pictures of this city of birds, but some are probably the same who crap on my deck at home, which isn’t that far by sea, and I’m getting thirsty, so I head on.
No one else is on the beach today. Just blue sky and sea and sand and me, and I walk and walk. I must have been even further south than I thought because I don’t see the path. The winter storms change the beach each year; maybe that’s why I recognize nothing. The sun is now blazing, and I wish I brought some sunscreen and sunglasses, but I’ll be home soon enough. Here’s another sandbar, which maybe is the one I’d been looking for, so my path is maybe 20 minutes further. When I tell my athletic early-rising friends about this trek, they’ll be proud of me. After all, I could be lazing around eating a bag of chips. In fact, I still have some chips back at the shack. Maybe this walk was a bit impulsive.
I round a bend and see far ahead, like a mirage, a big black box on the beach. Was there some lunar expedition? Is some space capsule returning home? As I near it, I see movement. A tall figure and he seems to have a long pole. He’s fishing. And that’s a massive SUV. He’s some jerky renegade fisherman who’s come past the legal limits. The park only lets drivers on the beach up around Race Point, and here he is, driving on the beach while the poor piping plovers run for their lives. Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?
I look in my camera, and the guy is standing there with what seem to be binoculars, staring back at me! I stop short, then decide to acknowledge that I know he’s checking me out. I give him a half wave, muttering, “I’m right here, you @#$ing weirdo.” Then he moves away and opens his driver’s side door. He’s fooling with something. Is he leaving? No, he’s up by his hood and I can’t see him, and now he’s back, opening the rear door. Maybe I should hang back, let him get going. I slow down for a bit, which is almost mesmerizing, because I realize how good stopping might feel, though I’m just prolonging my journey, already a lot longer than I’d planned. And, he’s not going anywhere.
I’m getting closer, and I make out that he’s pouring something onto a rag, I think. It’s probably chloroform. He’s going to douse the cloth and hold it to my face, and I’ll wake up suspended by fish hooks in some dark torture chamber. Jesus, I should have stayed back. I’m almost next to him now, and he’s still fooling with it. I know he knows I’m here but he doesn’t look up, which just proves he’s strange. My shoulders are up by my ears, and I pass him and glare back, mutter a “Hello.” He raises his turtle-like head and says, real slow, “Hello,” with the slimmest shade of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
He looks older but strong. I quicken my pace, and my heart rate matches it. Now I hear doors slam shut, and he’s in his truck. He’s driving alongside me, his arm resting casually on the door. To my left is a high bluff beyond roped-off plover chick territory and to my right is the seal-rich, shark infested Atlantic. If I run, which I couldn’t even do in high school, I’ll have to sacrifice a chick or two, but even if I give it my all, I’ll never make it. I’m already sweating and exhausted.
He asks, “Do you want some water?” In my mind, it’s a lollipop he’s offering. I say, “No.” But he doesn’t leave; he stays with me, and I’m getting ready to run. And then he says, “Are you alright?”
Am I alright? Am I alright! No, I’m not alright, you sicko-law-breaking-serial-killer-fisherman. I spit out a curt “yes,” and he waits a minute, and then pulls away slowly, maybe to wait up ahead till I’m worn out, or to find some other victim, a prettier younger one, someone who isn’t on to him. I memorize his license plate in my head, and watch him as he goes. It seems endless, waiting for that big black box to disappear up ahead.
And he’s gone. Waves of heat shimmer off the horizon. I watch the bend and must be imagining things when I see two dark specks take his place. They’re heading my way. Is he back? Did he grab a friend? No, I see silver and green, not black. Maybe they’re rangers, looking for a description. I think I’ve forgotten the license plate already. 728, was there a Y? It was New York orange—I know that. They are barreling down fast. The first one turns his wheel and heads straight for me. I jump out of the way and he does a U-turn and stops. The other slows and pulls up behind him. They get out. I see fishing rods.
Having fun scaring the hell out of me?, I want to say. But instead, I muster up, “Are the stripers running?”
“Not today,” the first one says, raising an eyebrow, then eyeing his friend. The two almost laugh. They look at me like this was a stupid question. But it’s one any guy would ask, and if I were a guy, we’d all hike up our pants and discuss. I can hear it now. “Caught three keepers last night…” “Live bait?” “Yup, a few mackerel; tossed out some chum.” “Damn seals took all of ’em.” I keep my mouth shut and my ears open, hearing no apology for almost running me over, no explanation for stopping right next to me when they’ve got the whole beach to destroy. And when I look away, I see it, a path—not the path, but any path will do.
I hurry for it, and don’t look back. The sand is rippled in hard and crusty waves—no one has been here in some time. I climb up fast, and up top sits some other dune shack, but not one I recognize. The windows are still boarded up, though you can never tell if someone’s there or not. Dune shacks are very private. Take it from someone who once made the mistake of approaching one, you don’t want to (that’s another, shorter, story involving a naked man wearing oven mitts leaping at the window). I duck and scamper around it and find some Lawrence of Arabia camel path. I’m completely lost.
I have to trudge up the nearest high interior dune to see what I can see, and I’m slowing down, sinking back in the sand, which is oh so soft, but I’m not going to stop because if I do…and there is nothing I recognize. Just more god-forsaken tundra as far as the eye can see. Why didn’t I bring a hat?
I follow something that may have been a path in the Pilgrim’s days. I forge ahead and arrive at the base of another dune, and I’m back near the boarded up shack. Now, I want to cry. I want to sit down and whine until some guardian angel sees me from the heavens and delivers me a freshly squeezed lemonade and a lobster roll. But I don’t. I decide to head in the opposite direction. Now overhead, the sun is useless for navigation. Believe it or not, I normally have a good sense of direction. I’ve never gotten lost out here before. What is wrong with me? Is it Alzheimers? Am I getting a heat stroke? Am I losing my mind?
I check my phone again, knowing what I’ll find. And yes, it’s still dead. Like I might be soon if I don’t find my way. In some Falstaffian slog, I cross more dunes. It’s not so beautiful anymore. I climb up another and finally, I spot the Provincetown monument. But it’s to my left, and from my dune shack, it’s far off to the right. I realize I’m down by Race Point, and now I know I’m a loser: because the fishermen were where they were supposed to be, but I wasn’t. Why didn’t I take the water? I was the crazy lady and the serial killer knew it.
I don’t have the time or luxury to decide what I am. I need to get home. To do that, I have no choice but to descend into a forest writhing with deer ticks and black racers. Paths are non-existent down here. I hope for a puddle, though if I find one, it’s probably infested with mosquito larvae. Now, it occurs to me. The future. I’ll be the poster girl for what not to do. Some ranger is prepping schoolkids before a hike. “No matter how smart you think you are, you’ll never outsmart nature. After all, look at what happened to this lady. She was middle-aged, granted, and a bit on the portly side. And let’s admit it, kids, she wasn’t the brightest: she did not bring her water. But, she died because of that people, and she absolutely did.not.have.to. Nosiree. Bring your water. Stay on the path. Focus people, focus!”
I trudge, on and on, over untrampled territory, until now. The moss is crunchy as hell when you step on it. But the heather seems to bounce back okay. I brush by branches, and twigs lodge in my hair. I think I’ve been stung. The poison ivy is the least of my worries. My calves are burning so much they’re almost numb. My head is pounding and I remember that urine is sterile. But whatever water was left in my body is now soaked into my clothes. And then I see it. A footprint. It’s Mr. Peanut Man! I want to cry. Oh, bless you, Mr. Peanut Man, I’m so glad to find you.
His prints lead me home. In my mind, he’s tottering ahead, short, pastel, and unsteady, but I’d follow him anywhere. I’m back in my hot little shack with a tall glass of water, and I’m not leaving again. Screw the beach. Me and my trusty Remington are going to clack the night away. The next time I want to get delusional, I’m going to roll in a blank page with a tall drink in my hand. And if I yearn for some diversion or adventure? In a page goes. After all, escape is just one big-ass mirage. However far I travel, I’ll never escape the writer in my head.