I still remember the sight of those red taillights disappearing into the night as my father left me alone in the nearly deserted campground. I can still feel the clammy salt wind blowing in from the bay, hear the crickets, and see the tree shadows made by the full moon…
Four years earlier, I had taken my first trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts on a family vacation. We stayed for a week at Nickerson State Park, a giant campground in Brewster, and I saw the ocean for the first time. My notions that Cape Cod was a tourist trap quickly faded as I realized that I was falling in love with the place. I knew that I had to make it back there someday.
That day came on May 18th, 1997. I was nineteen years old that summer, my first time living on my own. Nickerson State Park had accepted me as a "host camper" for the summer, which meant that I got a free campsite in exchange for doing some work around the park. I considered that a good trade, even when I learned that I was assigned to clean the shower building.
The cold evening wind pierced through my light jacket as Dad and I arrived at the campground. He insisted on helping me put up the cabin tent, but it was soon too dark to finish setting up camp, so he helped me stow everything else under the picnic table. After asking me one more time if I wanted to go through with this, he got in the van and pulled out. I was alone, yet it wasn't a bad feeling. It was a sense of adventure and freedom, as I realized that I had to answer only to myself. As I wrote in my journal in the light of the citronella candle, I knew that it would be the summer of my life. I was content.
The first few days remained raw and windy. As the rain turned the campground into a muddy mess, I shivered nonstop and piled on several layers of clothes. When the weather finally cleared, I went out exploring my new home on my battered pink mountain bike, which was my only transportation. I rolled down Brewster's pretty country roads, passing several enticing antique shops and stately old sea captains' houses. Crosby Lane, across the road from the campground entrance, was my favorite place to ride. It passed the Crosby Mansion, a magnificent yellow Victorian house with rambling verandahs and acres of lawns that overlooked the public beach on Cape Cod Bay. At low tide, the mudflats stretched for miles, exposing hundreds of horseshoe crabs and squirming creatures caught in the puddles.
Soon after I arrived, a man set up camp in the site across from mine. He introduced himself as Bill, a weathered, muscular man with a silvery gray mustache. He said he was a contractor who was building a home for a wealthy client a few miles away, and mentioned that he needed someone to help clear the lot and build a road. I remarked that I needed to find a summer job. As I look back now I realize that it could've been a foolish thing to do, but Bill was telling the truth. I went with him in his truck every day and worked in the woods with him until I found a permanent job. I felt so cool, so independent as I rode in his big gray pickup. Every day my arms became sore and scratched as I tossed branches and logs into his backhoe. The damp mornings grew into muggy afternoons, and I sweated in the dappled forest sunlight as I helped lay out wire mesh and rake the gravel on the new private road. I couldn't complain, though. Each morning, Bill made fresh eggs and bacon for breakfast, and grilled steak and hamburgers with corn on the cob for dinner. He was a great cook.
One evening, Bill pulled into my campsite on a gleaming turquoise Harley, its spotless chrome glinting in the dusk. I had never ridden on a motorcycle before, but when he offered me a ride, I knew that I couldn't pass up the chance. We ended up going all the way out to Provincetown, the town at the tip of Cape Cod, where we cruised down the crowded main street. It had a festive, carnival-like atmosphere, as lights and music drifted from the open doors of bars and shops. Later as we thundered back down the Mid-Cape Highway towards home, the rotating beam of the Highland lighthouse reached through the darkness in endless circles. Suddenly, all that mattered was the warm wind in my face and stars above, and the roaring motorcycle beneath us. I knew that I would never forget that evening, when I felt like I was riding through a dream.
In July, I found a permanent summer job as a bagger at a small chain grocery store called Star Market. Several days a week, I pedaled the three miles from Brewster to the town of Orleans on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a paved bike path through the woods and meadows. After working late into the evenings, I nervously faced the ride home through the deserted forest, often on nights so dark that I was literally riding on blind faith. My bike light would flicker, dim, and sometimes go out at every bump in the road. But those rides turned out to be beautiful. I coasted under the trees that arched over the narrow path, as the crickets called and the humid, ocean-scented breeze filled the night.
If anything, those late-night bike rides, and indeed, the whole summer, gave me a stronger faith in God. I felt that I wasn't really alone, and that there was someone there to keep me safe. He was with me through all those rides in the dark, sometimes when there were no batteries in my light and I couldn't see a foot ahead. He let me meet Bill, who turned out to be a decent person and not someone who would try to hurt me. Other than scrapes and bruises, I was never injured in Cape Cod, and I knew that it was because God was watching out for me.
I soon discovered that Cape Cod had its own spirit, and that was what I tried to catch in my countless rolls of photographs. Beach cottages and elegant mansions, the Nauset Lighthouse and National Seashore, sailboats and seagulls, sunsets, and sights all passed through my camera. I soon knew the restaurants and souvenir shops of Orleans as well as those in my own hometown. Rock Harbor, a picturesque place on the bay, was my favorite spot on the outskirts of Orleans. I had spent Memorial Day there, photographing the sleek charter boats, the gray-shingled seafood place covered with old lobster buoys, and the wooden fishing boats that seemed to have the character of weather-beaten, grumpy but loveable old grandfathers. The brilliant golden sunset was a fitting end to that day.
If anyone had told me that I would get a little lonely that summer, I would've laughed. How could I get lonely on the adventure of my life? But as the weeks passed I was surprised to find that I was, especially in the evenings when families in neighboring sites would sing or tell stories around their campfire. Meanwhile, I'd be sitting before my broken Coleman lantern eating my miserable little portion of Spaghetti-O's, listening to my tinny little radio, and remembering past family camping trips when my dad told the greatest ghost stories. So, I decided to get a pet for company.
The animal shelter was only one tempting mile up the road, but I knew that my mother wouldn't let me bring a puppy home. There was a pet shop in Orleans, though, and there, in the middle of the store, I spotted a cage of baby ferrets. A week later I brought home Riptide, a six-week-old ferret baby that I knew Mom wouldn't be pleased about (although she did let me keep him.)
We became inseparable. Riptide soon learned to come when I called. I walked him everywhere on a leash and took him to Crosby Beach, where he slept in the sand or dug in the mudflats. He rode in my backpack as I explored the backroads. Small crowds would gather when we were in town, people saying, "Oh, that's so cute!" or "What is that?" or "Oh, yuck, a rodent," (to which a ferret is no relation.) Then they would bring their friends or kids over to see. I took it for granted that people would know what kind of an animal he was, but over the summer Riptide was mistaken for a dog, cat, monkey, rat, skunk, raccoon, squirrel, and opossum. All I wanted was to go beachcombing or hiking in peace, but at least I could no longer say that I was lonely!
After six weeks of living in the tent, Dad hauled down his 25-foot camper, which I nicknamed "The Disco," for its 1970's décor. As I laid my blankets out on the gaudy couch cushions and stowed my food and supplies in the avocado-green cabinets, the musty yellow satin curtains wafted in the draft from the leaky jalousie windows. The cushions' slipcovers were a pattern of green, black, blue, turquoise, and orange flowers that looked like they had been stolen from a disco dancer's outfit. The kitchen and bathroom sat lifeless, since there were no electric hookups at the campground. But although it was outdated, I developed an affection for the old camper. It seemed like true luxury compared to my nylon home of the previous weeks, which had always flooded in the hard spring rains.
I was especially glad for Disco's protective walls the day that Hurricane Danny blew up north from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a "tropical storm" by the time it hit Cape Cod, rocking the trailer back and forth in its gale, its rain battering the aluminum siding. I still had to pedal to work that afternoon, sweating in my raincoat, dodging fallen branches and rolling through puddles, the horizontal rain soaking my jeans…but when I got home that night, I could relax in a way that I couldn't in the tent. The novelty and fun of roughing it had worn off weeks before.
People I met over the summer seemed amazed that I was living alone in a tent (or camper) without a car, and would say that I was really brave, or I had a lot of guts. I didn't know what bravery or guts had to do with it. I enjoyed camping and was used to being alone. I wasn't squeamish about skunks or dirt or bugs, and wasn't even too concerned about crime. I was only doing what I had to do. Although I didn't believe that my lifestyle was that extraordinary, the summer turned out to be that way.
Sometimes I think about packing up and living that summer all over again, but I know that it would never be the same. I'm no longer the carefree college kid that I was that year. But I look back at that time, at all the misadventures and the miracles. I remember the day that I almost lost Riptide when he escaped from my backpack near Rock Harbor. The double rainbow that arched over the mudflats, as retreating thunderheads passed on the horizon. The red-tailed hawk that once swooped into my campsite and landed five feet from my tent.
It was a time when I lived by a simple faith in God. A time when I learned to make do with what I had. A time when dreams came true , and I experienced some unexpected adventures. I know that I will never forget my Cape Cod summer.