The Dune Shack

So I’ve been doing some writing lately for PTownie, an amazing publication for those who live in—or simply love—Provincetown; and over the past week or so I’ve been researching the dune shacks for a piece I’m writing.

In case you’re not aware of them, the dune shacks are a string of very weathered buildings (if I may use so grand a word) that exist, against all odds, in the dunes of Provincetown and Truro on outermost Cape Cod. There used to be many more of them, but the national Seashore in its infinite (questionable) wisdom removed a great many, and only 18 remain. Most are privately owned, and once “kinship” goes, the shacks will, too. Two of them are managed by nonprofit organizations for artistic residencies. None of them has electricity or running water.

As I’ve been writing this article I’ve been able to reflect on my own dune shack experience ten years ago when I was awarded a two-week writing residency to the shack called Margo-Gelb.

Two weeks in the dunes! The shack comes equipped with a couple of kerosene lamps, a gas-fueled tiny refrigerator and equally tiny stove, and that’s about it for amenities. There’s an outhouse. There’s a water pump down a hill. There’s the whole of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out in front of you; next stop, Portugal.

The volunteers drive you in, drop you off, refill the propane tanks, wish you well, and that’s it for speaking to other people for the next two weeks. You have whatever food you brought, whatever books you brought, whatever clothes you brought.

What I also brought was a manual typewriter I’d found on eBay (remember—no electricity, no cell towers, no connectivity!). And learned some unexpected things:

  • Writing with a typewriter is pure. That’s all you can do. You can’t check your email. You can’t look up a reference. You can’t even edit your words. All you can do is write. There’s something both confining and freeing about that fact.

  • It’s amazing to actually see your work progress, physically, as your stack of typed pages grows.

  • You cannot read by kerosene lamplight. Just not happening.

The things that I imagined would be difficult weren’t all that bad. I thought I might be afraid at night, alone and isolated out there, but I never really was. I thought I’d have difficulties with the logistics of daily living (I’m terribly spoiled) but while they were challenging—you really think about your water usage when you have to pump it and then carry it up a hill!—they were manageable.

What did bother me, to my great surprise, was not knowing what time it was. I hadn’t brought a watch or clock on purpose, because I wanted to develop my own rhythms, but it bothered me intensely to not know the time. Not that I needed to do anything with that information; I just wanted to know. Odd, isn’t it?

I thought I’d be inspired by the ghosts of all the literary figures who had lived and worked out in the dunes, but try as hard as I could, I never heard their voices. On the other hand, I did find myself inspired by what had inspired them: the marsh hawk flying over dune grasses, the seals just off the beach accompanying me on my morning walks, the myriad frogs that left their paths crisscrossing mine in the night.

And finally, if you’re thinking of a similar experience, two things that I’d do differently if I did it again:

  1. Forget the purity of a typewriter. Go to eBay and get an AlphaSmart Neo (now sadly out of production). It takes ordinary batteries that last up to 700 hours; it’s lightweight and can be dropped without harm; you can plug it into your computer when you get home and download all your work instead of scanning it.

  2. Bring a real Coleman camping lantern. See comments on kerosene lamps, above. And it won’t smell.

I will say that by the time they came to pick me up it was about 20 hours later than when I was ready to go. I wanted a hot meal and a hotter shower. I’d lived through scorching hot days and a wind/rainstorm that had my teeth chattering and that I expected to take off the shack’s roof. But I had 348 typed pages and a novel well on its way.

And I still miss the frogs.

Jeannette de BeauvoirComment