Travel: Cape Cod Canal and Hyannis
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 17
My first stop is at the Cape Cod Canal that connects mainland Massachusetts to Cape Cod. I have many times passed over the Sagamore Bridge, one of three bridges that were part of the same canal construction project, on my way to Provincetown on the tip of the Cape, but I have neglected to understand the history of the canal underneath.
The day is exquisite, although its beauty is painfully more like the start of autumn than the end of summer. My big writing plans for this summer have remained largely unfulfilled, so this final four-day escape is important. Nothing better than to begin it strolling on the scenic bike path along this broad canal, with the electric blue sky reflected in the deep turquoise water.
Like the bike path I ride on at home from Cambridge to Bedford, there are walkers, riders, skaters and joggers, passing those who are fishing and those who are sitting at the picnic tables. The friendliness among strangers that I thought was particular to my bike path is apparently universal. I am watching a bird with a long beak floating on the water when it takes an unexpected, dramatic dive down deep, rising up to fly in a great arc just a foot or so above the water. A grey-haired woman walker stops to explain that it is a cormorant, a bird that has no oil on its wings, necessitating a wide spread to dry off its feathers after a dive.
Although just such a canal had been a twinkle in the eye of Captain Miles Standish of the Plimoth Colony in 1623 and although Massachusetts had passed repeated proposals to build it after that, no one could really figure out how to tackle such a massive job. The first attempt by the private sector at the start of the 20th Century produced a narrow, shallow version in 1916, but because of its limitations they could not make it profitable. Eventually the government took it over. “The purchase price was $11,400,000, and $21,000,000 was spent between 1935 to 1940 increasing the canal's width to 480 feet, and its depth to 32 feet. As a result, the canal became the widest sea level canal in the world.” Three bridges high above the canal were also constructed.
There is a visitor center with amazing information at the side of the canal. There I learn that the bike paths along both sides were derived from the utility roads used during construction. The canal has a long history – and as I read of its final triumph, I can’t help but get depressed.
The project was part of Roosevelt’s public works vision – a Depression-era effort that changed America with its roads and bridges and parks and poems and photos. The hazards of sailing around the Cape had limited commerce. This single project employed 1,400 men (sic) who brought money back into the economy, improved trade, upgraded local security and created a recreational and commercial waterway now used by 20,000 boats each year.
Why did all of this get me down? Because as I read in the visitor center about the amazing amounts of investment by the government in job creation, infrastructure and cultural improvement projects during the Depression, I realize that with Roosevelt’s New Deal, at least there was hope. Hope that one could qualify for a government job, even for writers and artists. I find myself thinking the irrational thought that I would’ve been better off during the Great Depression than now when we have no leader or actual governing party, only an opposition being dominated by its most repulsive flank.
For those who say, but look what Obama is up against with all those crazed Republicans trying to stop him, check out what Roosevelt faced:
“Alarmed by Roosevelt's plan to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, a group of millionaire businessmen, led by the Du Pont and J.P. Morgan empires, plans to overthrow Roosevelt with a military coup and install a fascist government. The businessmen try to recruit General Smedley Butler, promising him an army of 500,000, unlimited financial backing and generous media spin control. The plot is foiled when Butler reports it to Congress.”
I return to the hotel where my request for a quiet room has been granted, but where the chair at the desk is some wonky vanity seat that when I sit down brings me about clavicle-height to my laptop. I ask at the front desk for a real desk chair and, to my astonishment, I get a marvelous specimen. Life is sweet.
I go exploring this “family” hotel whose claim to fame is a “wave pool” – yes, it really waves, with an accompanying hot tub and nearby slides (“Yes,” the 15 year old lifeguard assures me, “we even had a 400-pound old man go down them once.)
For dinner, I drive with my companion into Hyannis center to take up the recommendation of my writer friend Jeannette de Beauvoir to eat at the Brazilian Grill on Main Street. Unfortunately, we are told on arrival, the first available table is at 9:00pm – three hours hence. “I am,” I tell the hostess, “a journalist from Boston writing a travel piece on Hyannis and you were so highly recommended to us.” As we assure her we don’t mind, she immediately seats us at one end of a long table where a small party is dining at the opposite end.
The food is impossibly plentiful and delicious. There is an endless buffet of salads and side dishes of every sort, although my focus is on the fried plantains. If you keep your green “Yes” card up near your plate, the solicitous wait staff – or gauchos – bring you endless rounds of meat on a skewer – from divine beef ribs to filet mignon with bacon; from chicken wings to linguica sausage – in all, 16 different choices. When you need to take a break, you turn the card to a red “No.”
I happen to meet the owner Maximiliano – the only casually dressed member of the staff – at the buffet table and he tells me that the restaurant has been going strong for 11 years and that while the economic atmosphere has definitely had an impact, summer is still a very strong season. The buffet – without drinks or dessert – is a reasonable $28, reasonable that is if you happen to have an extra $28. We have desserts too, brought on a cart piled with abundant choices. When we leave, there is still a line out the door and it is clearly not only a tourist fave, but a local stop as well.
We saunter down Main Street, ducking into a Joke/Sex/Head Shop where I pick up some sexy greeting cards and a bumper sticker that says: “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel Much Better.” Of course, that’s a lie. Paying for it is torture. Literally. The cashier hands me a pen to sign my credit card receipt which, when I pull off the cap, explodes. I nearly lose my cardiac ability, although the customers standing around find it hilarious. He apologizes and hands me another pen which, when I click it, gives me an electric shock. They like that too.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 18
Again on Jeannette’s recommendation we head for the Cape Cod Central Railroad which asks riders to “Step Back in Time for a Never-Forget Experience!” I wonder why they don’t just use the ready-made word Unforgettable, but climb aboard nonetheless. The train was saved from erasure in 1999 by a private entrepreneur. The majority of the people involved seem to be retired women.
There are brunch or dinner rides to choose from, although we take the non-food scenic train with the edifying commentary by a guide named Madonna. She talks us through the 40 mile route from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay and back at 15-30 miles per hour. A retired kindergarten teacher, Madonna (left) tells me that this job is no different: give them some useful information in an entertaining way so that they will stay in their seats and behave.
We learn about the 365 kettle ponds on the Cape, dug out in the glacier age by ice; about the beautiful golf course we pass early in our journey that is the oldest on the Cape and has an intimidating waiting list; about how the early white settlers depleted the original forests, leaving the area with almost no maples and too many ugly scrub pines; and about the fascinating process of growing and harvesting cranberries as we pass numerous bogs. She explains the ecology of the copious marshlands we pass. Madonna also tells us of so many tempting attractions in Sandwich, where she now lives, that I put it right on top of my must-see list: from a church designed by Christopher Wren to a glass museum to the Dunbar Tea Room.
I chat with the conductor Kay, a life-long pilot, who is spiffy in her handsome uniform. She’s been involved since the 1999 save of the railroad, apprenticing as brakeman and conductor. An air force brat, she started flying with her father in 1945 after WWII and after finishing her education (MBA), she began buying into planes. The role of conductor, she explains, is like that of the captain of a ship: She is responsible for whatever goes on. The brakeman, on the other hand, is like a co-pilot, responsible for switching couplings when the train reverses direction on the way home.
When the ride finishes, I set out to see the JFK Museum in Hyannis, but once inside I find myself less than motivated and satisfy myself with the lovely bronze statue outside of a young JFK strolling barefoot through the dunes.
I lunch at the execrable Spanky’s Clam Shack down at the harbor where I have, late in life, my first face-to-face confrontation with a non-Kosher hot dog, paler than beige and too gross to bite. The reconstituted french fries can only go down on a stream of ketchup and even the view of the harbor is less than impressive. The much-publicized “artists shanties” turn out to be pre-fab boxes where commercial artists try to make a living serving tourists. I ask one what happened during Hurricane Irene. “They made us remove every last thing from inside,” she explains in some disgust, “and they lifted up the shanties and stored them in a parking lot away from the water. And nothing much happened. Just some wind and rain, nothing out of the ordinary.”
For dinner with friends, I take the safe route of a salad at the hotel, and back in my room I catch the end of the Emmy’s where everything seems bland and tame, other than Jane Lynch’s great line (paraphrased): People ask me why I am a lesbian… And now, the cast of Entourage.
MONDAY SEPTEMBER 19
Finally, after lunch on the hotel’s porch with friends consisting of untastey wraps bought at Traders Joe’s in one of the many strip malls in the neighborhood of the hotel, my dream comes true. This Cape Codder Hotel, at the blighted corner of two busy box-store roads, bills itself as a “family” destination with all sorts of entertaining extras. I have been dying to try out the wave pool and the water slides – two experiences my rich life has been lacking. Unfortunately, the wave pool is a bit underwhelming, although perhaps if I were 6 years old and a slip of a girl I’d feel like the waves were significant. But I do like those water slides – both the curvy one and the straight-down faster one. Ten minutes in the hot tub settles me down and I return to the hotel room to dine on an apple and pistachios while watching the season premiere of Dancing With the Stars. Go Chaz!
The evening is bittersweet as I know that tomorrow morning I need to pack and return to the real world of selling my labor for far too cheap a wage.
Sue Katz, an author, journalist, blogger and rebel, used to be most proud of her martial arts career and her world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.
This article was simultaneously published at Sue's blog. Photo by Barry Hock. To view the full photo set, please check out the blog version.