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Most people don't go there
A contrarian approach to hiking, on Cape Cod
Is there a more ecstatic feeling than witnessing an enormous crowd and knowing that you don’t have to join the crush? Perhaps you’re driving into Boston or New York at the end of the business day, zooming past miles of traffic heading the way. Or—since this is a hiking newsletter—let’s say you’re taking a friend up Mount Monadnock. As you drive past the overstuffed parking area for the White Cross/Dot Trails, you tell your friend, “We’ll be taking the Dublin Trail, on the north face. Most people don’t go there.”
The conceit in both scenarios is that you’re heading somewhere but you’re scoring a better experiential deal than most of your fellow travelers—swifter passage along the freeway, or a more peaceful hike on an overlooked trail. Sometimes things just work out this way, but with a little flexibility, planning ahead, and being adventurous, you can make these experiences your norm by adopting a contrarian approach to hiking trips.
What is a contrarian approach to hiking? It’s simple. You go to “out-of-season” hiking destinations that most people will be avoiding during the time of your trip. Instead of hitting the Maine Coast in June or July, try going in November. (Just imagine spooning lobster stew into your gullet with thawing fingers, as a blizzard rattles the windows of your hotel.) Instead of visiting Stowe to go skiing, consider experiencing the region in summer, when you can hike to the highest altitude trout pond in the state of Vermont. Thinking of climbing Mount Greylock? Go in the spring, before wealthy Manhattanites descend upon the Berkshires. The muddy trails are speckled with young wildflowers and serenaded by the cries of baby animals emerging from the earth. It’s the same approach you’d take to visiting a landmark restaurant and looking beyond the most popular item on the menu. If you show up at l’Express, the famous Montreal bistro, and there’s a bum rush for duck confit, try the roasted quail or the beet salad. If the meal is tasty, the satisfaction of having dodged the confit crowd will be delicious too.
Of course, a contrarian approach to hiking needs to be bolstered with common sense and an understanding of your limits. If negotiating steep, icy terrain makes your feet clammy, then you don’t want to hike above treeline in the winter. If you’re like me and you don’t fare well in tropical weather, don’t hike on a day when 100 percent humidity is keeping most hikers at home. Avoiding the crowded path is fun until it gets you into trouble. You don’t want to be Homer Simpson watching people storming the local post office on April 15th and going, “Look at those morons. I paid my taxes over a year ago.”
One of my favorite contrarian destinations for New England hiking is almost hidden in plain sight—Cape Cod. During the summer, the vehicle traffic here can immobilize the region and lead to knife fights in the parking lots of fried clam shacks. (I’ve never seen one myself, but I assume it’s happened.) But once the summer throngs retreat, Cape Cod becomes something entirely different. An ethereal sliver of sand-swept maritime heaven, full of lonely dunes and estuaries and pitch pine woods where hiking can feel as solitary as Inman’s journey home in Cold Mountain. Many of the hotels and seafood joints will be closed, but some remain open for the year-round Cape community and in the case of lodging, the price for a winter weekend getaway here is very reasonable.
Seeking a brief escape from the Omicron variant news and the usual holiday stress, a friend and I decided to decamp for the Cape right before Christmas. We bounced from our respective locales in Western and Eastern Massachusetts, meeting at the expanse of Corporation Beach at dusk. Parking was free and abundant. The beach was near empty. It was just us, the occasional dog walker, and a handful of barnacle-encrusted boulders glistening in the moonlight. Later that evening, after dumping our stuff at a cozy Airbnb in Harwich, we ordered pizzas from Ember (a fancy joint) and George’s (a classic joint) and took them to Bank Street Beach, where we climbed the ladder of a lifeguard tower and wolfed down dinner looking out at the darkest ocean. It was a very quick dinner, due to the Atlantic wind, but it reminded me of the scene in Rebel Without a Cause where James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo break into an old deserted mansion in LA after dark and for a little while, they make the gilded place their own.
Then, we hiked. From the top of Fort Hill—a grassy tuffet of a hill that connects with a Red Maple swamp—we strolled amid puttering rain, posed for pictures on rocks, and observed an absolutely massive tree that loomed over the land for years, only to fall over sometime in the last few years. The owners of the property on which the tree was rooted have thankfully preserved the fallen arbor for all to gawk at. After a quick round of candy at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow, we parked at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, sprinted across Rt. 6 (impossible in the summer) and from the back lot of a shuttered motel, we picked up a little-known trail that took us across the King’s Highway bike path through a lichen-rich forest to an unnamed bluff overlooking the Cape Cod National Seashore. Then, we headed north for the Provincetown Dunes, an otherworldly desert landscape that requires some calf strength to traverse. (Try to recall the last time you climbed a bunch of hills made of loose sand.) We explored the Stony Brook Grist Mill in Brewster, which features a fish ladder for herring, wooden bridges made of planks, and winding paths that brought to mind the world of Tolkien. We tried to hike the John Wing Trail into Quivett Creek Marsh, but by the time we set off toward the marsh, we quickly found that the incoming tide had swallowed the trail.
I won’t pretend that every minute of this was hunky dory. Our boots were full of sand by the end of the day. Our tights were sodden with accumulated sea breeze and flecks of mud. The seacoast wind became more vicious throughout the day, working its way into my jacket pockets. It took us an hour of phone calls to find any restaurant near our crash pad that would sell us fried shrimp and scallops. But eventually, a greasy paper bag was procured and we had ourselves a wonderful contrarian hiking escape.
With a new year ahead of us and so many trails beckoning—from the mossiest borreal woods to the most congested cities—let’s dispense with the notion that hiking is just a seasonal thing. You can hike anywhere, anytime. If you’re game to buck conventional wisdom about when and where the “best” hiking getaways should be taken, there’s no telling what you’ll stumble into. Just make sure it’s not a moose chilling in a bog after dark. I almost bumped into one once, years ago. I can still hear its moist, angry snort.
RECREATE OUR WINTER CAPE HIKING TRIP
FORT HILL (Eastham, MA)
Hike distance: 1.0 mile loop (longer options available)
Elevation gain: 65 feet
Click here for a trail map
UNNAMMED BLUFF (Wellfleet, MA)
Hike distance: 3.2 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain: 62 feet
Click here for a trail map
PROVINCETOWN DUNES (Provincetown, MA)
Hike distance: 2.4 miles loop
Elevation gain: 200 feet
Click here for a trail map
STONY BROOK GRIST MILL (Brewster, MA)
Hike distance: Not really a hike
Elevation gain: Not applicable
Click here for more information
JOHN WING TRAIL (Brewster, MA)
Hike distance: 2.1 miles loop
Elevation gain: 78 feet
Click here for a trail map
Amid the holiday churn, I managed to read The Guide, the latest novel by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Celine.) Heller is in a league of his own when it comes to the literary thriller set outdoors and The Guide is actually a sequel to his 2019 novel, The River, wherein two friends on a canoeing trip in the Canadian wilderness find themselves fleeing a forest fire and strangers with less than noble intent. To give you a sense of how effective The River is, I started reading it one night while enduring a mild flareup of back pain from a sports injury. Two hours later, I was so engrossed that my lumbar ache had vanished, despite my being splayed on a couch in the complete opposite of ergonomic form. A couple of weeks later, I loaned The River to a friend up in Vermont who used to lead canoe expeditions for a summer camp when he was a young adult. To this day, whenever someone brings up The River, he describes it as “a nightmare.” My thoughts on The Guide are a little more mixed, but its release is a good excuse to bring up Peter Heller. If you enjoy being outside, you should check out Heller’s books.
The northeast has been unsettlingly muggy for late December and early January, and the conditions out in Ohio (which isn’t too far away from us) are trending in the same direction. This story from the Dayton Daily News highlights the impact that warmer winter weather has taken on local hiking trails. It’s basically Mud Season come early, with soggy trails being prematurely battered by hikers. I expect that we’ll see similar reports by local media in Southern New England in the weeks ahead. All the more reason to visit hiking destinations that don’t see too much action during the winter.
Finally, I’ve been plowing through the sixth and final season of The Expanse, a brilliant TV series that imagines a future where Earth is a stronghold of wealth, Mars is a quasi-fascist military colony, and the working class harvests minerals from the asteroid belt. The long-simmering cold war between these factions gets hot, and we see the conflict metastasize through an unlikely band of comrades aboard a salvage ship called the Rocinante. There’s been a ton of writing about why you should be watching this show, including this Daily Beast review by my friend and fellow college newspaper alumnus, Nicholas Slayton. But the New England tie-in here is that The Expanse may just be the finest cinematic representation of New Hampshire in decades. Lake Winnipesaukee is re-imagined as a protected colony for the super rich, in one of the best episodes of the show’s fifth season. A new planet, in a new galaxy, is named “Laconia.” I shit you not.