Ocean View Drive summer 1979.
When I was 13, I spent most of the summer on Cape Cod. My parents were dealing with a situation from which I was a distraction, so they dropped me and my ten-speed in South Wellfleet with my aunt.
My aunt was disagreeable, but she liked me and for the most part we got along. I don’t have recollections of spending much time with her, although I’m sure I assisted her with errands and chores in the mornings. It was her habit to take a long nap in the afternoon, turning in after lunch and arising by the evening news. Her naps were bookended with vodka cocktails. At the time, I was somewhat oblivious to what that meant, but I knew they enabled me to have afternoons to myself, and I set out exploring.
Red Panasonic ten-speed, 1979.
Even before I’d arrived in Wellfleet, I’d begun taking increasingly long bike rides. In retrospect, it was a way to burn adolescent energy, but more it was a way for me to keep a distance from parts of my life I didn’t know how to confront. That summer, my rides started with trips into Wellfleet Center where, in a form of proto-cruising, I’d do circles around town looking for — but never finding — connection. Gradually I pushed into Truro over Old County Road, and eventually worked up the courage (and maybe the strength) to venture the eighteen miles into Provincetown.
A constant of these rides was the stretch of Ocean View Drive from LeCount’s Hollow to Long Pond Road. I developed complicated fantasies about living year-round at the Surf Side Cottages, a collection of Modern summer houses never intended for winter habitation. I remember vividly stopping at a specific point, shooting a photograph with my Instamatic camera, and deciding two things: I was going to live on Cape Cod and I was going to be a landscape painter.
Lacking depth of field, Ocean View Drive, summer 1979.
The photograph was a failure. Lacking sufficient depth of field, the lens captured nothing of the landscape’s undulation or subtlety. My declaration about my intentions to live on Cape Cod and paint was received with similarly weak depth of field. I was told my aspirations were impossible: there were no jobs on Cape Cod and, more surprising to me at the time, that ‘artists were queer.’
My family was conservative, and casual racism, sexism, and religious bigotry were common. Hippies were hated. And as I entered adolescence there was an increasingly evident intolerance for gay people. In my own obliviousness, I’m not even sure I knew what gay people were. But on my bike rides to Provincetown, I now had my eyes peeled for them.
I’ll never know how conscious my parents (and aunt) were of my sexuality, and if their response to my emergent self-discovery was intended as a warning or simply casual homophobia and bourgeois anti-bohemianism. But they had an impact. For the next thirty-years, my decisions about my life and career would always ping-pong between risk-taking and a stifling concern about security. In my early 30s, I dated a man who didn’t like Provincetown and I fell out of the habit of visiting Cape Cod. While Provincetown remained part of my imagination, mostly through literature, I didn’t visit for a dozen years. But when I did return in 2011, the land spoke to me as clearly as it had when I was 13. I knew I had to live and work here.
Uncle Tim’s Bridge, Wellfleet Center, summer 1979.
Even then I was cautious, arriving not as a painter but as an aspiring writer. Although I’d long ago left my ten-speed behind, I was still running. A decade in, I’m starting to see that immersion in this place and its culture — and an ability to be present to it in a full way — has allowed me to become more of who I am, more of whom I’ve always known myself to be but resisted for propriety’s sake. And I’ve learned — am learning — to confront many of the parts of my fate, parts of myself that have long vexed me. Maybe most importantly, I’m learning to integrate the skills I’ve amassed and apply them in ways that feel grounded rather than always feeling like acting on my values is somehow disruptive or subversive or naughty.
Ocean View Drive, 18 October 2021.
It may be directly from this experience that I’ve learned never to belittle an aspiration. The assertion that something is impossible is usually a projection — a sign of the weakness and the sense inadequacy held by the speaker. As kids we don’t know this, and even as a teacher when I started to make it my habit to encourage the pursuit of ‘crazy ideas,’ I wasn’t consciously aware of my rebellion against the damage wrought by my elders. Big, unwieldy dreams aren’t straight lines to be drawn, but rather are usually puzzles to be sorted or system in need of creation. And while it’s an old saw, it’s the discover from those process of reflection and creation that make life worth living.
Ocean View Drive still inspires, still draws something out of me. These days I’m most likely to drive it rather quickly on route from one place to another. Yesterday, I stopped and walked a long stretch of it. I felt young, and it made me miss my ten-speed.
Ocean View Drive, 18 October 2021
The best photo I could find of me at 13. Taken in April 1979.
Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod is a fundraiser to support Provincetown Commons’ artist studios, co-working facility, meeting spaces and exhibition gallery. Please donate at our website: https://www.provincetowncommons.org/fieldguide-walkingandpaintingcapecod