Long before the advent of the cool yurt, the shipping container hermitage and the prefab glamp-shack, a group of solitude-seeking Americans (seasonally) roughed it in tiny, off-grid huts nestled away within a haunting and unpredictable landscape defined by sand, salt and zero amenities.
Located with the Cape Cod National Seashore, a total of 19 tumbledown cabins (18 of them are currently owned by the National Park Service) comprise the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District outside of Provincetown. At first glance, the district, dotted with lonely and rough-hewn dwellings that float above the windswept dunes on stilts, resembles something out of a post-apocalyptic horror film. It's a desolate and eerie place but, unlike the futuristic wasteland it might evoke, these dunes are full of life. The National Park Service describes the otherwordly landscape as “a place of inspiration, contemplation, creativity and solitude.”
And considering the illustrious roster of former dune dwellers — Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Jackson Pollock, Tennessee Williams, Mark Rothko, e.e. cummings and Harry “the Hobo Poet” Kemp, just to name a few — this was also, one would imagine, a place of hard drinking. Before them, Mr. Self-Sufficiency himself, Henry David Thoreau, wandered and wrote in the Cape Cod's harsh, unforgiving and beautiful dunes.
In a new video released by faircompanies, documentarian Kirstin Dirksen is treated to a tour of the Outer Cape’s famed dune shacks. Present-day dune dweller Romolo Del Deo, a sculptor, serves as her guide.
Among other things, Del Deo provides fascinating insight into the history of the dune shacks along with the story of his family’s own super-rustic (“simpler is better”) '70s-era cabin, which was built by hand, as they all were, directly above the remnants of another structure passed on to Del Deo’s father by Jeanne “Frenchie” Chanel. A Broadway showgirl-turned-Provincetown fixture, Chanel first lived in the dunes while vacationing with her friend, a young Broadway ingénue from Lowell, Massachusetts, named Bette Davis. While the Del Deo family's replacement dwelling is still referred to as “Frenchie’s Shack,” the original shack that Chanel built and resided in was slowly buried by the constantly shifting sand.
The site was also once home to a decommissioned Coast Guard station repurposed by none other than Eugene O’Neill as a writing studio. He wrote the "The Hairy Ape" and "Anna Christie" here in the early 1920s.
Basic features of the present-day Frenchie’s Shack include sleeping bunks, a camp stove, cooking accoutrement, lanterns aplenty and a mini-fridge-turned-mouse-proof storage cabinet. Nothing fancy.
Del Deo eloquently speaks of the challenges — and joys — of building primitive shelters in an area dominated by the overwhelming and fickle power of Mother Nature, not by human development:
Instead of the adaptation that society normally makes to basically create the semblance of a contained and controlled environment where nature is sort of held in check, out here, the people who settled out here took an entirely different approach. And the hardy people who built dwellings out here, in a way, almost surfed on the dunes.Dune dwellers live out here in a kind of impermanence, which actually works well. The idea of trying to build a solid house in this shifting sand is not really possible and the best way to deal with the environment is to make an adaptive structure that is able to shift and float on the sand so that if the dunes move away from you one winter your building remains standing.
Del Deo describes life spent outside of the dunes: “… every hour you miss out here — it pains you because you’re missing so much beauty every single day."
Lots more windswept loveliness and reflections on living in harmony with nature can be found in the above video — 15 minutes in and you can almost feel the sand between your toes. This 70-page ethnographic report (PDF) on the dune shacks published by the National Park Service is also worth a look, as is this short Smithsonian article that details the impact that this unique place has had on American art and literature.
Interested in visiting these bare-bones dune dwellings in person? Guided tours of the historic site and the surrounding landscape are a must. For longer sojourns and full-on Thoreau-channeling, lottery-based residency programs (yep, a chosen few can live in some of the shacks for weeks-long stints) are available through a handful of local arts nonprofit groups in conjunction with the NPS.
Anyone who has visited — or even stayed in — the dune shacks care to share their reflections?
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