Most Americans have heard of Cape Cod, and a large number have been there. Much of the Cape is astonishingly beautiful, with great beaches along its 70 or so miles. I’ll begin with a bit of advice: Don’t go there between Memorial and Labor days. Too darned many people for comfort, and way too many vehicles on the few roads.
My riding buddy, Dick, has a house near Cape Cod on the west side of Buzzards Bay, which is delightfully uncrowded. The bay itself is about 25 miles long, separating the southwest portion of Cape Cod from the Massachusetts mainland. It actually should be called Osprey Bay, as some colonist 300 or so years ago mistook the large ospreys for buzzards.
Dick and I met when we were six, and I learned to ride when Dick bought a Harley 125. We were 15, not of an age to get a license, and we had to ride the bike in the woods behind our houses. So I blame him for all my motorcycling travails.
I showed up late in May for a visit of a couple of nights, and he thought it would be good to take a run out to Provincetown before the tourists descended. We rode off in the morning, Dick on his Honda ST1300 and me on a BMW R 1200 RT, along with his wife Jane on her Burgman mega-scoot. The weather looked a little blustery, but we had rain gear, and were going to meet a friend who has lived on the Cape all his life.
Fortunately a nearby Interstate has removed most of the traffic from old U.S. Route 6, a basic road that connects Mattapoisett, Marion and Wareham with the Cape. The Cape was technically made an island when the Cape Cod Canal was built, just before World War I. It is a simple cut-through, just seven miles long, but it shortens a sea trip from New York to Boston by more than 130 miles. Some 14,000 small boats and big ships use the canal every year.
I wanted a good look at the three bridges that span the canal, so we stopped at the railroad bridge, farthest south. It’s what is known as a vertical lift design, with a center portion more than 500 feet long, and two 271-foot towers that can lift that center bit 135 feet above the water. Trains used to run all the way to Provincetown, from 1873 to 1938, but now only go as far as Hyannis.
We couldn’t ride over that one, so we continued on U.S. 6 past the Bourne Bridge, going north to cross the canal on the Sagamore Bridge. Both the Bourne and Sagamore are four-lanes, with steel arch construction that arcs 135 feet over the canal. I presume that, like truck drivers knowing the height of their rigs so they can drive safely under bridges, ship captains know the same.
On a summer Sunday evening these bridges can be backed up for hours with tourists trying to get home and be at work on Monday. All three bridges were improvements on older structures, and were built in the 1930s as projects to keep people employed as we struggled out of the Great Depression. Good things can come out of bad times.
Viewed on a map, the Cape looks like an arm with a 90-degree turn at the elbow, and locals refer to the upper-arm portion (the fatter part) as the upper Cape, while the skinny forearm leading to P’town is the down Cape, or outer Cape. On the upper Cape the main road is U.S. 6, mostly four lanes running inland, with State Route 28 skirting the southern shore. But the most fun is Route 6A, going along the north shore, which is where Dick led us. This is the Old King’s Highway, though I’m not sure which king is being referred to, and it passes through the oldest towns on the Cape. Like Sandwich, founded nearly 400 years ago by colonists from Plymouth Colony, up the coast a ways.
Today this road is a delight, winding slowly through towns like Barnstable, Yarmouth and Brewster, with many houses and buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries and antique shops everywhere. Tourism is the main source of income on the Cape these days, and all these places have been spiffed up nicely.
Near Barnstable we stopped by the house of Captain Harvey, a very experienced sailor with a Coast Guard Master License, as well as a life-long motorcyclist. Jane had to turn back, as she was expecting grandkids at the house. Having spent his life on the Cape, Harvey is familiar with all the roads (there are not that many) and knows lots of history. We trickled eastward toward Orleans, where Route 6A ended and headed north on U.S. 6, the only road of note on the outer Cape.
The whole of the eastern side of the Cape on this portion is now the Cape Cod National Seashore, 40 miles of Atlantic coast stretching from Chatham to P’town, and even extending to the bay side at Wellfleet. President
Kennedy, whose family has an estate in Hyannis, understood that without some protection this breathtakingly lovely part of the country would soon be overwhelmed by real estate agents and wealthy people looking for their own little piece of paradise. The park has done well, preserving both nature and history, and leaving most of the traffic on U.S. 6.
We decided to get to P’town, have lunch, and then dawdle back. At North Truro, effectively a suburb of P’town, a sign for another small stretch of Route 6A appeared and we veered onto a very narrow road lined for mile after mile with new condos along the Cape Cod Bay beaches. The remnants of the old tourist cottages could occasionally be seen, but apparently it was proving more profitable to build 20 two-story rentals than have 10 cottages sitting side-by-side on the beach. Gradually the water views are being cut off to those on the road. A shame!
The narrow streets of P’town were jammed with pedestrians, as the daily passenger ferry from Boston had arrived an hour or so before, discharging several hundred tourists. Being a 90-minute sea voyage, as opposed to a 120-mile drive, it is popular. The three of us rode out to the end of MacMillan Pier that stretches 1,000 feet out into the bay, where the ferryboat was docked. From the pier we had a great view of most of P’town, backdropped by the Pilgrim Monument.
In November of 1620, bad weather forced the Mayflower to drop anchor in what is now P’town harbor, where it stayed for several weeks while the settlers explored the end of the cape. However, the English stole food from the local Nauset Indians, and things did not go well. So the ship sailed off to the mainland, to the place soon to be named Plymouth after the English port from which the colonists had sailed.
Parking motorcycles is always easy, and with that done we went to Harvey’s preferred dining spot, the Lobster Pot. The place is a mixture of locals and tourists. Harvey was greeted as a regular, and my lobster roll was excellent, if a bit pricey. After lunch we headed out to Race Point and the very beginning of transcontinental U.S. 6, where a sign told us that Long Beach, California, was 3,652 miles away.
We turned off to see Wellfleet, a charming small town of some 2,500 on the bay—which swells to 10,000 or more in the summer. In South Wellfleet, on the Atlantic side, Guglielmo Marconi built a radio station that could transmit across the Atlantic to Europe in 1902. However, in recent years the ocean has reclaimed the site, and all that is left are signs put up by the park service.
We stopped to see a couple of lighthouses, and there have been many on the Cape, the first built in 1797. Lighthouses did have their drawbacks, namely fog—if the ship’s crew could not see the light, it did not help much, not even with a loud horn to back up the illumination. Lighthouses have given way to GPS coordinates, but the buildings have an odd romance to them.
Eight of the old lighthouses are open to visitors, from Race Point (that’s a two-mile hike from the parking lot) all the way down to Falmouth. The most accessible is Nauset, a truly classic design some 48 feet tall originally built in 1877. This “Gothic Revival” building has been moved further inland, as it was about to fall into the ocean.
At Orleans, Harvey headed home while Dick and I took Route 28 running south to Chatham, and then east through the heavily populated portion of the Cape around Hyannis. Down at the harbor, cluttered with expensive powerboats and yachts, ferries go off to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Close by the harbor are the Cape Cod Maritime Museum and John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. Twenty miles beyond Hyannis the
road goes past Mashpee, home to the only remaining
Native American tribe on the Cape, the Wampanoag. The 17th century Old Indian Meeting House stands beside
Farther along, at Falmouth, ferries also go out to the islands from nearby Woods Hole. In the summer these ferries are packed, but at last look (steamshipauthority.com) a solo bike does not need a reservation. Things can always change.
Route 28 goes north on the east side of Buzzards Bay, and had we a telescope we could have seen Dick’s house 10 miles across the water. At Bourne, home to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, we crossed the canal on the Bourne Bridge and rode back to Dick’s place on U.S. 6. Then it was back down to Mattapoisett, and a swim in Buzzards Bay. A good ride, at the right time of year.