Beholding the Outer Beach for the First Time

Jul 4, 2017

The first time I ever saw the Outer Beach was in the spring of 1962—April, I think—when I was nineteen. My freshman roommate at Harvard was John Hagenbuckle, whose father ran one of the dozen-or-so sailing camps that dotted the inner shores of Pleasant Bay in those days.

John and I left Cambridge sometime after eleven at night, driving in John’s old VW Bug. There was a full moon and no other traffic on Route 3 for most of the way down.  Somewhere around Plymouth, having seen no other cars for some time, John turned off the headlights and we drove for several miles by the light of the moon. It was like entering another world.

We stayed that night in one of the camp cottages in South Orleans. The next day a late-spring northeaster strafed the land, whipping up a wild surf that assaulted the beach. We drove out to Nauset Beach, buttoned up in the foul weather gear that John had provided, and shouldered our way against the wind and rain out of the parking lot and through a gap in the dunes. When I first beheld that wild beach, it overwhelmed whatever anticipations or expectations I might have had. My reaction was totally unexpected and, at the time, inexplicable: I turned full front to the ocean, raised both my arms—and began to conduct. I waved my arms out and in, up and down, in rough time to the surf’s irregular rhythm. Of course, I was conducting nothing. Even then I felt that the ocean was something that took absolutely no cognizance of me. If anything, it was I who was being conducted by the sea, trying to catch its rhythms and tempo, trying, awkwardly, to become a part of its overwhelming majesty.

Now, at a distance of more than five decades, my reaction seems understandable, even predictable. The only thing in my life thus far that was at all commensurate to what I was experiencing on that beach was symphonic music, mostly the Romantics: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, and Sibelius—especially Sibelius. I had spent much of my adolescent years in West Virginia in our family’s darkened pine-paneled basement rec room listening to 33 1/3 LP recordings of those composers on my Motorola portable stereo with detachable speakers.

It was my drug of choice in those pre-drug days, my substitute for sex in those pre-sex days. I would often stand in front of the turntable, conducting the music in the dark as a way of becoming part of it. It called forth a depth of emotional and psychic response unlike any I had ever experienced, or would—until that day on the beach. Like the music, but of vastly larger proportions, the storm waves gave me the sense of illimitable power and irresistible force, of lavish, inexhaustible beauty, the mix of desire and fear, all held within laws, patterns, and a sense of order too vast and complex for my adolescent mind to recognize, let alone understand, but which I nevertheless felt deeply.

I stood on the brink of something that could, if I overstepped its bounds, swallow me up instantly, annihilate me utterly, but which, if I showed the proper respect, caution, and patience, might tolerate me, not shut me out, and perhaps eventually might even allow me an audience with its august presence. My awkward attempts at conducting, I can see now, were unconscious and instinctive, an homage, a recognition of a power I had never encountered before, and a desire to, somehow, be a part of it.

Robert Finch’s latest book, just published, is "The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore.”  Bob will be reading from his new book this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Provincetown Public Library.