Sunrise bursts through overcast skies lighting up the Fowler Dune Shack, my refuge for a week.
Roe Osborn Sunrise bursts through overcast skies lighting up the Fowler Dune Shack, my refuge for a week.

The National Seashore dunes in Provincetown, Mass., are home to a collection of shacks built decades ago as small seasonal cottages by artists and their families wishing to get away from the bustle of town life or looking for inspiration in remote rolling dunes. These Dune Shacks—most now owned by the National Seashore—have stood against massive storms with fierce, wind-driven salty rain and sand.

Winning the lottery. A few of the Dune Shacks are available for the public to stay in. Every year, applications are accepted by the trusts that maintain stewardship of the shacks. Applicants' names are then drawn lottery-fashion for the chance to stay in one of the shacks for a predetermined week.

I’d heard about the Dune Shacks when I first visited the Cape, and since moving here in 2005, I’ve submitted an application by the January deadline almost every year. This year, I hadn’t heard anything by the beginning of summer, so I’d written off my chances. Then at the end of July, an email appeared announcing that I’d been selected for the Fowler Dune Shack for the week of September 29—my birthday—through October 6.

Getting ready. In the weeks leading up to my getaway, I received emails from “Chip,” the gentleman who would be taking us out to the shack. He outlined all of the particulars that this shack had and did not have to offer for the stay. The Dune Shacks are kept up by volunteers who wage a constant battle to keep them at an acceptable level of deterioration. They are off the grid with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Water has to be pumped by hand and carried to the shack for drinking, cooking, and bathing. The Fowler Dune Shack has a small propane refrigerator and a propane stove. The shack also boasts the luxury of a composting toilet along with a wood stove for heat.

My wife, Laurie, was able to come out for the first few days of the stay. The emails also forewarned that all of our “stuff” for the week had to fit in the back of a Toyota pick-up. Civilization (America) is about a 45-minute hike from the shack over steep sandy dunes, so we wanted to bring as much as we could with us to avoid having to hike out to get "forgotten items." With the unpredictability of the fall weather, clothes on our list included everything from bathing suits and flip-flops to heavy jackets and hiking boots. In addition to clothes and food, we also had to bring anything we intended to “work on” during the stay. For me, those things included my camera, my guitar, and materials for writing (longhand).

The trip to the shack. When my birthday arrived, we met Chip at the appointed time and loaded everything into his truck. It all fit easily with room to spare and off we went. The trip out to the shack took about 20 minutes winding slowly through the deep, dry sand of the jeep trail. At the entrance to Fowler’s driveway, a hand-painted sign read “Privacy Please.” Chip backed the pick-up next to makeshift pallets where we unloaded our gear and then he gave us a run through everything we’d need to know for our stay at the Fowler Dune Shack. He showed us where the firewood was kept, both the outdoor stack and the indoor (and dry) stack, as well as how to use the composting toilet and how to use the pump for water.

“Any questions? No? See you in a week!” And he was gone.

Settling in. We unpacked our food and unrolled our sleeping bags on the two twin beds. (Chip mentioned that if it got cool and windy, the overstuffed sofa in the living room in front of the wood stove might be a better place to sleep). After opening a bottle of red wine for my birthday, we sat on the deck long enough to take a deep breath and relax in the warm late summer sun.

Part of Fowler’s amenities was a pair of Adirondack chairs perched on top of a high dune in back of the shack. We did the short climb to the chairs and sat to take in the vistas of the ocean and the rolling dunes all around us. The dune vegetation was pretty spectacular. Thickets of pine and scrub oak gave way to dune grass dotted with golden rod and aster. Black cherry beach plum and rosa rugosa clung to the relative shelter of the shack’s wind shadow. This would be our neighborhood for the week.

The water (the Atlantic) was just beyond the outer dune a couple hundred yards away from the shack. After dinner that first evening, we headed over the dune and let the edges of the waves swirl around our feet as they crashed ashore. The beach extended for miles in both directions, and other than the shore birds and seals, the only other creatures that we could see were two people walking about a mile to the west of us.

Dune shack rhythm. We spent that first evening in the dim lamp light and quiet of our little cottage (a much more friendly and appropriate term than “shack”). No TV or radio—we did have limited cell phone reception, but with no way to recharge our phones, we used them sparingly. When we drifted off to sleep, the night was totally still with just the sound of the surf providing a peaceful background din over the quiet surrounding the shack.

The next morning, we awoke with the sunrise and fixed breakfast in the light of dawn. We had instantly but almost imperceptibly been swept up in the rhythm of the dunes. Days were governed by sunrise, sunset, and the rise and fall of the tides. The weather was not something “outside,” but rather the pervasive environment that wrapped in, around, and through these wonderful little buildings.

And almost instantly we were struck by the inspiration of the clear light and crisp air of the place. We hiked and took hundreds of photos. I wrote—perhaps more than I’d done before in such a short period of time. The creative stimulation was palpable. The photos with this blog are just a peek into what we experienced during our stay.

One of the last sunsets the author was able to enjoy during his stay in the dune shack.
Roe Osborn One of the last sunsets the author was able to enjoy during his stay in the dune shack.

Next up. One of my “goals” for the week was to document the building that is the Fowler Dune Shack, in photos and in writing. I wanted to see how the building went together, its character and unique nature, and the creativity applied by its residents over the decades to simplify Dune Shack life and to help this shack survive decades of abuse by nature. Those writings and photos will be the next installment of my blog. Meanwhile, my whole being seems to be carrying a new-found serenity and peacefulness from my incredible week in the dunes.