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Is Provincetown, Cape Cod the Key West of Massachusetts?

During the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to visit both Key West, Florida, and then, later, Provincetown at the very tip of Cape Cod. The Key West trip had been for a cousin’s wedding, and then my week in Provincetown was to attend a writer’s workshop for which I’d earned a scholarship, at the Norman Mailer Writers Center.

Despite the some 1700 miles between the two, I couldn’t help but find the two places shared a common vibe. I know a big part of it had to be their physical geography, both at far ends of the earth: Provincetown at the curled end of Cape Cod, Key West way out on the far tip of the chain of islands trailing west from the southern coast of Florida like a tail.

And then, of course, there’s the funky vibe. Both have traditionally been havens for artists, and so, organically, have also become LBGTQ-friendly. Author Michael Cunningham calls Provincetown “by nature a destination. It is the land’s end; it is not en route to anywhere else. One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so.” The same, too, can be said of Key West. I can guess that these two locales, such a challenge to get to, had once been at a lower end of the real estate spectrum, and that, combined with their natural aesthetic beauty, called artists like a beacon.

In 2012 I was granted a scholarship to study at the Normal Mailer Writing Center, a week of creative workshops and literary community. Mailer made P-Town, as it’s called, home for most of his adult life, and, after his death in 2007, his stunning red-bricked beachfront home became headquarters of the writing program named for him. I drove the three hours down to the tip of the Cape with my bicycle in tow, and then never used the car the rest of the week. Provincetown is—like two of my favorite European cities, Amsterdam and Copenhagen—a haven for biking. It is, without a doubt, the town’s preferred method of transportation, whether to get from point A to point B or to simply meander along Commercial Street and take in the sights and sounds of this lively, unique utopia.

I rode my bike from my condo to the Mailer House each morning, my readings for the day in a small backpack, the early sun chipping off the ocean and tanning my face. Before workshop, we poured coffee and had pastries and chatted, this writing group of about eight. We stepped out onto the deck and let the fresh salt air wake us. Provincetown is, if nothing else, a town built for socializing and partying, and no doubt some of us had stayed up too late and drank too much. The coffee helped. The air helped. So did the view.

Our workshop was held in Mailer’s living room, surrounded on three sides by books and photos, most of Norman Mailer himself with any number of his celebrity friends and spouses—Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Dick Cavett, and taught by National Book Award winner Sigrid Nunez. The morning workshops were insightful and energizing, but the room’s massive window looked out onto the beach and ocean, just feet away, and I found it hard, almost impossible, to stay focused on the task at hand. How often did my eyes, and then, too, my mind, wander to that window and the scenery beyond?

I spent the afternoons on my bicycle, cruising Commercial Street, visiting the lovely library with its massive reconstructed ship, climbing the steps of the Pilgrim Monument, and touring the broad, nearly endless expanse of remote Race Point Beach. But mostly those afternoons were for pedaling, stopping for lunch or iced coffee, finding a quiet bench to read.

Weeks earlier, in Key West, we strolled bustling Duval Street, its Mecca of shops, bars, and revelers, attention-seekers, not unlike Provincetown’s iconic Commercial Street. And also like P-Town, Key West is colored with a literary hue, in this case it’s the larger-than-life myth of Ernest Hemingway, who called the town home from 1928 until 1939. He wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here, as well as his nonfiction account on Spanish bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, and several short stories including one of his best, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” One afternoon we toured the Hemingway House, with its expansive balconies and lush gardens, the pool and patio out back next to Hemingway’s stand-alone writing retreat. It was hot, Key West in July after all, and Christine took a break from the tour and sat on a bench in the garden, where she found herself garnering the attention of some of the fifty-plus cats that called the estate home, all descendants of Hemingway’s six-toed cat, Snow White. I watched her for a few moments from a balcony, offered a wave, and then went back inside and looked at the bookcases, bowed with weight, and his writing desk, the old Corona typewriter, black and heavy and industrial (I would later purchase my own at an antique shop in Newburyport, Massachusetts).

At night, we drank at Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s old hangout, a dark, corner bar that he frequented so often that he called himself a silent partner and co-owner, drinking and philosophizing away the nights with his ever-growing group of friends and literary colleagues.

A few years later, in 2017, I enrolled in another Provincetown writing workshop, this time at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the nonprofit haven for artists—writers, painters, photographers—to hone their craft through weeklong workshops or even fellowship-supported seven-month residencies. Christine joined me on this getaway and we rented a B+B for the week and, of course, brought our bikes. Again, the car never left the parking lot. I rode across town to my workshop each morning, then met up with Christine in the afternoons somewhere in town. She spent her mornings exploring on her bike or reading books. We found funky spots for lunch, drank coffee, watched the sunlight dazzle on the ocean’s shimmering surface. Rode our bikes some more. Explored the long and winding bike trails that lead out to the most remote ends of expansive Race Point Beach.

Christine’s cousin, Tim, and his husband, Godwin, own a condo in P-Town, not far from the town’s electic center. We met up with them several times that week, sometimes at one of the many inviting outdoor restaurants, once on a bar deck overlooking Cape Cod Bay, once or twice at their condo, sitting in the backyard with the summer sun setting into a warm dusk, their dogs hovering, looking for attention that we were eager to give.

Anthony Bourdain called Provincetown home in the 1970s, when he was a lowly cook, before he was Anthony Bourdain. When he revisited the town on an episode of his travel show Parts Unknown, he said, “[I]t was where I first landed, 1972, washed in a town with a heedful of orange sunshine and a few friends. Provincetown, a wonderland of tolerance, longtime tradition of accepting artists, writers, the badly behaved, the gay, the different. It was paradise.”

Paradise, he called it. And I can’t wait to go back.

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