My younger brother doesn’t recognize me when I walk into the Staples where he works in Hyannis on Cape Cod.
“Can I help you?” he asks as I stand in front of his register.
I just stare at him for a second.
“My name is David Gessner,” I say, hoping this will clear things up.
“Oh my God, you look so old,” he says.
This stings a little, of course, but I know that part of it has to do with the mask I wear, as if I’ve come not to say hello to my sibling but to hold him up. The mask scrunches my habitually scrunched eyes upward, accentuating the wrinkles below my eyes until I’m sure I look a little like the Emperor on Star Wars. Though I still believe in my heart that I am a young man, I am not.
Cape Cod, that stomping ground of my youth and twenties and later thirties, is also a well-known home for retirees, which is the age I’m closing in on. Who knows? Maybe my wife Nina and I will move back here and settle, spending our last years in the place we once thought we would call home. Though the fact that now even relatively modest homes on Cape Cod are out of our price range argues against this.
My brother has, in one way at least, fulfilled my dream, having lived on the cape for close to a decade now. However, his is no pastoral fantasy by the shore. He has had a hard life, marked by battles with his own mind, reduced expectations and, more recently, cancer. Twice I have visited in recent years to be with him during operations.
My brother’s search for home is less metaphoric than mine. He lives in a single room where his landlord periodically threatens to kick him out, and then changes her mind. His roommates have had their own battles and more than one has done time in jail. He has at least one good friend, over in the town of Dennis, and that makes me happy. Earlier in his life, in Austin, Texas, and then again in Boston, he spent some time homeless on the streets. Ironically, he also worked in the housing authority in Boston, winning a prize for his work.
In this seller’s market, landlords are cashing in and leaving renters houseless.
He longs for a new place to live, but good luck. There is no room in the inn called Cape Cod. No homes, no rooms, anywhere, he is told. This on a peninsula where thousands of houses sit empty for ten, sometimes eleven months a year. If you want to see a physical embodiment of income disparity, this is your place. Whole neighborhoods of large homes wait empty through the winter for their summer inhabitants to return. Then the population more than doubles and the large empty houses fill.
The pandemic has made it worse, as it has in so many rural places. The locals have to compete with affluent owners of second or third homes who can now Zoom to work. In this seller’s market, landlords are cashing in and leaving renters houseless. With fewer homes for sale, prices have shot up, a 38 percent increase in median house prices in the last year. Now the average house sold on Cape Cod goes for $630,000.
In contrast, the great Cape nature writer John Hay paid twenty-five dollars an acre for the one hundred acres of so-called worthless woodlot he bought in the 1940s after returning from service in World War II. John died back in 2011, and that woodlot is now conservation land in the town of Brewster.
I have come back to Cape Cod to work on a novel based partly on John, and have spent many hours this week tramping around the land that was once his. It is late May, and as I walk the paths he made by years of hiking, the star whites and mayflowers glisten, rhododendron flowers burst, titmice call to each other. I am pleased that John’s land is now a commons.
John concentrated much of his writing, and thinking, on the search for home, and our perpetual failure to find it. He believed this country, and the world, had become detached from the land, people always on the move. The fact that they had no place to call home also left people morally adrift.
I saw him as a model once, back when I thought there might be a way for me to spend my life wedging down into this sandy land that juts out like a hook into the Atlantic.
“The worst thing we’ve been doing over the past years is to forget about localities,” he told me when I interviewed him for a book I wrote about him. “You forget about localities—individual places—and it’s much harder to find out where you live. When I first moved here, I knew an old Cape Codder who said this place was getting filled up with people who didn’t know where they were. And when you are displaced you start to think everything is money—money is the only purpose for so many people now and they just accept this mindlessly.”
These days John’s ideas might be casually discounted because of his background. A child of affluence, his grandfather and namesake served as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary and Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, and it is true that his concerns about what he called the “vast epidemic of homelessness” were substantially more theoretical than even mine, let alone my brother’s. But he was brave in his own right, choosing an artist’s life that his family found questionable, and committing to his worthless woodlot for over sixty years. I saw him as a model once, back when I thought there might be a way for me to spend my life wedging down into this sandy land that juts out like a hook into the Atlantic. It would have been a good life. But it wasn’t the life I ended up living.
We do not feel safe where we live, my wife and I.
Maybe you know the feeling.
And maybe you, like us, look toward other places with dreamy eyes.
Moves have marked my life. My dark secret as a nature writer is that I didn’t grow up on the shore or in the woods but in Worcester, Massachusetts. During my thirtieth year I moved back to Worcester. The official nickname of the city is “the heart of the Commonwealth,” but some of us prefer the unofficial one: Wormtown. Wormtown seemed an appropriate name that year, since I learned that I had testicular cancer and thoughts of being worm food were never far from my mind during my operation and month of radiation. “I don’t know what’s worse, cancer or Worcester,” I wrote in my journal, and I wasn’t entirely joking.
In Boulder, Colorado, where I moved after Worcester, I grew healthy walking up the trails into the mountains, and then, once I discovered that it was against the law to be out of shape in Boulder County, running up them. Colorado, to borrow a trope from John Denver, was where I was reborn, trying on a new identity as a westerner. I thought I would remain in that state forever.
But Boulder was another failed home.
In early June 2021 I fly there from Cape Cod, or rather fly from Boston to Denver and make my way there. Nina and our daughter Hadley will catch up in a couple of days, but on my first morning back I climb up to the base of the Flatirons and turn back east to watch the sun rise over the plains.
This is done as a tribute not just to the red ball that is rising, but to a good friend. It has been quite a year for death and one of the hardest for me was Reg Saner’s. He died on April 19, during one of the season’s last snowstorms. Reg made it an almost daily practice to hike up to the Flatirons and watch the day begin. One of his books was called The Dawn Collector, and a dawn collector he was.
When I come back down the hill I also come back to my senses. Or maybe, more accurately, I leave my senses up on the hill behind me.
One dawn that Reg, Nina and I shared occurred on September 11, 2001. It was still dark when he picked us up in his truck at the cottage we were renting in Chautauqua. Our destination was the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and had not we stopped on the way at a convenience store (for tampons for Nina, she has allowed me to say) we would not have heard the strange news that a plane had apparently flown into a building in New York. For seven hours, with only a vague sense of what had happened, we hiked to the top of the world. For me this was a moment when nature and disaster became one. We climbed to the Arapaho glacier and then up to Arapaho Peak, which at 13,397 feet was ten times higher than the buildings. It occurs to me now that Reg was seventy-three years old when he made that nine-mile hike with a three-thousand-foot elevation gain. For the whole day we were both in brilliant light and in the dark. That night, at a pizza place back in Boulder, we finally saw the footage of the planes hitting the towers.
Reg lived close enough to the Flatirons that a short walk would bring him to a spot where he could collect his dawns, staring back toward the treeless plains and Denver to watch the sun emerge. I decide to emulate him during my first two days in town. Dawn, he wrote, “is the rock my church is built on, and such soul as I have is stored sunlight. Through them I feel the depth and range of this world compared to our superficial sense of it.”
This morning, as I watch the red edge of the burning star sneak over the horizon, I couldn’t agree more. The blaze in front of me lights up the landscape behind me. At this hour and in this golden light, the Flatirons feel like a mythic landscape. Thrilled to be here, I find myself scheming and planning on ways to get back, ways to live here, almost forgetting that I am here now.
When I come back down the hill I also come back to my senses. Or maybe, more accurately, I leave my senses up on the hill behind me and return to what we call good sense. If Cape Cod is unaffordable, then this town, where my wife and I met, is impregnable. The median price for a home here makes Cape Cod look like a bargain. During the pandemic, Boulder home prices increased by 50 percent. It now costs, on average, 1.55 million dollars to live where you can walk up the hill to see the sun rise over Denver. “Our houses made more than we did,” Reg used to say, referring to the appreciation of his home, bought in the sixties, and those of other longtime professors at the University of Colorado.
Smoke from the fires is everywhere, the place a blur, and never has it been so dry and hot.
The sun continues to rise as I climb down. In retrospect, my years in the West seem idyllic, though as I get older I’m inclined to argue that “in retrospect” is the only time when idylls exist. I am not prepared for what I find the next day when I push off from Boulder to points west. The stated reason for my journeys is a book tour, and at many of the stores I visit, mine is the first in-person talk since the pandemic, people coming cautiously out of their caves. But fairly quickly I see that my real purpose is not to shill for an old book but to report for a new one. And what I find, as I travel through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, is startling. I think I have seen it all, but I haven’t.
Smoke from the fires is everywhere, the place a blur, and never has it been so dry and hot. I do mean never, or at least never since the great drought that altered civilizations seven hundred years ago. Once, while stopping by the side of the road, I pick up a dry clump of dirt and crush it in my fingers. It rains down like dust, and provides a pretty good stand-in for the region itself.
I chat with my neighbor in a diner in Paradise, California, where the new Dixie fire looms nearby. He tells me he lost his home back in the fire in 2018, which killed eighty-four people here. The fire hit two months after Florence made landfall in our town. Soon we are disaster buddies. I ask him if he is going to evacuate.
“We’ll see,” he says. “It all depends on the wind.”
On the way back to Boulder, on the same day I cross the Colorado River, Nina calls from back home in North Carolina to tell me that the first tropical storm of the season is about to hit. We have now lived in coastal Carolina for almost twenty years, by far the longest we have lived anywhere. Looking back, our times in Colorado and Cape Cod were relatively short stints.
Living as I do on the Carolina coast, and traveling the West during the summers, I have long been struck by the way that eastern hurricanes and western wildfires mimic each other in this age of crisis. I have found that people use the same apprehensive language as the fire or hurricane seasons (coming ever earlier) approach. There is a sense of anticipatory dread.
This is the earliest storm of this sort on record. When we first moved to North Carolina, hurricanes came occasionally, and did not feel as threatening. Back then Nina and Hadley would evacuate and I would stay behind and ride them out, and there was a kind of thrill to the experience. Now the thrill is gone. Everything changed with Hurricane Florence in 2018. What was once occasional feels annual, at the very least, as every summer we ready ourselves. Ready ourselves for what? For the possibility that our lives will be washed away.
Coming down into the valley of my former home of Boulder has always provided a moment of lift for me due to the sight of the distinctive foothills. Not this time. When I drive in it is as if the Flatirons have grown shy. They are nowhere to be seen, hiding behind a veil of smoke.
The noxious air and smoke obscure not just the Flatirons but the Rockies behind them. For a while people have been saying that Boulder is ruined: too rich, too crowded, too white. Despite this, I have clung to a romantic vision of this place where I got healthy again. But now the air itself is poison. It is getting harder to find any places you can feel safe.
Usually leaving this place fills me with regret. But this time when I board the plane in Denver I am ready.
Like so many of us, I just want to go home