Smack dab in the center of Cape Ann--Massachusetts’ “other cape”--is Dogtown Commons, over 3000 acres of storied wilderness full of glacial erratics, abandoned colonial foundations and legendary tales of witches, wild dogs and wonderment.
Dogtown Road, Dogtown Commons
I learned of Dogtown Commons shortly after, as a single mother, I began to bring my young daughters out to Cape Ann for vacations. Dogtown, the guidebooks said, was not to be entered without a compass, ideally without a guide and certainly not without notifying family members you were going in. And because it had been the scene of a brutal murder in 1984, gruesomely described and painstakingly reported in Elyssa East’s excellent 2009 book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, I was never inclined to bring my daughters there, though I was mighty curious about the place.
But Dogtown has changed (a little) and my daughters are young women now and this year, during my visit to Cape Ann, I ventured past the desolate gate that separates the wild from the working class suburban.
The cover of Elyssa East's book
I went in.
I didn’t really expect to have the kind of spine-chilling sense of being followed that East describes in her book. I didn’t expect to see the strolling, black-caped warlock or the confounding teepee structures she saw. After all, her forays into Dogtown were in the naturally-more-mysterious autumn, when the tourists were gone—not that Dogtown itself has any--and the native eccentricity of Cape Ann is more apparent. (I’ve lived there in the off season and seen how the local culture supports it anomalies and eccentrics with tenderness and tolerance.)
Nevertheless, I went into Dogtown Commons with caution. Because it is easy to get lost there. It has been home to its share of oddballs and loose screws. And it’s a wild place, despite being surrounded on the periphery of the island by civilization. So I went in on high alert, channeling the sheer, subtle awareness of Buddha after he awakens.
But there is another strange aspect to Dogtown. During the Depression, Roger Babson, entrepreneur, business theorist and founder of Babson College in Wellesley (as well as tenth-generation of the Gloucester Babsons), took it into his head to hire unemployed stone-cutters from Cape Ann’s granite industry. He sent them into Dogtown to carve into the larger glacial boulders inspiring (?) and preachy admonitions to living the moral life. I’d long known that you could climb through the thick undergrowth of the barely perceptible pathways and see stones inscribed with eight-inch, bold font directives such as “Industry,” “Initiative,” “Integrity” as well as the more pointed supposed verities such as “When Work Stops, Values Decay,” “Prosperity Follows Service” and “Help Mother” (and I confess I rather like that last one).
Honestly, I’d never cared to see the Babson boulders. I’d wanted to experience the more raw and austere Dogtown, the scarier Dogtown where maybe I might catch sight of a warlock in a black cape. So when I entered the Commons a week ago and found myself espying the boulders, I was initially disappointed. Oh. These, I thought. “Kindness.” Sigh. “Truth.” What of it? Pontius Pilate asked Jesus what truth was and Jesus said nary a word. And these trees wouldn’t talk.
Then I walked some paces onward, tripping over stones (and it’s impossible not to trip in Dogtown, shifting, stony terrain that it is), the sun at noon, and I realized I was lost. Not lost exactly. But not found, either. The paths and the non-paths all look alike. There was nothing otherworldly happening. But it wasn’t comforting, either, this possible lost-ness. The locals don’t tend to swarm Dogtown. The tourists largely don’t know about it. There is no well-trod way.
And then I saw another boulder. I couldn’t see if it said anything. There were plenty of speechless boulders. I walked around the other side. And it said “Work.”
I wasn’t lost. I was on the path, as such a path it was.
And I began to see an uncomfortable irony: that the preachy, moralizing Babson who’d sent his hired workers to bastardize maxims in granite was now providing not a moral compass (I don’t need to be told “Never Try, Never Win”), but an actual verbal compass as I made my way through this small patch of strange wilderness.
Rocking an erratic
I felt an odd gratitude for the notations. But on emerging safely from the Commons, I felt an even stronger desire to re-enter a less prescriptive Dogtown—if only the one in my own head or heart—where I have subtler guides than clobbered boulders to help me chart my own paths.