“Why would anyone want to read a booklet about a walk in the woods?” my wife asked one autumn day, as we strolled the leafy cart-roads of Dogtown.
“It's a little more than a walk in the woods,” I replied.
Dogtown is 3600 rock-strewn acres, nearly five square miles that straddle Gloucester and Rockport, in Cape Ann Massachusetts. Heavily wooded, it is home to two reservoirs, two big swamps, and 5,000 varieties of vegetation. It is a protected municipal watershed where development is forbidden. It is laced with trails - actually four abandoned roads and several cowpaths - that encourage walking. Still, Dogtown is rarely accessed and has the aura of desertion.
Dogtown's sleepy lanes are lined with stone walls and its roadsides dotted with ancient cellar holes, all bearing evidence of a town that time forgot. Some of these cellars are marked by numbered stone tablets which record who lived there. More mysterious, many huge boulders are carved with messages such as “Be Clean” and “Help Mother” - a peculiar hobby of the philanthropist Roger Babson who donated more than a thousand acres of Dogtown to the city of Gloucester.
Geological curiosities are revealed at every bend. The enigmatic Whale's Jaw and Peter's Pulpit were considered remarkable rock formations in the 19th century. A gigantic terminal moraine, piled with thousands of massive boulders, drew comment from Henry David Thoreau.
I first heard of Dogtown fifty years ago when, in my youth, I visited my Aunt El, who vacationed on Cape Ann. She told exciting stories about this “other Cape” and the rugged life of early settlers. Years later I taught a social studies unit to my third graders entitled, “Rockport by the Sea.” The lesson emphasized the contrast between the economics of the ocean and the land -- another piece of the Dogtown puzzle. Dogtown, a popular song Harry Chapin recorded in 1972, echoed in the back of my mind.
When I moved to Gloucester in the late 1970s, I explored the Cape by bicycle and on foot. My daughters and I discovered the blueberry patches in the central Cape and often talked of mysterious Dogtown. In the fall of 1986 my daughter Amy's sixth-grade class took a walk into Dogtown and my curiosity was rekindled. I learned about Dogtown's denizens: the farmers, the witches, the shepherds, the painted ladies and the starving widows. Soon afterwards, I set out on a twenty minute walk into Dogtown with daughter Jill. We trudged home, tired, but bemused, some three hours later.
At first, the abandoned inner Cape is uninviting. It seems remote and faintly forbidding. It retains the aura of a place that has seen both better times and sadder times. Perhaps ghost towns are an acquired taste -- a mixture of peace and mystery and melancholy. The casual stroller often feels like a trespasser, if not in the legal sense, at least in the sense of intruding on a bereaved stranger.
In 1896, Charles Mann wrote a guidebook entitled, In the Heart of Cape Ann. He described Dogtown this way: Almost like the explorer in the famous city of Pompeii, the walled ruins of Dogtown draw the curious and speculator to the wonders of what was, and what might have been. Comparable to the English moors, amidst quarry and berry, Dogtown offers much to many, and yet withholds a great deal to most. The deserted village is the excitement and thrill of desolation and abandonment.
Perhaps he, like me, was replying to a reproach from his wife. And perhaps she was right: people may not want to read about a walk in the woods. But Dogtown is so much more than a walk in the woods.