A century and a half ago, Henry David Thoreau found Cape Cod to be a hardy outpost. In his view, it locked residents in a grim existential battle with the ocean. (To be fair, the first thing Thoreau saw when he reached the “bare and bending arm of Massachusetts” were bodies being recovered from a shipwreck.)
Today it’s been tamed into a classic American pleasure park of beaches and little family joys, including mini-golf courses, ice cream parlors, and a drive-in theater. The modern Cape deserves a summer-vacay whirl, and when you take it, don’t forget to try candlepin bowling.
A sub-100 standard bowler myself, I decided there was nothing to lose during our five days in the seaside town of Dennis this week. We cruised over to Cape Bowl, one of several bowling alleys here offering the candlepin variety.
We walked in to see 12 of the 20 lanes set up with tall, straight pins. Only eight were regular pins—but those lanes were busy. “Guys, we only have candlepin available right now,” the counter guy said apologetically. He went on to describe candlepin as “a New England thing, a regional thing…kind of a dying art.”
But “regional thing”—exactly! In an age of American homogenization, people shuttle between states and accents fade out. A regional thing was just what we wanted to try.
First surprise: the balls were the size of grapefruits, and not much heavier. There were no finger holes—I was told to just hold and heave. For a woman especially, the light weight felt freeing. And gutters were regular-size, which meant sometimes I got the fun of a gutter ball skipping back up and taking out an end pin.
Second surprise: I got three rolls per frame, and the knocked pins didn’t get cleared between rolls. The counter guy called these pins “dead wood” and promised they could be helpful.
And by the fifth frame, both little bonuses paid off. I hit all but two pins on the first roll, nothing on the second—then, on the third crack, blasted two far-apart pins with the help of some “dead wood.”
So why hasn’t candlepin bowling taken off beyond New England and Eastern Canada, virtually the only places it’s played? When I scored 56 on my first game, and only 78 by my third, I understood: it’s inconsistent. The not-so-tippy pins are six inches apart, and the results are wacky.
Later I read that a perfect candlepin game has never been played; the highest score ever has been 245. Of course pros would prefer a game in which the pins tumble easily, and the big question is whether they’ll strike or spare. But for those of us who take our score less seriously, candlepin is fun.