To get from the truck to the door of our friend’s apartment building, we have to walk beneath a mammoth pine tree. Even though I’m a bit loaded down with our overnight bags, a soft sided cooler from Wegman’s, my purse and a fistful of car keys, I must stop below this conifer’s fragrant branches and inhale deeply, taking in as much of that sharp piney smell as my nose and lungs can possibly hold. Turning slightly, I look over my shoulder at the northernmost ridge of the Black Hills, and finally exhale. Slowly. This moment must not be rushed.
Two hours later, the apartment is filled with the aroma of a full Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner, complete with biscuits, coleslaw, and gravy for the mashed potatoes. I’m immediately flashing back to a childhood memory of us in the car with dad on the way back from our neighborhood KFC, the cardboard bucket of chicken with us in the back seat and dad telling us sternly not to take all the smell out of it. In our tender youth, we believed such a thing was possible (yet suspected he might be teasing) and played along, taking deep lungfuls of those secret seven herbs and spices.
On this weeklong-plus road trip west, our days have been filled with a diverse variety of aromas that our brains are tucking away in the part that links olfactory to memory, waiting patiently to be called forth again the next time someone burns a generous handful of dried cedar or sage, lights up an American Spirit, sautées onions in oil on a propane cook stove, or cuts fistfuls of sweet grass covered in dew. It’s also impossible to forget the lingering smell of a newly-fertilized cornfield as we drive past its vast acreage behind a rumbling diesel-y 18-wheeler on our way through Illinois. I wonder how the nose sorts this all out and make a promise to do the research when we get home.
If you’ve read the last two blog posts, you may recall mention of our initial destination where hand dug latrines we’re part of the camping experience. I won’t be too detailed here or indelicate, as some of you may be reading while eating. But I can say that this year, some genius put a bale of wood shavings in one of the outhouses for us to use after each visit, scooping a large cupful or two (sometimes three, depending on the outcome of that particular visit) into the dark pit to keep the inevitable lingering smells at bay, and darn it if it didn’t work beautifully. As primitive toileting experiences go, I have to say this was the most pleasant one so far. Another flashback: I’m in northern Nicaragua near the Honduran border with my 21 fellow delegates and half a dozen young militia men on the porch of an abandoned schoolhouse. There’s one pit toilet in a small shack and we’ve done it justice for nearly six days. On our last night there, we’ve taken to wearing our bandannas around our faces like bandits just long enough to get in there, get the job done, and hurry out into the fresher evening jungle air. No one thought to bring wood shavings, though our delegation’s nurse did make a valiant attempt to soften the blow with her spray bottle of perfume. Rather futile, like tossing bricks into the Grand Canyon, but we appreciated the effort, and enjoyed the hilarious visual of her rapid masked exit from the toilet shack, pumping that little spritzer bottle for all it was worth. It’s fun when the senses work together like that on a memory.
Add to this list of smells the delicate scent of a steeping mug of green tea, my husband’s spicy shaving cream, the minty blast of that recommended pea-sized dollop of toothpaste first thing in the morning, and the faint drift of someone’s well-traveled socks that need to go to the trash bag holding the rest of our dirty laundry (like, now), and I’d say we’ve done an excellent job noting and tracking this trip’s aromatic buffet.
Its hard to find a postcard to commemorate that part of a summer road trip (which wouldn’t work anyway, unless it’s a scratch-n-sniff), but we’re fine with that. We’ve got all the right memory triggers waiting for us when we get home—dried cedar and sage, diesel-y farm tractors, a KFC in town and a towering blue spruce right next to where we park the garbage bin at the end of the driveway.
Take a deep breath. Aaaaand…exhale.