Heading home for the evening after another stressful day. The work isn’t terrible but it can be oppresive doing the same thing too many times in a row. I sit in my car cruising at 64 mph down I-405. It’s an early Fall evening about 7:02pm. The HOV lane has just opened to all traffic so I pull over. My car just hit a decade and has that not entirely pleasant old-car smell. A mixture of Lysol, dust, plastic, and ancient French fries still stuck under the seat. Lysol dominates the smells, trying to hide the others. It reminds me of the smell of hospitals; somewhat sterile but not quite masking the unpleasantness beneath. The radio is playing another boring song. I would turn on something but I haven’t updated my iPod with anything recent in a while and I don’t feel focused enough to listen to a lecture. It’s getting cool fast as the sun is going down and I have a hard time adjusting the air to not be too cold or too warm. Finally I crack my window.
Something changes. The subtlety of the smells that assault me is arresting. “Smells” is a terrible word — the scents, the aromas, the feel of the night that I can’t see and can’t touch. It’s Fall; I smell the trees — you always smell the trees here at night — but it’s richer than usual. I also pick up one of the first wood-smoke smells of the year. There’s something about the mixture of the coniferous trees (a constant here) and the now, barely-turning deciduous trees. It’s a faint scent of decay but a decay that’s all part of the life-cycle for these trees. It doesn’t smell of death, it smells of change, of transition, of eventual transformation. None of this is new — I’ve experienced it before but not for a year. I’ve forgotten — completely forgotten what a joy this is.
As I head by the Kirkland exits I see two colorful hot air balloons hanging low over the valley. They’re catching the light as the sun is setting. I consider trying to take a picture. I stop myself — why bother? There’s something in this setting I could never recreate. It’s not the look of the thing, it’s the environment, it’s the sensations I’m feeling as I look at this. A picture is about as inane as purchasing a Yankee Candle called “Northwest Nights”. It simply cannot compare.
It’s 7:16 as I come up on Bellevue. Bits and pieces of scents are still recognizable but as traffic picks up and the large diesel semi’s roll by I’m confronted with too many unpleasant, harsh, mechanical smells. This is a city and the trees can’t compete here with the concrete and glass and perpetual productivity. This smell of progress might mean good things for the economy but it’s not welcome right now. Too much of today was spent focusing on producing, expanding, producing. I hurry past.
It’s still built-up here but the trees are back. I catch fragmented aromas from restaurants — I can’t possibly recognize the detail but some of it is familiar. Little shards of memories in my brain are activated as my olfactory receptors bind with the incoming molecules. For me, my sense of smell has always produced the most distinctive memories. In our world of digital photos, streaming video, and iPods, it’s easy to cloud old memories through constant re-stimulation as we dig through our old albums, watch the same movie again or up that play count on our favorite song. I have no words for the smells I’m experiencing. I’m like a mute wine connoisseur trying to express not just the relative goodness or badness, but trying to define the thing. It seems impossible. How can I be smelling wood smoke that reminds me of specific memories from when I was 6 when I have no idea what type of wood, how this smell differs from the myriad of others, or why this particular memory has become so ingrained with this smell? A segment of the odor gamut (such as the broad category of all smoke smells) doesn’t map to a correlating range of memories but is instead somewhat chaotically tied to various random memories. The relationship seems one-way: I can’t pull up a memory and re-imagine the odor. Only the other way around.
It’s 7:27 as I sweep through the Renton “S-curves”. This isn’t the first night that I’ve escaped into this fragrant world and I know what to expect here. Somewhere in the valley just south of Lake Washington there must be a coffee production plant. The smells are heavenly. I’ve always liked the smell of coffee but something about the intensity that I’m experiencing is so much greater. Momentarily as I continue driving along the highway, the trees, the grass, the smells of the highway itself are all gone and replaced by this warm smell that pervades everything.
My head feels light and I realize I’m hyperventilating through my nose as I try to take it all in. With a pang of loss, the scents retreat and I switch my attention back to driving as I wrap around the Valley Highway clover-leaf ramp and head south down the valley.
Did I say that the coffee was my favorite part? The valley has its own pleasures. With limited agricultural intermixed with large warehouses in the valley I move away from the hilly, rocky, mountain smells of the massive conifers and now pick up wafts of grass, small patches of crops. I distinctly smell pumpkins as I drive past: one of the smells that I know distinctly but experience infrequently enough to still have it remain far from ordinary. A field of cows causes a burst of synapses as many memories flood through my consciousness. Not the most pleasant scent but it’s not about that — the memories — it’s the memories which are making this so extraordinary.
Puyallup is only a few miles away now. More deciduous trees here and that early-Fall, mildewy smell rolls in again. It’s a bit colder now and the left side of my face feels slightly numb from the constant exposure to the turbulent wind through the window. I briefly roll the windows up and turn the heat on. I regret it instantly. The blast of burning dust and filtered engine smells wipes everything. I’m warm now but everything starts disconnecting and the memories fade out. I drop the windows again and turn the heat off. This is worth the cold.
As I dodge traffic up South Hill and hit the exit ramp, I realize that this is coming to an end. With the decrease in speed and the noisy, exhaust-laden traffic on Meridian I’ll barely be able to differentiate anything. I roll the windows up again and turn on the radio. Appropriately, a sad song is playing. I commiserate with the artist as I head due south down Meridian. When I take a left on 136th I realize I have one last unpolluted mile. I enjoy the smell of horses from the one remaining farm on the road, faint but still there. Nestled so close to the homes around me, I can smell the dinners of families. Some good, some not so good, but all with that unique signature. I don’t know if I’ve eaten any of the meals but they remind me of so many dinners growing up.
It’s 7:56. Finally, I’m home. The trip is over and I have to end this now. I roll into the garage, grab my bag and head in. And then it hits me. The best scent of them all — it’s that eerily unique smell of your own house. Work was rough but tonight, God is good.