Scent, Emotion, and the Outdoors

Camp sunsetThe cool, damp air blowing through my kitchen window smelled of water and cut wood, soil and evergreens, reminiscent of morning at the lakeside camp we go to in New Hampshire. I instantly felt a mix of joy and longing, then thought about the journey ahead to the camp this summer. That journey is fifteen hours by car. At the end, the pavement gives way to gravel, then dirt, and the trees close overhead so suddenly it is as if they snapped shut. We plunge into cooler, shaded air: forest air. The car fills with cries of, “We’re here! We’re here!” And with that, we pass through the old, rust-red gate. The must of the forest, herbal and woody, sharpened with the mineral scent of the lake just yards away, fills my lungs and brings me joy. Stress lifts – the stress of job and home and the daily routine and the long drive. I have reached the place where I am most able to relax. Thoughts of this journey, and the feelings that preceded those thoughts, started when I inhaled the scent of the air gusting through my kitchen window one late spring morning in Michigan.

Recently, my family returned from a camping trip to Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As we viewed the upper falls, two hundred feet wide and nearly fifty high, we felt the cool mist prickle against our cheeks. The scent of water was everywhere – in the mist of the falls, in the moist soil by the riverbank, and rising from warm river stones. Even as I was fully present to the impressive and beautiful view of the falls, the scent triggered a surge of anticipation for the New Hampshire trip still to come. I thought about the camp dock, and the beach, and the resin oozing from hemlocks and trapping daddy long-legs that venture into it, looking for a taste. I pictured the rust-red gate and sitting with friends under the trees. I felt almost like I was there.

When we arrived back at home from Tahquamenon and spread our wet tent to dry, the scent of the warm fabric took me to previous camping trips, some long past. This time, the emotional trigger of my sense of smell jarred other sensory memories, especially those of night sounds in the woods – a barred owl asking “Who cooks for you?” in a riverine campground close to home, the click-squeak of bats flitting amongst the trees at dusk, footsteps near our tent that sounded like something big wandering in the wee hours but turned out to be a raccoon, rain pattering against the taught fly as a shower passed overhead, the sharp crack of pine logs in a campfire sending sparks flying toward the shadowy treetops.

Our sense of smell is both immersive and transporting, because it is a gateway to emotion. The olfactory system connects directly to our limbic system, an emotional center of the brain. The cortex, where much of our cognition happens, comes later in the pathway. When we respond to a scent, feeling precedes thinking. So, I feel joy when exposed to certain odors before I can identify the smells or even name what I associate with them. When that happens, just after the joy first leaps within me, I find that I look around for what I might be smelling, and I think about associations with that smell – sights and sounds and adventures I have had.

We collect these sensory experiences as we encounter the world, sorting them, filtering some out, cataloging others. On another recent trip to the Upper Peninsula, my friend and I were nearing our destination in the Les Cheneaux Islands region when a warm, spicy, evergreen smell poured in through the car vents. “Do you smell that?” I asked. “Is that the trees?” He inhaled deeply and then said, “It’s the cedars.” And I knew, as my excitement mounted about reaching our destination, that I would now associate the cedar scent with that place and time and the fun we would have on that trip.

I had a similar experience as I took in the rich, fresh scent of balsam fir in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. Hiking there with a friend a few years ago, I wondered what the smell was. As if he read my mind, he said, “Smell that? It’s balsam fir.” The scent recurred only now and then on the trail, riding sudden wafts of warm air. During that long, challenging day of hiking, I think we both found it invigorating, something we looked forward to as we ascended the rocky trail amongst the trees.

When I was a child and one of my brothers was a toddler, he had a scratch and sniff book. Most of the scents were pleasant or neutral, but one page had a small, scratchable picture of a skunk. I was both repelled and drawn by it – I couldn’t help scratch and sniff it once in a while, and then I’d shake my head quickly, as if to shake the smell out of my nostrils. When a friend’s mother came to the house and was looking for a moment at the book, I pointed to the skunk and wrinkled my nose, saying, “That one stinks.” To my amazement, she scratched it, sniffed, and smiled. “I like it,” she said. I’m sure I looked incredulous as I asked, “You do?” She replied, “Yes, I do. It reminds me of wonderful places I’ve been, special trips I’ve taken, so it’s a happy smell for me.”

A happy smell. A scent that triggers joy and positive associations. The smell of lilacs in the late spring as I walk through the neighborhood. The scents of cut wood and woodsmoke, evoking campfires and winter evenings by the fireplace as snow falls softly beyond the windows. The musty odor of rich, dark soil in a freshly dug garden. The smell of shampoo in my children’s hair as I lean close to kiss them goodnight. The warm smell of my wife’s cheek – I can’t describe it; it’s just her, and I know it. And, of course, the scents of the forest and lake at the camp in New Hampshire. Each of these scents, and so many more, trigger happiness and contentment, or a sense of wonder, or calmness, or longing, or sometimes all of these feelings. And after the feelings come thoughts and memories and yearning.

For me, outdoor smells prompt the strongest, most positive feelings and associations. When I am hiking, camping, or even just walking in the woods, I am not stretched thin by stressors great and small, and my time is not in demand. I live more in sync with the rhythms of the day. I am able to relax and attend and explore. And for that time, that span of days or weeks or sometimes mere hours or minutes, I am most open to experiencing the world through the windows of my senses.

Most days, I would like to walk up a mountain

On the summer day that I hiked it, there were a lot of people at the top of Mt. Chocorua in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. I was surprised to see them, because I didn’t hear them from down below, even as I neared the summit. The entire way up the mountain, I had seen a tiny handful of people, yet here were much more than a handful. Most had come up the trail on the other side, and though I knew the mountain was popular, I had no idea that I’d end up among so many people. Groups, some quite large, were sitting all over the boulder-strewn top. A few dogs cavorted among them, showing off their four-wheel-drive agility on the rocks. Despite my surprise and even disappointment at seeing so much humanity so suddenly after such a quiet hike, I also felt the companionability common to hikers. As I reached the top, several nodded and greeted me. I spent a few minutes wandering the mountaintop, making sure to tap my toe on the U.S. Geological Survey summit marker, and eventually settled on a spot facing the Presidential Range to eat my lunch.

Winter-related hazards can await in Tuckerman Ravine, even in late June.

Winter-related hazards can await in Tuckerman Ravine, even in late June.

Mt. Washington’s broad shoulders were visible, though the peak was lost in gray clouds. In a line from Mt. Washington, I thought I could make out Mt. Monroe’s asymmetrical peak and Mt. Eisenhower’s domed pate, and I thought about standing atop each just over a month earlier. The White Mountains of New Hampshire are beautiful and rugged and unpredictable. Though they lack the altitude of the Sierras, Cascades, or Rockies, I sometimes describe them the way I describe certain basketball players: they play taller than their height. They spring from fairly low-lying surroundings, making for plenty of elevation gain. And they sit at a spot where significant weather patterns converge. Dangerously high winds are possible on the ridges and peaks, particularly in the Presidential Range; even when not dangerous, the wind is almost always strong. Clouds can roll in and descend in an instant, taking visibility down to nearly nothing and making you grateful that the high-elevation trails are marked by huge cairns. Those clouds can chill you to the bone, and sudden snowstorms have occurred even in the summer months. Hypothermia is a constant threat. The tree line dips below 4,000 feet. Jutting upward to meet the wind and storms, the mountains help make the weather, and the weather, in turn, remakes the mountains.

Experiencing the Whites is about the weather and so much more. The hikes up to the peaks and ridges run through beautiful forests and along swift streams before bursting above tree line into fields of boulders. On the ridges that run between the peaks, the views on either side stretch out before you in a magnificent quilt of rocks and trees that runs to the next set of mountains. Nestled below the shoulders of Mt. Washington are two vast, steep bowls: Tuckerman Ravine and Huntington Ravine. Curved and oriented perfectly to capture winter storms, Tuckerman develops a tremendous snowpack during the winter, and the trail up the headwall doesn’t open until approximately midsummer. Huntington is steeper, harsher, riven and jagged. The hike up it is considered one of the most challenging in the Whites; hiking down is too difficult and dangerous for most. Roughly between the two ravines runs a trail through the Alpine Garden, a rocky meadow of sedges marked by a variety of alpine flowers, the likes of which I’ve only seen at much higher altitudes in the Sierras, Cascades, and Rockies.

Tuckerman Ravine from the ranger station near its base.

Tuckerman Ravine from the ranger station near its base.

The trails up to the ridges and peaks of the Whites have very few switchbacks. They just go up, which sounds practical enough when I write it here but can feel kind of insane when you’re actually hiking. When I was in high school in Los Angeles, where we were perhaps a little too “blessed” by interesting geological features and events, one of my best friends and I frequently went hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Santa Monicas run right to the sea, and parts of them – even near the city – are remote enough that you can lose yourself in them. That’s all we wanted to do. One of our favorite hikes started on the Chumash Trail, an old Chumash Indian route that shot straight up to a ridge from the coast on a thin ribbon of soil through low brush and prickly pear. No switchbacks. Trails in the Whites are like that, too, but longer and far rockier. On the Chumash, I was always surprised to turn around after just a little while, quads and calves burning, and see that the car already looked tiny far below next to the grey of the Pacific Coast Highway, the yellow sand, and the sparkling ocean. In the Whites, the surprise comes as you suddenly emerge above tree line into the alpine domain, and you turn and take in a view that makes you wonder why you hadn’t done all of this sooner.

Most days, I would like to walk up a mountain. That feeling started for me in Yosemite National Park and the Mammoth Lakes region of the Sierras, and it continued in the Santa Monicas and Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Cascades and the Rockies. The Whites have found a place in my heart, too, even though my experience of them is limited to just a couple of trips. I plan to take many more over the years, including this summer.

It is rare for a day to go by without me thinking about how nice it would be to be heading upward.