What paradox smells like

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

I went for a trail run recently in the Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The Hoh is the only rainforest in the lower 48 states. It receives more rain than just about anywhere else on the continent, and the result is almost unbelievable lushness.

The fresh, green smell of wet, rainy woods surrounded me, a mulchy, aromatic richness as I crunched along the trail. Mosses and bright green foliage dripping with moisture formed a cocoon of springtime, a burgeoning of new life. Small streams chuckled over grey-green rocks…

Wait. I’m lying.

I wasn’t in the Hoh rainforest.

I’ve been there, twice, and it was an unforgettable experience. But the day I’m describing happened right here in Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau. The reason for my deception? As I made my way that day along the trail, three miles or so from my house, a piney, mulchy, resinous smell enveloped me, one that anyone who spends enough time in the woods will recognize. And that one fragrance instantly took me back to the coastal region of the Pacific Northwest, among the five-foot-tall ferns and moss-covered downed spruce trees of the old-growth rainforest.

When we go to someplace special — a national park, a wilderness area — we prepare ourselves mentally. We put ourselves in a state of openness, of readiness to be awed and pleased and impressed by what we see. It’s a national park, so it must be special, right?

We tag the sensory details in our brains: the sights, the smells. We take photos. We do everything we can to tell ourselves, to alert our memories, that we need to catalog and hold on to the experience.

So encountering that specific smell right here, at home, made me think that perhaps we do the opposite of being open when we’re at home. Perhaps we (unconsciously) think, Oh, there’s nothing special here. No need to pay attention. It’s not Olympic National Park, or anything.

Until your nose wakes you up.

Then, you realize what’s in front of and around you. The frantic cheeping of the chipmunks, warning the neighborhood of this large intruder. The infused air, pungent and thick. The heaviness of light and sound. The electric greens of brand-new foliage.

There’s a little bit of a paradox here, I guess. If I hadn’t gone to the Hoh, the comparison wouldn’t be there to make. Without the memory of that other place, I might never have noticed what I was sensing here at home. Experiencing the exotic, in other words, helped me to see the familiar more keenly. I had to go there, in my mind, before I could see what was in front of me.

But wait, there’s another paradox too, I think. Before this particular soggy morning, I hadn’t thought about the Olympic Peninsula in years, at least not in terms of all its sensory details. So you could say that I was twice lucky: I got to wake up to the awareness of the place I was in, and also to revisit a vivid, special place in the history of my travels.

On this day, in this place, my travelling had done what travel does at its best: enlarge my perspective, and help me see (and smell) with new clarity. Enveloped in experience and memory, I moved simultaneously through the rainforest and along the Caldwell Rim trail.

Having been there, I was able to be, in the fullest sense, here.