I’ve been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, lived a lot of life. My stories are so numerous that I’ve forgotten most of them, only remembered in the 21 journals that line my bookshelf. Stories of the past 21 years of my adult life. (I read an issue of Outside Magazine and on the last page was a photo of one of Peter Beard’s journals, which they said were filled with clippings and photos, blood, hair and writings from his travels in Africa, and worth $10,000.) So I wrote every day. Or during travels. In the midst of momentous events. My life on paper. I could read it and remember. But mostly my thoughts are resurrected through scent. It’s one of the most powerful of our five senses at jogging our memories.
Riding my bike just the other day through the Osage Hills, a particular invisible wood smoke filled the air and I left this place, transported to a fuzzy recollection of Latin America. It felt like Nicaragua. And slowly the vision became clear: the rudimentary houses where the coffee growers live and cook their beans and rice over the flaming end of a long branch protruding from an earthen stove, their room smoky and my eyes burning with the log.
Scents bring to life memories that are so vivid and moving. It’s the tea rose perfume my mom wore and my dad adored, which I smell at every funeral of family and friend. The waxy smell of my niece’s crayolas on coarse coloring pages that take me to my brother’s room, lying on the floor Christmas Eve, trying to occupy the hours coloring inside the lines so that we could stay up all night and listen for Santa bringing us presents. The sterile paper smell of books, wandering down rows and rows of very tall public library shelves, knowing I was supposed to be in the children’s section but aware of the millions of adventures and biographies and complicated affairs that must be printed between the hard covers of volumes over my head, just out of reach. And the sterile oppressive smell of doctor’s offices. Like the one my mom worked at when the very kind and monotone physician diagnosed me with a stomach ulcer in the 6th grade, doomed to eat a foul, bitter pill, much too large for me to swallow - and thus my disdain for the Andes mints my mom gave me to chew up with each daily dose: chalk and chocolate and mint. The pollen blowing off the cornfield across the brick road of my childhood home, which I find in any bourbon with a high percent of corn mash: the moonshine fragrance of East Fremont Street. Just down the road from the distinctly aromatic pig farm where I sat in the child seat on the back of my mom’s bike as we rode past the armory to see the baby piglets and circled around the parking lot of the Mormon church, just shy of the equally smelly cattle sale barn. Petrichor - that dirt-and-mineral scent as a rainstorm approaches, thinking I could out-ride the weather, but finding myself stranded on my mountain bike at 11,000 feet without a rain jacket, temperature plummeting, taking shelter in a small stand of pines, scaring off the cattle who had the same idea. Deep knee bends, fighting hypothermia until the storm subsided.
One of my earliest memories involves falling asleep in the car. We arrived home and my dad (big, strong, and hard working) lifted me out of the back seat of our Pontiac sedan. He carried me to the house, his stubbly whiskers scratching my face and the scent of his coffee breath filling my nostrils. Perhaps that is why I fell in love with coffee.
I dance through the woods among a cacophony of smells, an olfactory forest, my feet moving along the singletrack trail in rhythm, back-and-forth like the silky strong movement of a bow across the strings of a violin, and pine takes me to Colorado. Leaving a voicemail for my friend Brad, 800 miles away, telling him I was planning to bushwhack up the side of Mount Massive through pine and aspen over three false summits (the third over 14,000 feet) before topping the Rockies’ second tallest peak, high above the trees at 14,429 feet. If he didn’t hear from me in 3 days, something was wrong. The earthy, musty smell of rotting wood brings me to 1983, kicking around the cow ponds and dry creek beds of rural Oklahoma. Plunging unexpectedly into the hollow trunk of a fallen tree where hundreds of yellow jackets swarmed around my body and over 100 stung my 10-year old flesh. The fatty, pungent smell of bacon cooking reminds me of the nights my cousin and I spent in the woods near his house. Bacon we stealthily burgled from his mom’s refrigerator after spending a night listening to coyotes (that’s pronounced ky-oats out here) howl, fire keeping them at bay in the near woods. Our contraband bacon broiled over the coyote fire, draped over a long stick, ends burnt, middle raw, good nonetheless.
I remember the unmistakable smell of the football locker room: musty, mildew and grass-stained pants and the sweaty ferment of pads in an oppressive, un- air conditioned concrete block building. (Thank god that’s not something you ever have to smell in regular life.) That locker room where Coach Stiles earnestly pleaded with each and every player to “do the right thing,” and told each of us through tears at half time, after not playing up to our ability, “You’re a great athlete. You’re a great athlete. You’re a great athlete…” I’m a great athlete? I am a great athlete. And when we walked out of that locker room beneath the rows of stadium seats full of fans, benches we’d run up and down many times throughout the week before, the scent of cigarette smoke hung on the air. The same smoke that sometimes filled the high school restrooms at lunch time. Where the unintelligent school bully and his even-less-intelligent bully sidekick cornered me and threatened to beat me up. (I offered to meet him behind Walmart after school to have it out, but he didn’t show and I walked the two-and-a-half miles home across town, relieved and angry.)
Tobacco smoke is evocative and nuanced, like coffee. There is cigarette smoke, in the breeze or in the bar, one thought-provoking, the other oppressive. And the smoke of a cigar. I used to smoke cigars when I was younger. The taste, strong and pungent, excellent with sweet Italian sausage and port wine. Now it’s smoke draws me into those early years of the DoubleShot, waiting for the coffee roaster to cool, a dozen people without heavy responsibility drinking whiskey, laughing and chatting at midnight, whatever the weather: friends, staunch supporters. Pipe smoke is more sophisticated. Akin to leather. It’s scent is royal. It evokes fireplaces and furs and British ancestry, Jason Westenburg reading The Economist. It’s the nuance of tobacco smoke that probably most parallels the aromatics in coffee. From the diner to the DoubleShot, coffee can run the gamut of smelly to sensual.
Why is the Gesha coffee so special?
It’s the clarity of fragrances (the smell of the ground coffee beans) and aromatics (the smell of the brewed coffee). The sophistication of complementary aromatics intermingling and changing throughout the brewing and drinking experience. It’s the citrus of a mountaintop in Panama where I picked the most succulent orange that turned out to have a very lemony sourness which drove me to eat more and more as my mouth watered and chills ran down my spine. It’s the honeysuckle growing on the fence in the back yard, where my mom taught me to pull the style out by the calyx and drip the sweet nectar onto my tongue. That honeysuckle, growing beside a patch of resident strawberries that we didn’t plant, but we did eat - their tart-ness quelled with a generous dunk into the sugar bowl. It’s the rooibos tea, red tea from Africa, my dear friend Marcus brewed for me one adventurous day after I’d accidentally scaled one of Boulder’s flatirons in running shoes, hot rooibos to cool and calm me down, butternut squash soup to nourish my soul and our friendship. It’s all these memories emanating from one delicious cup, woven so skillfully like the tales of life.
You must smell to remember. Scent is such a driving force, an evocative friend. Close your eyes. And let your nose remind you of the juiciness of life.