I smell

It snowed last night. Through the window, I see first the snow as it falls, tracing its diagonal path through the grey sky, then each long needle of the ponderosas encased with crystal where the snow lands, then each branch sagging under the weight of the snow, then the snow piled up on the deck where the pines shed their burden. Then I pull back further and see each window of my home framing a Japanese woodblock print, Snow on Pines. There’s very little else to see, the clouds have blocked out the canyon view.

I haven’t been outside much, except to bring in the firewood, which was dumped into the yard from the back of a dually pickup by a tall Viking woman last Friday. She carried on a fun conversation with me about the dangers of my driveway and the impending weather while freeing up the tailgate like the logs were toothpicks. Had I not been distracted by her dazzling smile and flexing biceps, I would have worried that she was about to drown herself in a cord of pine, but somehow when the load slid to the earth in a crash, she was standing well to the side, still slinging logs. “I’ll see you around,” she said, swinging herself back into the driver’s seat, “maybe at the Merc.”

The Merc, the one watering hole worth its salt for miles around, draws everyone. It’s a come-as-you-are establishment, which those of us who haven’t been outside much except to haul in an armload of firewood, take literally. There’s no reason to bathe up here.

I’ve recently become aware of my odor. I smell like a mellow combination of turmeric, cumin, and black tea. It’s a musk that’s not quite warm cage at the zoo, not quite cold bonfire. Not bad, but I wouldn’t bottle it. It’s been three weeks since I’ve shaved my armpits, but I feel no shame – I’m sure Angie, short for Angela, short for Angels in Heaven, the firewood delivery Viking goddess, doesn’t shave her armpits either.

Back in early June, when Kevin and I were up here deciding whether or not to keep the house, David, our property manager, who’d come over to help us assess needed repairs, smelled a propane leak. It was the first thing he mentioned when he got out of his truck. “Can’t you smell that?” he asked, shocked by our puzzled looks. It was obviously a smell that was setting off alarm bells for him, and he was stunned we couldn’t smell it too. “Right here,” he said, waving us over and lifting his nose in the air. We shrugged, not picking it up. Kevin said that living in San Francisco, he usually makes an effort to not smell things.

Luckily, it turned out the smell was coming from the nearly-empty propane tank that had been swapped out for a new one and was left on the side of the driveway to be picked up, but apparently the exchange stuck in David’s craw, because he brought it up again two weeks ago when he was at the house swinging his chainsaw around. “I mean, I’m glad I can smell,” he said over the roar of the motor, “I’ll always know if there’s a bear around – you can smell ‘em before you see ‘em. But, I get it. I bet it smells nasty in the city.”

I’ve often thought that city living dulls a person’s ability for observation – we’re trained to look straight ahead, not around, and move down the street with purpose. Women, especially, do this for self-preservation. Don’t smile, don’t make eye-contact, don’t look around like you don’t know where you are. As a result, we often miss the details of our environment, the ornate door on the Queen Anne mansion, the stenciled graffiti on the sidewalk, the one magnolia blossom hidden behind grey-green leaves.  Our hearing is dulled as well. We turn off our ears to cat-calls, to pleas from the homeless, to sirens and honking. The endless clatter of day to day living becomes a hum behind the windows, almost pleasant, like ocean waves. It stands to reason that living in San Francisco would have the same muting effect on my sense of smell. There have been many, many times that I’ve held my breath as I hurried past something, or someone; many times I’ve turned my face to the open window on the bus and prayed for fast deliverance to the stop.

There’s not much I want right now, besides a sturdy pair of snow boots and an operational snow blower, but all my senses firing like open receptors to life would be nice. It’s ironic that with life teeming around you in the city, you pull back, but with open vistas and isolation, you push out, sending your senses down into the canyon, straining to hear if that one truck sound is different from the construction noise on the bridge over the creek, and if you should head down towards the post office to waylay the moving van with your furniture, or if it’s just Angie taking her empty dually back up into the forest to fell more trees. The day Mattress Firm was supposed to deliver my bed last week, I sensed that there would be trouble. They were scheduled to deliver between 1 and 3 pm, and around 1:30 I stood on the porch, straining to hear the differences in the distant traffic noise, worried that the delivery guys wouldn’t have considered the failure of their GPS markers in a town with no cellphone service. I was about to go back inside when a breeze lifted up over the porch rail carrying the sour smell of burning brakes. Without hesitating, I grabbed my jacket and started trotting down the driveway. At the elementary school, there it was: one ridiculously large truck for a single mattress was nose first up an abandoned driveway. Two guys sat in front staring straight ahead into the forest with confused looks on their faces. They were fifteen feet from the foot of my driveway and hopelessly lost with brakes on the edge of failing. Thankfully, my nose had found them.

Right now, Emma’s curled on my lap, since I’ve let the fire in the woodstove go out. She’s soaking up all the warmth I emit. Slowly, the temperature inside will drop until settling, late in the night, to around 55 degrees in the bedroom. By then, the two of us will be curled under the blankets and won’t notice. Under the covers, my scent will mingle with my dog’s scent in our den of two. I wonder how much more of the world she experiences. I wonder if she’s happy to be here, where the intensity of sensations isn’t stifling, or if she’s simply too darn cold to care.

I’m considering donning my inadequate winter shoes and walking to the post office to get my mail. It’s quiet. Snow falling on pines. The woodstove ticks as it cools, iron resettling. Construction noise continues down at the bridge. I still smell. Maybe I’ll shower first.


  1. What a beautiful, cozy, sense-tingling read before bed… My sinuses are stuffed with flu, so I’ve been spending the past week longing, without reprieve, for whiffs of anything. Thanks for reminding me what it’s like and sharing your world, one sensation at a time. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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