Sometimes we don’t realize until it hits us how we attach memories and feelings with the sense of smell. I remember walking into Home Depot with Mrs. C, and just the smell of fresh cut lumber overwhelmed her with sudden and powerful memories of her father. It was almost incapacitating. Tears welled up immediately as she thought about all his building projects, how much she still misses him, and happy memories from before his illness. Although he’s been gone for some time, that smell of lumber brought potent recollections of her dad in that moment.
I had a little bit of that experience today on a ride. There’s a local route I’d been planning to take in the hills around West Salem. Perhaps compelled by a little bit of nostalgia, I wanted to ride more of the hills that surrounded the area where I grew up as a kid. I took Highway 22 out west of town, then up the length of Doaks Ferry out to Wallace Road. Along the way I tried to keep a brisk pace while recalling some of the fun I had with friends growing up in these hilly roads. The short, steep climbs and drops along the way brought back the fun sensation I remember on the 3-speed Schwinn that took me everywhere.
Eventually Wallace Road led to Zena, which I’d only been to a couple of times before--or so I thought. That’s when the flood of memories came over me. There’s a smell I absolutely love, one I associate with the hill on which my grandparents had a little farm. It too was in West Salem, but I hadn’t realized how close I was to it. I wish I could describe this smell to you; it’s not that livestock-farmy smell at all. It’s more like a combination of hay and cherry orchards and fir trees and red clay soil. That smell conjures up a feeling of sweet simplicity. It brought memories so strong they almost knocked me off my bike. I kept riding, even though I had no idea I was actually on their hill at the time.
Sure enough, Zena took me right up Brush College Road and as I crested the hill, there was my grandparents’ old place to my right. I never came to it from this direction, so it seemed odd to be there. Except the smell was so right; it had transported me there even before the place came into view. Of course the old farm is gone and things are very different there now. No matter, I had no problem picturing their tiny yellow house, Grandma’s beautiful flowers, the stately old cherry trees in front, and of course, Grandpa with his horses. He was as taken with horses as I am with bikes. I’m sure he’s worked out a deal in heaven to be in charge of hitching up horses to surreys, giving rides to appreciative people. And Grandma is there, listening to old-time Gospel music while she sets her feet on the stool and “rests her eyes.”
Those powerful feelings stir up a surge inside your chest--sort of like a burst of adrenaline--it transports you down the halls of your memory. One recollection leads to another, who knows why they’re chained together as they are. I let my thoughts linger there as I rode with a little less urgency back down Brush College Road, part kid, part grown-up. Thinking about my grandparents, both now gone, but still so much a part of who I am.
I'm sure glad I took that ride today.