I don’t think it’s commonplace for us to regard nature as an olfactory experience. We tend to spend a lot of time out in the world viewing things, and maybe it’s just that I’m from a part of the country where freshly mowed grass is the closest you come to any sort of overwhelming smells in “nature.” We’re just such visual beings in 2018 that when you get out to a place like Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula or a place like Forest Park in Oregon, one of the things you might not expect is how the smells are so incredibly refreshing and brimming with life that it really just kinda overwhelms you in a positive way. It’s almost as distinctive as, say, that wet dog smell after your dog comes in from a rain, but as though that were a smell you actually loved. Some smells can seep into your soul and allow you to feel alive or just to feel connected – maybe to you’re-not-even-sure-what, but connected for the first time all the same.
That smell actually came pouring through the vents of my car the higher I climbed on my drive out to Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula. I had to pull over and open the door to make sure that really was, y’know, the fresh air I was smelling and not something wrong with me or the car. There was something almost citric to it, crisp and sharp. The higher I climbed, the more loud and present those fresh smells were, and I even imagined you could watch them traveling in the low-hanging clouds that just kind of bristled about the mountainside a few hundred meters away.
The mountains within view there at Hurricane Ridge seem like they’re just the one of those places that’s always foggy, after all, as though that’s what it’s supposed to be and yet at the same time it almost gives you this ghost-like experience as though everything is cloaked in a little bit of a mystery. I kept wondering what I was missing: what mountain is covered behind those clouds that I can’t see? What would the forest over there look like if the clouds lifted just a little? What will happen when the sun shines directly down as opposed to it just being sunrise here?
In this way, I think something I have learned to love about the mountains is that they’re never the same; despite how grandiose and carved into permanence they may seem, they’re always appearing to change in some way, shape, or form depending on how the sun shines down or whether it’s morning or whether it’s evening or whether there’s a storm cloud, fog, or rain. It’s not like the ocean as it sort of stretches on and on and it’s always the same churning body of water predictable with everything it does by the sun or the moon. The waves give even kind of an immutability to it, but the mountains don’t work that way. They’re not afraid of constant change; they even revel in it: they’re always revealing something new – colors you didn’t know could exist painting the conifers, unexpected snow gracing the evergreen landscape, erosion that changes the face of the mountain, water carving out new paths into and beyond the sandstone and oceanic crust. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
And despite all those changes, I think what strikes me the most is that when you get to see it, that’s simply what you get to see in the time you’re allotted – it’s what you’ve been gifted – that moment right then, right there. I found this particularly striking as I walked the Wolf Creek Trail and was followed by a few deer who were in no way deterred by my presence. While I walked into the valley in the early a.m., the mountains looked one particular way, but by the time I walked out and the sun had risen, I was looking at a different set of mountains from before. Even the orientation of walking in vs. walking out were entirely different experiences of what was around me. And I couldn’t decide which set of mountains felt more true to me, and yet they both were. Whether it was the sunset that you got to see or a sunrise, what you saw was your one opportunity to see it exactly how it was in that moment; and since no photograph will really do it justice, that moment, as fleeting as it is guaranteed to be, is all you get of it. You had better soak it in, store it to memory, cherish it, remaining fond of the smells and the changes, because it’s all so very fleeting.
And yet, I think some part of me found something loving in that. Some things we aren’t meant to keep or to grasp. I whispered some words into the fog and it lifted. I’m not even sure what I let go of exactly, but something happened there on the Olympic peninsula and I let it happen and then got back in the car and drove down again, maybe, just maybe a little lighter of a human being, carrying a little less my own mountains and ready to start filling the bag with rocks again. In some ways, I’d already forgotten the smells and the sights by the time I got to the ferry terminal at Port Angeles. In other ways, though, they’ll be a lasting impression on me forever.