Flyover America has moved! Please join us at www.ReadFlyoverAmerica.com.It was best to stand with your heels hanging off the edge of the concrete, your toes just touching the metal of the vent. We pushed our faces forward a bit to catch the stream of air escaping the vent behind the library at Boston University. It smelled of books. It was the condensed version of the library’s extensive collection of volumes on African history, of the complete works of Shakespeare, of the texts on contract law, broadcast journalism, and biographies of key members of the Dada art movement. They had all joined together and moved to the vent. It was their great scent escape.
It’s been years since I thought about that vent. It was behind the library, on a grassy strip that most students favored for daytime bikini bathing but that my friends and I took for our own at night. It grabbed hold of me yesterday, the place and scent so right there, when a friend posted a link to “in the library,” a perfume by Christopher Brosius.
Though scent frequently pops to mind when I think about the steamed lobsters, cinnamon rolls, or warm biscuits I’ve devoured while on the road, I rarely think of the scents connected to places. So, yesterday, I closed my eyes and just tried to open myself up to the aromas–good and bad–attached to past trips. While I didn’t set a rule for myself that I could only waft away to U.S. locations, I noticed that those were the scent memories that filtered in first and strongest. There was a brief thought of the migraine-inducing bus exhaust fumes from a trip into the mountains of Ecuador but it felt distant. The scent of used goods along the route of the Highway 127 Sale. The brininess of the waterfront in Stonington, Maine, just after the sun had slipped out of sight. The slight muskiness of the pilot who took me up in an ultralight plane just outside Fairbanks, Alaksa. Those poured in and, along with them, a quick mental video show of each trip.
Smell is one of the greatest memory triggers around yet it rarely plays a role when people tell each other about their travels. We can show each other photos. We can play back the sounds of a place. But to really get a person to understand the scents of a place, they have to go there on their own or buy a