Sunday, September 15, 2002

Aromas, California

Driving down to the writers’ conference Friday, I passed a sign for a town called Aromas. That must be the ideal California address. California — woodsy, pungent, spicy — is quite as beautiful to smell as it is to see.

I hear some reader jesting about smog, and God knows it's true in some areas. I can't spend more than a day at a time in the LA basin (such an appropriate name for it), because the air is consistently bad. For some reason, Northern California isn't nearly as smoggy. San Francisco itself has good air, fresh off the Pacific.

But the scents. . . . even in southern California, the very first time I visited there, I loved the way California smelled. Billy and I were in the Angeles National Forest just before it rained, when all the pines and chamise and sagebrush exhaled in the suddenly humid air. Months later, I opened a little bag of postcards and the scent came rushing out, so strong and unexpected I sneezed.

Friday and today, driving along 101, I smelled dozens of separate fragrances, most delightful. Of course, you can smell Gilroy from several miles away: that pungent combination of garlic and fertilizer is unmistakable. In the spring, there is the delicately sweet scent of blooming cherry and peach orchards. The sod farms and hay farms and the hills smell of grass hot in the sun. Sometimes trucks carrying enormous mesh hoppers of onions, garlic, or tomatoes passed me; if you had some bread, you could make a wonderful pizza.

The shrubs in the hills all have their own scents: sage, rosemary, dozens of plants whose names I don't know. The herbal, almost medicinal smells of their intense volatile oils are released in the heat, or the rain, or when the leaves are bruised by the wind. Rosemary is grown here as casually as easterners plant crown vetch or barberries, and there are times when the roadsides are blue with rosemary flowers.

At intervals along the road, there are stands of eucalyptus; even on a dry day, they exude the tingling, vigorous scent that's so much more complex and satisfying than the boiled-down smell of Vicks VapoRub. After a rain, the air in those groves is like a spa. When I lived up in the hills beyond La Honda, I had to drive home through thick belts of eucalyptus, and their fragrance always raised my spirits, energized me. Once I drove through with my window open to the rain. The next morning, a cloud of fragrance rolled out when I opened the truck door.

The scent of the redwoods is my favorite of all: woodsy, deeper and more subtle than cedar, it's an aroma of peace and simplicity and pleasure. When we lived in the hills, Gabriel used to come in with her fur scented with redwood needles.

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