They aren't exactly Incense and Peppermints. They're the smell of wetlands, circa San Diego County, and they evoke a strong reaction in me. They grew along the open drainage ditch behind our house on College Avenue when I was a kid, between University and Adelaide, along with a short kind of chaparral that also had a peculiar scent and was usually found alongside the mustard and licorice. Though I never thought this combination of smells particularly fragrant or exotic they have always put me in a certain mood, like being close to my essence.

The sense of smell is supposedly the most mysterious, linked to strong emotional reactions that aren't as easily describable as things you can see or hear. While other kids were smoking dope in the early '70s, I'd usually content myself to rip off a couple of dad's cheap beers, which he kept in a cardboard box in the garage. Then I'd go hang out with my stoner friends, and they'd comment occasionally that I didn't seem to need the stuff. I was just naturally stoned, more or less all the time. It seemed to have a lot to do with the way I smelled things. I was always into burning incense and such, but that combination of indigenous plants that grew near the place where I grew was the really magical one.

There are places in Mission Trails Park where you encounter that aroma. No matter what I'm doing--usually just hiking along--it feels like a great TV channel has been switched on in my head. It tends to make me... desirous of a woman's company among other things, though I don't know why. It also makes me feel spiritual and connected and all that stuff that women--in their inexplicable way--find appealing. It's odd really, because they don't seem to find me appealing most of the rest of the time, and for my part I tend to feel that women just talk too much and annoy me to death when they're not busy ignoring me.

Never able to reconcile physical desire with emotional attachment in any coherent way, I fantasized in my younger years of making love to a girl on a blanket in a field full of that stuff; preferably a girl that I at least liked, though just about any willing one would do. I had a nice gal during high school--the same one I have now, though there was a 30 year dead spot in things--but she was kind of a prude then and probably wouldn't have gone along with my idea very well.

During those high school years, I used to ride my first motorcycle, my original Freedom Machine, from the college area to Otay Mesa and down Otay Lakes Road to Barret Junction and beyond. There were pockets of that aroma along the roadway, and I'd think the place special for it. Then finally, a dozen years ago, I met a lady in Eastlake through the Reader ads, back when they had the phone matches. It was fun, and more adventurous, really, than all that online stuff now. She was alright; not my match made in heaven, but I liked her enough to live out the old fantasy, at an undisclosed location off the entrance road to Otay Lake.

That sort of thing isn't supposed to be as great as you think it will be, but to me it was just as good or better.

Now I'm older, but not much has changed except that (1) I'm more skillful in that department than I was as a teenager, but (2) the supply of eligible women has diminished. I'm sorta committed now to one, and she's far away. If she ever visits here instead of me spending another vacation there, we're going to have to find us some mustard flowers, licorice plants, and chaparral.

For now, I'm tending to my duties. It's the last full week of the spring semester. When I've wanted to save some driving to my evening teaching job in North County during the nearly fifteen years I've commuted up there, I'll often stay in the parking lot in my converted Honda Element and set off in the morning for the beach or a local park. I'll brew a pot of coffee on the tailgate with a little Coleman stove, and have some Tang and bread with a banana or apple. It's a somewhat eccentric lifestyle, but everyone who knows me gets used to it quickly and comes to think it actually kinda cool.

Today I discovered a new park in North County, a little lake in a nice neighborhood near CSU San Marcos, which isn't where I teach and that's probably why I'd never discovered it before. The place is much used, with a lot of retired couples and stay-at-home moms with small kids. It's neat and clean, with a fountain that sprays for fifteen minutes at times indicated by a sign posted on it. As a new and unfamiliar face, a few of the moms gave me the All-American Paranoid lookover, but several later talked to me a bit as we walked around the lake, and even seemed to want to extend the conversation as I tried to give them space and not seem too friendly.

There's a section of the lakeside, inside the ring of the trail, where that aroma hit me. Besides the mustard flowers, licorice, and chaparral, there are some stubby palms and shade trees. It looks like a nice place to unfold my beach chair and grade the final papers next week. In a funny way, though I've taught part-time in North County for nearly fifteen years, breathing in an aroma there that I've never encountered anywhere outside of San Diego County was the first time I ever really felt like the place was a part of my essence, another of those places where I can belong rather than be simply a camper on the fringes of life.


Ruth Newell May 19, 2012 @ 9:35 a.m.

I LOVE this! Yes! I know just what you mean about scents and essence. And the combination of scents eminating from the SoCal landscape I've not experienced anywhere else I've lived or hiked. I agree, SoCal's special in that way. Good story, Thx.


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