A POWERFUL STENCH
I'm told my nose is my best feature. It's long and straight and has a high bridge with a bump at the top that is a perfect perch for my thick glasses. My nose is large for my face, but I have an unusually small face. That makes me thankful for my nose. No one would describe me as mousy. When I enter a room full of strangers, I can trust my nose to announce that here is a serious, thoughtful person. And by the way, where are the appetizers? Do we smell a touch of cumin?
But even though I could pick out the Chanel No. 5 from among ten other perfumes in a crowded room, there was a time when I took my sense of smell for granted. I assumed that it was indestructible. I certainly never asked myself which I valued more, my long, straight nose or what went on inside it.
My story begins on a Wisconsin interstate just before half of it veers south toward Chicago and half goes west to places you've probably never heard of - like the Wisconsin Dells, Altoona, Eau Claire - and then finally to the Twin Cities. I was driving home to St. Paul after a weekend visit with my daughter Caroline, a student at UW-Madison, when my nose began picking up a weird smell. Had I stepped in something? What could be causing this peculiar odor?
I pulled into a Kwik Trip to top off the tank and check my shoes. Nothing suspicious there. Maybe the heater fan was sucking up the smell from the engine and blowing it through the vent. Was a dead bird in there?
Ridiculous. The smell was all in my head, not my nose. Nerves. Saying goodbye to Caroline had been more difficult than usual. She was as lonely and homesick at Madison as her older sister, Alex, had been happy there. How different my girls were.
My own college years weren't exactly blissful. While other students were getting acquainted with one another, I was out foraging for plant materials, mainly tree branches of a certain shape and size, with which to transform my cinder-block cube of a dorm room into a leafy forest glade. The smells of oak leaves and pine sap soothed my homesickness for Minnesota. Years later, when my husband, Cam, and I settled down to raise a family, I couldn't wait to plant a garden. I dug up the patchy lawn in the backyard.
Gardening to me is an artistic endeavor, and a garden of one's own represents the ultimate in creative freedom. In fact, in my forties I became so greedy for that anything-goes fix I got when planning a new border or rigging up a water feature that I decided to quit my job editing a city magazine to launch a publication of my own, the Garden Letter: Green Thoughts for the Northern Gardener. When my little magazine won an award from the Garden Writers Association for the Art of Garden Communication, a category invented just for it, I realized I'd turned a corner: I was a garden writer. Before leaving for Madison I'd brought in the last of the tomatoes and potted up some herbs that would spend the winter on a sunny windowsill in our kitchen; maybe that was the source of the smell. Usually when I'm driving and smell something funny, I can track it down to my fingertips. I sniffed. Rosemary. Thyme. Lemon verbena. Chili pepper. Herbs and spices have amazing staying power on the skin, but while this strange smell in my car was persistent, it wasn't anything like the delightfully pungent scents that I carried around on my hands for hours after I'd been pressed into service as Cam's sous-chef. This wasn't the smell of a garlicky pesto or a Cajun rub.
I cracked my window and sniffed the incoming air. To my nose, Wisconsin smells wonderful after the fall harvest, maybe because I grew up around farms. My favorite aroma after pine needles fermenting on a forest floor has to be baled hay laced with cow manure.
I sniffed again. For a blessed moment I thought I'd solved the riddle of the smell. But a third sniff told me unequivocally I hadn't. This wasn't cow manure. This was sickly sweet. Hog dung, maybe?
It occurred to me that I had no idea where I was or how long I'd been driving. It's easy to miss the turnoff for the Dells, the Waterpark Capital of the World. My hands tightened on the steering wheel. This little mistake can add anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day to the trip home, depending on when you wake up and (speaking of unpleasant odors) smell the polluted air that alerts you to the fact that you're approaching a major metropolis. Interstates in the Midwest tend to look alike, the same Kwik Trips and low-slung Frank Lloyd Wright-wannabe rest areas. So it's easy to keep sailing along on the wrong ribbon of asphalt until the tickle in the back of your nose tells you that you're not headed to the Dells but to a city of 9.5 million people: Chicago.
A huge neon blue corkscrew emerged over the treetops a few miles ahead. Please, Lord, make it be a water slide. In this agrarian part of the state, the Dells comes on like a tsunami of kitsch. put your feet up at the polynesian resort hotel and suites - kids under 10 stay free! stop by goody goody gum drop candy kitchen. we have everything your mouth can imagine! The attack of the billboards provoked my usual impulse to drive the car right through them (and maybe take out a row of those faux-log town homes and a flume ride or two). At least I was on the right highway.
The smell tiptoed back into my consciousness. What was it? Hot dogs? Not at this time of year. I detected a trace of dead fish. What was odd about this smell and why it was not normal was its refusal to back off. If anything, it seemed to be getting stronger, as if the fade button in the brain that makes an odor disappear after a while was broken. Could it be coming from the double latte I'd picked up at Starbucks on my way out of Madison? Had the milk gone bad?
I'd brought along the audio book of E. L. Doctorow's The March, a fictionalized account of Sherman's epic sacking of the South that ended the Civil War. Three chapters left to go. I slipped in a cassette, then decided to hold off listening until I'd gotten around the geezer in the battered pickup ahead of me.
He was driving a Chevy S-10, same model and vintage as the one I'd bought last summer for hauling brush to the municipal compost site. A twelve-year-old pickup is not ideal for freeway driving. His tailpipe was leaving quite a thick plume of exhaust. If I could just get by him, maybe the smell that had been dogging me would disappear. The pickup was in the passing lane and flanked by a late-model Buick traveling at the same speed - as if they were ballroom dancing and didn't want anyone cutting in. I bore down on the pickup until less than a yard separated his bumper from mine. The geezer finally got the hint and pulled over to the right lane. I pressed hard on the gas pedal. When the pickup had been reduced to a speck in the rearview mirror, I had to face facts: it wasn't the poisonous tailpipe. The mysterious odor hadn't budged.
My Passat was no ingénue itself. At seven years old, the car had a few bad habits, like stalling out at stoplights and turning on the check-engine light for no reason. In fact, the thing was aglow right now. The smell had a smoky and slightly chemical quality to it. I checked the heater and got the usual blast of hot air in my face but no spike in the odor's intensity. The engine sounded all right; the car was braking normally, and it wasn't vibrating the way my truck did when I pushed it over sixty-five. Plenty of gas too, so it wasn't a leak. Good. Nothing serious. The catalytic converter, maybe?
This smell had some sulfur in it for sure. It used to be that you never knew when your engine would start belching up rotten eggs. I hadn't smelled that for ages. I was tempted to call my husband, ask him if he thought a faulty converter could make a car stink. He wasn't a mechanical person, but his