Wednesday, October 1, 2014

LA to the scented forest

"The olfactory portrait I draw up in the laboratory later won't be a reproduction of what I smell here, but the image of that smell committed to memory."  Jean-Claude Ellena, Portrait of a Nose.

It's no coincidence I wear a perfume that is its own travel journal. Hermes Un Jardin en Méditerranée evokes shade, water and light, a fig tree in the morning washed with gentle waves of Mediterranean citrus and sea salt. It is a creation of Ellena, who speaks of memory above, and it is while reading his diary, I think back to the fragrances that mark my own travel journals. Big Sur in particular, and the smell of woods, coast and shrub, bathed in sunlight and washed with rain. 

I needed to travel to San Francisco for several meetings. Or retrospectively as I found out, I needed to visit Big Sur, and setting up these meetings gave me the right to travel.  I've always suspected that I'd be happier in north Cali; it's big, beautiful city has a similar energy to Wellington, New Zealand's harbour-side captial.

Much needed rains had arrived, and I was checking road conditions frequently to reassure myself Highway 1 was still open.  The stretch through Big Sur is notorious for slips.  Luck was with me, the way was clear. Picking up the Pacific Coast Highway, as the 1 is known through Malibu, I coasted upstream listening to a reading of Donna Tartt's excellent 'The Goldfinch'.  The pacific blue stretched on, until I turned inland and took the fast road to San Luis Obispo.

As the road started to climb, the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply to my right, I pulled off across the two lane highway and onto one of the many coastal-view rest stops.  Inhaling deeply, I breathed in the lightly salted air, laced delicately with an aromatic herbal edge.  I looked around to find the origin of the scent and I found it  - bushes of Californian sagebrush, a kind of shabby lavender-like leaf, road dusty and largely unremarkable.  Crushing a few of the delicate, spine-shaped leaves in my fingers confirmed the origin of the smell. It was wonderful. I picked a few twigs and placed them on my sunlit dashboard, hoping to bring the outside, in.

As I started the ascent towards Big Sur, the sunshine that had followed me from Los Angeles flickered and was gone, replaced by a violet dusk. A big rolling fog moved in, bringing with it light rain showers that speckled my windscreen. After 7 hours on the road, night was certainly falling, and fast. A familiar, but unexpected sound surprised me from outside the car and I rolled the passenger side window down to decipher it. To my total delight, choruses of frogs creaked at me from the deeper bends, happy in fresh roadside puddles.  What a welcome, I thought. Bliss.

Night had well and truly fallen, when I left the coast road and entered the Big Sur stretch of the 1.  I was driving blind, my headlights picking out forest shapes in the gloom. The scent of wet pine and redwood greeted me in the night air. I almost missed my bed for the night, the map on my iphone had given up hours ago when the internet disappeared.  I pulled off the road, and up to a wood cabin, glowing with light from the inside. Deetjens was the place I had picked to lay my head down.  The cheapest and smallest room was mine, just $90 plus tax for a sweet little nest.  Single bed, lush linens, with 1930s oil colours on the walls and an ancient sink in the corner.  The floor boards creaked and groaned.  5 rooms were my neighbours, sharing two elderly bathrooms, with no locks on doors, one big happy communal cabin of wonder.

After stowing my gear, I asked my hosts to point me in the direction of a local drinking establishment and headed back out into the wet night.   I continued up the 1, slowly, slowly on the bendy road, my vision impaired by rain, night, and fog.  Thank goodness I was driving slowly as young deer appeared in my headlights, standing on the road unfussed by my motor.  It was wild.

I found my watering hole.  Perching at the bar of Fernwood, a camping ground, bar and general store on the banks of the Big Sur river, nestled in amongst the redwoods, I sipped a local ale and kept an eye on the Olympics playing on the tv in the corner.  I soon found myself in conversation with the bartender, and a slightly grizzly export from Brazil, now a local.

The ale stood me in good stead, and sleep came easily that night.   In the morning I had an opportunity to see where I had stayed the night. I went for a prowl around the property.   Camellia and blossom trees nestling the cabins were taken over by redwoods.  I climbed a misty path that wound up through the trees and came out above them.  The sea was only just visible through the sea fog that was clinging to the coast.  But boy, did it smell wonderful.  All that damp had unlocked the piney resiny perfumed glory of the ancient trees.


Country life

I’ve woken up in an English village. Just a small one, and one that feels like it’s about to get swallowed by the ever-growing periphery of money-ed St Albans, but a village just the same. It has quaint farm buildings, a local shop selling pastries, a post man, boys on bikes, dog walkers, a kitchen garden, a crumbling pub.  Just through the church yard, two doors down, there’s a path that leads to ever-changing fields and hedgerows.  I took a walk through these yesterday.  I always get a faint sense of unease when walking alone - too many British crime dramas - but after I push my imagination away I settle in to listening and noticing what’s around me.   Squirrels chasing each other overhead and through the underbrush, a falcon circling high overhead, the remains of a bird on the leaf littered floor. A fox, I think. I see badger trails lope under the hedge line following the woods.  There’s a bustle of activity in the air, just sitting atop the stillness.

 When I break free of the woods, I hit a broad, sweeping tilled field up to my right.  This was covered with a yellow expanse of rapeseed during high summer, but now is a gentle brown, balayaged by the early autumn sunshine.  Farmer’s homes and a few odd trees dot the horizon, and a neighbour’s plane circles overhead.  I only see one or two dog walkers, and I always give them a hearty, neighbourly hello - just so if the police need to retrace my path, I’ll have witnesses. 

Dinner last night was in the local pub... badly over fried cod and some chips. Proper English fare. You don't see this in the gastro-pubs of London anymore. The place was heaving. Quiz night brought out every pensioner in the village, and boy was the quiz hard.  I left after the first round - bed was calling, and the house would still be warm from the fire I had lit earlier.