I recently read a blog post about scent and memory. When I think about these two things my brain seems to have a favorite connection.
We were campers when it came to summer vacation. I'm told I was taken camping as an infant, sleeping in a sleeping bag my grandmother made for me out of a baby blanket. I can still remember all the steps involved in establishing our home away from home; find the site, back the camper in, unhitch, level it, unlatch the four corners, crank up the center, pull out the beds, and snap the canvas top all the way around. (We had a fancier camper that didn't require snapping, later, but the old camper with the snaps and the bug-eye brake lights is the one that is affixed in my mind.) Once our campsite was established and we'd scoped out its relation to the bathrooms, it was time to walk the loop and check out the campground; to peek at motorcycles in shy admiration, to strain to hear guitars (before I could play one myself),to feel pity for the people in giant RV's,their TVs visible through the screen doors (because they weren't REALLY camping), to look for distinct landmarks that would make nighttime navigation to our site easier. Once my compass was set at two sites past the red water pump near the people with the plastic tiki lights on their canopy, I'd return to ours and sit listening to the ring of stakes being pounded in the ground echoing off the canopy of trees, or to the fascinating rill of languages other than my own.
Camping was great for a lot of reasons. I got to spend a week with my Dad. I can still see him showing me how to light a gas lantern, how carefully he tied the mantles and added pressure to the tank. I can smell its ignition and hear it quietly seething while we dealt Uno cards or listened to stories. (A note to veteran dads: war stories make even the woods of West Virginia scary. Choose carefully.) We always did a lot of learning and exploring. Museums, caverns, historical sites, if it was there, we'd see it. And even in my kid brain I was fascinated by the idea that a campground was a community, a temporary and ever changing one, a place to live for a few days that would never ever be exactly the same again. (The sort of musing that no doubt kept my nose in a book and sharpened my vocabulary but made me hopeless at projectile sports.)
What brings all of this to me in vivid detail? A bar of Dial soap. I can open the package and I am eight years old, crunching down a gravel road, staring at my feet in green flip flops in the halo of light created by a silver flashlight with a red shade. I am retreating from the cinderblock shower building where we scrubbed off the day's dirt and bug repellent, ready to tuck in to my bed and listen to the snap of campfire wood and the murmur of conversation. Long before adult struggles and champion-level anxiety interfered with sleep, before "What if" became a weapon instead of a toy. At 41, I want that clean and simple peace back. Maybe the answer lies in that fascination with ever-changing community, the shifting and temporary sand of where we are, and who we are. We aren't working toward a permanence, a secure place where absolutely everything is exactly how we'd like it. Every permutation, every step along the loop has its own beauty. We can't always be two sites past the red water pump. But what we can do is hang our tiki lights, light a welcoming fire, and play a little music.