The Scent of Outside
"I can tell that you cycled here!"
We were sitting in a cafe and my bike was parked out of sight. I was dressed in ordinary clothing. I wondered what gave it away; was I red in the face?
"It's the way you smell," the woman elaborated, leaning in and inhaling dramatically for emphasis.
For a moment, I was thoroughly mortified. Being told we smell as though we've been cycling is not exactly what any cyclist hopes to hear! It was only that morning I'd seen this Yehuda Moon strip and chuckled, blissfully unaware of just how closely to home it was about to hit. Could it be that, despite all my wool and attempts at thorough personal hygiene, I go around reeking of stale body odour, leaving hordes of townsfolk in revolted half-swoons in my wake?
The look on my face must have reflected my thoughts' direction, as my companion was quick to pat my arm reassuringly.
"No-no-no, I don't mean it like that. What I mean is, you smell lovely - you smell like... the outside!"
"Yeah, the outdoors. It's hard to describe, but you know - grass, flowers, the sea!" She leaned in again and made sweeping gestures with her hands as if to direct whatever fumes were emanating from me toward her. "There it is! That cold windy outdoorsy smell. Mmm, I'm jealous!"
It was a relief to know I don't stink. I too love that complex, elusive fragrance of being out in fresh air and feel envious of people who come in from the cold smelling of it. But what exactly is this scent of outside, I wonder? Obviously, it incorporates all the subtle fragrances of the local plantlife and bodies of water - from freshly cut grass and flower blossoms, to dug up soil, peat fire smoke and decomposing seaweed. As we wander through their midst, these scents weave together and wrap themselves around us, gently but persistently, like an invisible shawl.
And yet, the scent of outside is not about these smells alone. That is why the myriad of perfumes, detergents, soaps and air freshers that strive to recreate this outdoorsy essence never quite get it right. Because in the scent of the outside we can also "smell" the cold, the wind, and the sunshine - and it is this more than the earthy-floral aroma in of itself that evokes a strong response on our part.
There is a dynamism to the scent of outside that can communicate movement, temperature, time of day, even mood. It is a rich visceral experience that awakens a range of sensations, rather than smell alone.
Earlier I mused on whether cyclists experience a heightened sense of smell while pedaling through the landscape - the combination of physical exertion and the speed at which we travel perhaps making us uniquely receptive to the subtle scents around us. Now I wonder whether these same elements might make us more prone to retaining these outdoor smells as well. The people around me seem to think so, at least. And not that I am complaining. Who knew "you smell like a cyclist" could be a compliment!