The many splendid smells of Aspen
In a 2004 episode of The Simpsons, Marge has an old classmate over to dinner who has become a Diane Sawyer-type success. Afterward, while washing a serving bowl the friend had brought over, Lisa says, “Even her bowl smells glamorous.” Marge rips it away incredulously, smells it and sighs, “It’s like Christmas in Aspen.”
Incidentally, when I think of the smell of an Aspen Christmas, I think of airplane de-icing fluid. Our luggage got inadvertently souced one memorable trip and to this day that chemical smell conjures up misty memories of Christmas lights and frigid groomers with Grandpa. And isn’t that the funny thing about scents: In the present tense they tend to be fleeting and vague, but in memory they are bizarrely specific and unforgettable. For some reason the smells of Aspen tend toward the latter. With outdoor life shifting from ski trails to hiking trails and a fresh crop of smells re-emerging, it seems a natural time to ask: Why does Aspen smell the way it does?
“There’s a mindfulness. It’s a surround sound and a surround smell,” Eric Motley, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute describes over the phone from his office in D.C. He begins every summer session with a hike up Hunter Creek, intermittently reading from Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Eric continues, “Ascending the mountain, you feel that you are suspended above the toxins, above the cars and traffic and gas stations. There’s a pureness. You’re also out of breath, and so that much more conscious of the air you’re taking in. It awakens the senses, the flowers, the water, the mountain cracking open and exposing itself.”
The Environment, Stupid
If one were to sum up the definitive smell of Aspen, it would probably be that of “pureness,” or, in a more literal sense, nothingness. Isolated from any urban centers or large expressways, the air here is much cleaner than what the vast majority of humanity sucks in on a daily basis. Furthermore, the elevation and lack of humidity do double duty. Molecules don’t move very well in dry, cold air, and even if they did, the nose’s smell receptors retract, leaving us with a blank slate, a white box, what we casually refer to as “fresh.” But that’s just the beginning.
The valley, flanked on three sides by national forest, is protected from long-haul dusty winds, but not so protected that the air gets stagnate and weighed down with particulate. Further aided by clean energy and growth restrictions, we are free of the dreaded brown cloud that so often blankets populated valleys. The elevation keeps the air dry and cool, yet we’re far enough south for the sun to induce its magic on the flora which pumps into the atmosphere a complex mix of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Highlights include terpene from pines and isoprene from the aspens as well as myriad delicious-smelling compounds from flowers.
Snow, the much celebrated state of H20 our economy depends upon, doesn’t technically have a scent, and yet, it does, doesn’t it? The only scientific explanation is that it is an uptick in humidity detected by the nose. However, “scent is a confluence of what we are seeing, hearing and feeling, emotionally and physically,” explains Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell, to the N.P.R. show, Radiolab. We see snow. We shred snow. We love snow. We therefore feel it has a smell when in fact, that delicious, cold nothing is just that, nothing.
Rain, on the other hand, is a different story. When it rains here the smell is so sweet it’s like a slap in the face. That is, of course, not the rain itself, but plant-secreted oils as well as a bacterial-made chemical called geosmin that gets splashed up into the atmosphere. Ideal odorous conditions call for long dry spells followed by light rainfall — pretty much the precipitation pattern spring through fall.
But Wait, Smell Doesn’t Even Work at This Altitude
What’s odd is that, technically, there shouldn’t be this preponderance of powerful smells. Everything about Aspen’s climate makes it difficult for both our nose’s ability to smell and the molecules ability to be smelled.
“Dry is certainly bad news for smell,” writes Dr. Luca Turin over email. The renegade molecular biologist and titular Emperor of Scent in Chandler Burr’s bestselling 2003 book, profiles his revolutionary new theory on smell (the first new theory to be properly advanced in 2,500 years). Turin also wrote the book on perfumes, literally. It’s called Perfumes, The Guide and is the Michelin standard for fragrances. I asked him if he agreed that our climate would be hard on the nose. “Indeed, I was in Santa Fe some years ago,” he responded, “and I had to have a boiling kettle near me when smelling things.”
Why then, if dry and cold kill scent, on a cold night is the smell of chimney smoke so pungent; how about the smell of grilling burgers wafting outside your favorite on-mountain eatery? The answer — hypothesized answer at least — is twofold. First, as Dr. Turin suspects, just like the eye, “the nose ‘dark-adapts’ and becomes more sensitive.” So even as the smell receptors retreat to protect themselves they become more sensitive and signal the brain with much more authority. Second, our olfaction is designed more for detecting new molecules than it is for detecting an accurate index of all present molecules, so when grandfathered chimney smoke finds its way through all that crisp nothing, it’s like a stone skipping across a glass pond.
Money, Pot, Chapstick
What else then is skipping across our pond that creates a bouquet so distinctive, so evocative, it can be used as shorthand in popular culture? I’ll divide them into three baskets.
First: money; let’s make like a Trump and talk about it. Attend a social gathering among the three-comma set and you will notice that everyone is very, very clean, a whole different level of clean not cheaply attained — like say, Aspen air. And to that purity they add beautiful scents, the finest perfumes, artfully designed by the great perfumers of Europe. And then there are their things, which add a certain sugar and spice to the aggregate smell-scape: the leather inside a Range Rover, the leather of a Patek Philippe, the fresh-cut grass on the polo field and on the golf course, notes of pine and fresh lilies at the Caribou Club, the heady cloud of Champagne, garlic and fondue at Cloud Nine, the Aqua Di Parma and Santa Maria Novella lingering throughout Gorsuch, a wine cork extracted from its bottle after a 40-year wait.
Add to all that money, our second basket: the ubiquitous smell of weed. Whether it’s some lingering smoke in the gondola, a sneak attack on the street, or a pungent puff wafting from the stock room, it’s a very present, very evocative smell experience. One feels perhaps envious, or disapproving, or camaraderous, or naughtiness. And then one might start thinking: But wait, it’s legal, and yet not legal, and when will it be totally legal? Should I have gotten into this business; did I miss a huge opportunity? Ugh, maybe I should just get stoned; nah, just a glass of wine.
The shops themselves have their own kind of odorifics. Strains, which range from peppery to sweet to that straight-up ganja stank, coalesce into an exhilarating, look-at-me-now-mom type feeling. Silverpeak, the so-called “Prada” of pot stores, uses lavender oil diffusers to further heighten the aromatic experience, an old retailer trick that goes back centuries.
The third basket I will call the “walking around smells.” Places like the gondola, which doesn’t really have much smell itself, but is more about what you bring with you: sunblock, chapstick, cologne, coffee, snow-soaked clothes, ski parkas that could use a wash. The post office always smells of freshly laser-printed paper with notes of cardboard. The fried dough from the donut wagon reminds me of when they used to serve crêpes. New York Pizza smells of garlic oil, powdered Parmesan and hot oven. Ajax Tavern is like diving into a pool of truffle oil. The aromas coming from Annette’s Bakery grab helpless passers-by like activated sleeper agents. “Must have carbs!” Kemo Sabe always smells like a saddle pulled from a sweaty horse. The various foot bridges that cross the Roaring Fork all have different degrees of a molded, rotten wood smell, which happens to be a personal favorite.
In the end, everyone has their own smell memories and associations. For example, in addition to my bizarre association with antifreeze, I also love that first moment you get off the airplane, thin air mixed with jet fuel, flowers and pine; it smells like home.
Landon Clements, who stars in Bravo’s Southern Charm and is a frequent visitor during the summer, says her little Eskimo dog freaks out the moment the plane lands. Charlotte doesn’t display that behavior anywhere else. Landon also loves the smell of mud down by Woody Creek, a scent memory from her childhood in Georgia.
David Houggy, president of the Aspen Science Center, loves “pine for sure. Grass. The streams. Mossy woods. Hickory House.” Art dealer Meredith Darrow, who does a summer pop-up in Performance Ski, prefers the smells of summer to winter, and loves good old wildflowers and pine. Jared Borgia, an aspiring marijuana mogul, recalls the signature scent of the Mountain Club, “Yeah, it was my B.O. from wearing my work uniform under my ski suit in order to get as many runs in as possible before I started my lunch shift.” Missy Shennan, who has been on and off ski bumming since the ’70s, recalls winters before the fireplace restrictions, “The whole town smelled of piñon pine on winter nights; heavenly, but smoggy.”
Eric Motley, of the Aspen Institute and a poet at heart, can’t help but romanticize, “The higher I ascend, the purer becomes the scent of nature. It is as if the air has been stripped of all excesses, and the water below, the wild flowers hugging the ground, and the light of the rising sun fill the void and are deeply interfused, ‘giving me,’ as the poet would say, ‘Among the fretful dwellings of mankind, / A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm / That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.’”
Or as Dr. Turin explains, “I love smells in general, but natural smells tend more to the sublime than the beautiful, the latter being defined as something devised by a human for another.” And maybe that is what sums up the smell of Aspen: the beautiful meets the sublime, with a whiff of the ridiculous thrown in for good measure.
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