Mom was tidying up papers on the dining room table when I wandered in with a patch of ductape still stuck to one foot and windblown salt-stiff hair, respective relics of blister repair on a spontaneous hike and the drive back down the mountain, all windows open.

“I never knew mountain laurel had a smell,” I said. Mom stopped and looked up, a little surprised. “Oh yes!” She gave a half quizzical grin in my direction: “Didn’t know you’d never smelled it before. It’s beautiful.” This is my mother who introduced me to the hills when I was two weeks old, describing in detail every butterfly and flower we passed hiking up to Craggy Gardens. I guess I wasn’t hiking so much as riding, probably sleeping for half of it. “He’s never gonna remember that,” my grandfather had grumbled. And he was probably right. But I believe something of the essence stuck.

But no, I’d never smelled mountain laurel before. Which made the hike alone on Sunday all the more special, because, for all the time I’ve spent in the mountains, they still surprise me. In some ways hiking the Appalachian Trail only counts as a marathon tour. It’s like being at a family reunion. I’ve met all the people, but I still don’t know the individuals. And even the mountains in your back yard, like your own family, you still don’t know them that well.

The smell of mountain laurel – it’s not a heavy scent. It’s easily missed. Because I’ve known lots of blooming mountain laurel, and I’ve even paused and sniffed, waited patiently and then breathed in softly, but never with effect. Part of me wonders if my efforts were too profane. Because I wasn’t trying this last time. I was just walking, coming around a curve suddenly to find myself covered by a tunnel of the blossoms, spikes of flowering galax rising around my feet and that ineffably delicate, long-haired grass that only grows on high ridges bordering the path. And in that moment there was the scent.

Not like hyacinth. Similar – otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of the smell – but no, not that bold, nor buxom. Not so old as lilac, not so green as jonquils. Sweet the way skin sometimes smells sweet, with the same earthy edge. Delicate and slender as a towhead girl in thin cotton.

You can’t stop walking at a moment like that. There is something in the combination of movement and stillness which is crucial to what you are experiencing, and to try to hold it for more than those few seconds would be fatal. Not fatal to you. You’d keep living your fat, happy life just fine. But the connection with the laurel and the trail and the moment would be broken. It’s like dancing. When you find yourself caught in the moment, those instances when everything flows perfectly, you can’t stop. That would destroy precisely what you’re trying to hold on to. Because you can’t hold it. You have to breathe, and walk, and live the instant, and in every breath let it go.

The tunnel of laurels opened out onto a rocky projection where you could see the thunder clouds massing above Craggy, and the broken sunbeams shifting over the valleys, and the hazy blue mist which isn’t smog shrouding all. When we were young my mother used to point out the mist and say “Look, you can see the mountains breathing.” I stood there and breathed with them, and knew I needed to go, but unwillingly, and turned to smell the laurels one last time before beginning the walk back home.

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