In the shadow of giant cement dinosaurs, forged when Route 66 was a thing, we sit just beyond the Painted Desert National Monument and arrange turquoise rings on the old picnic table. We passed through Zuni land today and picked our treasures carefully, then hit the souvenir store across the road for six packs of Budweiser. We like how the red can looks contrasted against the bright blue of the stone in the purple light of sunset.
The horizon extends far off to distant lightning storms and the place, in the long twilight, seems magical— a perfect postcard from a road trip we’ll hold as nostalgic for the rest of our lives.
The Piñon campfire rages with a bounty of logs collected in Santa Fe, filling the empty car camp with orange light and the smell of cinnamon, complementing the ozone from far away storms.
We savor our beer as we consider our souvenirs and scroll through photos of the day’s surreal landscapes. This campfire is one of the important ones, where the smoke works to capture the memory of the event, adding to something classic and timeless. We will carry it with us.
The still took a while to get cranking tonight. It was a long day, rainy, and the air was cold and damp. Everyone’s boots were wet, Jordan had burned his jacket in the campfire trying to dry it out, and a few folks from our crew were wearily huddled under a little shack they found at the east edge of Elk Meadows. “Your faith in man-made structures will not keep you warm!” yells Hall, as he throws another log on the fire under the pot-still.
Now it’s clear out and Venus twinkles over Mount Hood to the West. The Field Lab van is parked in a nearby lot, where our support crew is busy packing away the Douglas fir and Englemann spruce we’ll need for this year’s Timberline Trail Wilderness Perfume.
The girls break out guitars and start singing Patsy Cline as the slow drip drip drip of the still begins to work its magic. The sweet smoke coaxes the weary and wet hikers out of the shelter and smiles emerge as the whiskey gets flowing. In a few hours, nobody will remember the rain, only bright starlight.
The best campfires take all night, and we’ll be up till almost dawn, tending the alchemical process. No smells sings of the Pacific Northwest like Douglas fir cinder, curling around us, energizing us with its warm, bright fragrance. Our jackets will be infused with the welcome smell for days to come.
Rome, Oregon is a lonely speck, north of the Owyhee River canyon. Bob’s wife Mary runs the little campground there, behind the service station that reads “NO GAS” in big letters, where she sells cinnamon rolls that smell just like sweetgrass. We aren’t here for the cinnamon rolls, although we’ll have a couple, and as far as fuel, that’s not why we’re here either.
We’re here for the stars.
This lonely, dry desert is known for the endless sky that shines down on the new moon, when the Milky Way is a stripe of silver so bright, the blue-grey grass reflects its light all spring long. The wild mustang herds are near here too, but good luck seeing one— they’re as skittish as they ought to be, given their experience.
We put the campfire out early and let our eyes adjust to the grandeur overhead. We light a few, newly made, local sweetgrass braids and laugh at how much they smell like Mary’s cinnamon rolls. How can two things, so different, smell so similar? Maybe it’s in our heads. What if we didn’t know Mary, if we just knew Sweetgrass as Sweetgrass? Still, it’s unlikely to think that it wouldn’t remind us of home— this endless, plateaued desert, the Great Basin, where just for a few months, the grass comes to dance with the stars and what might be the loneliest corner of the world feels like anything but.
Some hippy ran off with Hall’s sleeping bag. And even though we all, especially Hall, take a who cares! approach, reminding each other that we’ve got plenty of food and an extra blanket, that it’s not worth stopping the trip over, his first night without a bag up on Pine Ridge is tough. He has to keep the fire going all night, warming rocks and swapping them out every few hours to keep warm enough for rest.
At dawn, over coffee and oatmeal, we light white sage. We aren’t particularly spiritual people, but there is certainly something about this smoke, the peppery smell that seems to whisper energy to us, encouraging our resolve and tempering our stamina for the challenges to come. We always hike with it, this most regal of all our native salivas. You don’t even need that much to get you there, to that centered place of focus and relaxation, but some days you need more than others, so this morning we burned a lot. The heady mix of aromatic spice wafting from silver leaves defies easy description. Words like pure, earthy, desert-like— they don’t even come close. It is a deep and subtle energy that taps a deep and subtle place, and whatever you’d call it, the magic of the stuff lifts our spirits, especially Hall’s, who prepares for the next day of adventure with a smile on his face.
Hall strums the ukulele as Obi picks up his paintbrush. It was a long day on the trail and several times the guys had to turn back, worried they might not make it back to the car in time for work on Monday. But they’re still at it. Revitalized after a quick dip in Castle Lake and now passing around the Sigg full of bourbon, they do what they do best.
Hall likes a roaring fire while Obi likes to keep it low, but Obi relents and six big, blazing logs beckon the stars from behind spruce, fir and Siskiyou cedar trees. Clouds of ginger-spiced smoke roll out over adjacent, backcountry campsites, which, for some unknown reason, are all empty. Shouldn’t they be full? Don’t people know how beautiful it is up here in the Siskiyou mountains? Did savvy travelers somehow portend Hall and Obi’s approaching sing-along and decide to spare themselves? A Ramones song rings out against the black sky, then a Buddy Holly song or two.
Things settle down and Obi keeps up his painting, working on the packaging designs for our next Field Lab fragrance. He comments on how mushroomy and alive the fire smells tonight while Hall closes his eyes and leans back against a log, going to that distant place in his head that, if you know Hall, you know he goes to often. Sleeping bags get unrolled next to the warm, fragrant fire, and when they get shoved into their packs again the following morning, for the final leg of the journey, they’ll carry the soft smell of cedar smoke: clean and deep and carrying with it the memory of one of the best nights ever.
It’s the toughest corner of the world. It must be. But as is the case in so many of these terribly desolate places across the Great Basin Desert, it is also one of the most beautiful. And once you really look, it’s not so desolate after all.
This place has its own aromatic language of dust and granite, juniper pollen and sandstone. The hazy orange of twilight darkens to a bruisy mauve as the endless horizon extends out past the distant Panamint Mountains. Salt cedar trees offer cool respite in the fading of the day as a milieu of creatures— scavenger and hunter— emerge from the desert wash, searching for nutrient scrap with the uncertain drive to survive guiding their every instinct, just as they have been for a hundred million years. Three skinny coyotes amble through camp. Two minutes before, a roadrunner and its chicks did the same.
Water even tastes better out here, it transforms in your mouth as if it knows just how precious it is; everything tastes ancient, vaguely metallic, informed by mineral deposits that predate all terrestrial life. The valley sings with this life, and you can’t help but wonder who named such a place Death when now, in March, the pass is carpeted in rainbow wildflowers. In less than a month, the campground will close due to the heat, but for now, the sand has acquiesced to life’s tireless willingness to thrive. And for us in this moment, nothing exists but the totality of the desert. There is no world outside this valley. There is only this place, and the smoke of the campfire billowing into dark sky.