Culture

The Scent of Hope

Spring smells like Boston, and travel, hinting at fresh possibilities that lift the spirit.

A thaw hit hard last week on the high plains where I live, melting snowbanks into dirt roads and trails to make mud. Spring mud. My favorite kind.

There’s something about the smell of spring mud. It comes as a surprise after the sterile absence of smell from frozen winter earth insulated with snow. It smells of fecundity, new birth, growth, possibility, hope.

And, to me, it smells of Boston. I’ve been in Boston when daffodils are pushing through spring mud along the Charles nearly every year for decades. That scent is the smell of lifetime dreams coming true; it is the smell of passion, dedication, excellence, community, tradition.

It is also the scent of travel, of someplace new. Because the spring mud in Boston smells different than it does in Deadwood, or Duluth. Spring also smells different in Pittsburg and Rotterdam, on the Maine coast and the Jersey Shore… and the memory of those smells in all the places I’ve had the privilege of running spring marathons calls to me when I catch that first whiff of awakened earth.

Of the things the pandemic took from us, travel seems trivial, but I’ve learned it is among the most missed to me as a runner. Virtual racing is unsatisfying not only because we don’t have competitors and companions running along side us, it also disappoints because we’re not taking in the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and yes, even tastes that are unique to each location — and which we experience with an unrivaled intensity during a race.

I’ve never been one to ascribe to a bucket list. I’ve always said I want to experience it all, as it comes. This is true even for races: I tend to run ones in the city and region where I find myself living, or visiting. I want to continue that habit, as I love the way races reveal a region’s geography, history and culture, and how every location provides memorable experiences, even those unlikely to make anyone’s “must do” list.

But the pandemic has created a new urgency in me that even mortality hadn’t yet. I no longer assume I’ll get around to everywhere, or that everywhere will always be available. And there are many places, and races, that call to my imagination.

I’ve always wanted to run the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in DC. I was once signed up for the London Marathon and didn’t make it there. I’d like to run it, and Berlin, and Tokyo, completing the World Marathon Majors.

Photo: Marathon du Mont Saint Michel

I’ve long been intrigued by the Marathon de la baie du Mont St Michel, which circles a bay in Brittany en route to the impressive walled abbey rising out of the sea. I’d love to run the Marseille-Cassis 20K along the French Riviera, and any of the races in the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc.

I’m just getting started, and I realize the list will quickly get far too long for me to ever accomplish. I also realize that my bucket list goes far beyond races. Racing is, in fact, somewhat peripheral to the experience of running travel. A race does provide a reason for the trip, a focus and a specific date to anchor the memory, and I want more of those.

But I have as vivid memories of “training” runs that immersed me in locations near and far-flung: skipping through tourists along San Fransisco’s Embarcadero, dancing up a jungle trail in Costa Rica, circling Austin’s urban Lady Bird Lake Trail at dusk, cruising quietly through the towering tree-arches of Brussel’s Forêt de Soignes, ascending the switchbacks up Missoula’s Mount Sentinel, keeping pace with tuk-tuks amid the sensory barrage of Bangkok…

I couldn’t begin to name the places I still want to explore, but I’m ready to get started. There are many I want to return to as well; like Boston, the smell of which got me thinking about travel.

We won’t have Boston again this spring, of course, and travel is still a hazy mirage in the unpredictable future. But spring did come, even though nothing else has, and it brought with it hope, and dreams. I’ll keep running toward those until we can again return to cherished routes, and forge new memories on as-yet unexplored ones.