The fragrance was as green as any I’d ever smelled, and so fresh that I stopped in my tracks to inhale it again. Turns out it was from some dried sweet woodruff flowers along the park bicycle path, and I would have missed it if I hadn’t chucked the music.
My iPod has been my exercise companion for 10 years; it’s an old version of the gadget, a sleek rectangle of gold metal that holds about 300 of my favorite songs: country, rock, folk, classical, pop, hip hop – a stranger scrolling through my playlist would conclude I’m scattered. But the music has kept me company through daily exercise for thousands of days.
It was with me on the 350-mile bike ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, on hundreds of miles I pedaled through wine country of Argentina, on walks through Amish country in Ohio, and all those many evening walks through my neighborhood. Just as walking in the dark made the trek pass more quickly, walking with a song spilling into my head made me walk faster.
But this week I decided to walk a cappella. On my drive to the park, talk radio was even angrier and more contentious than usual, and by the time I’d park at my starting point, I decided that my ears needed a rest.
Those first few steps felt naked and open. How would I find my pace without my Tom Petty song to set my stride? Ten years of walking and bike rides amount to about three thousand hours of those songs flowing into my ear.
Without it, my head felt buzzy and hollow. How would I fill it for the next three miles?
At first I counted steps, timing each step to a chomp on my gum. Then I named the 50 states in alphabetical order, as usual losing my way around Missouri and Mississippi. Recited the alphabet forward and backward. I was starting to bore myself and I was only a half-mile into the walk.
And then I smelled the smell. It was new to me, not quite minty and not quite flowery, but bright green and woodsy. It smelled like shade with some sunshine breaking through. Like a nursery greenhouse after a rain. I stopped walking, and then backed up a few steps so that I was standing right in the fragrance.
Senses are a funny thing. I’ve long suspected that I have something called synesthesia, a type of brain wiring in which the senses become crossed. For example, I see people and words in terms of colors. My son is yellow and my daughter is purple. That never changes.
And I would not have noticed that smell if I’d been listening to the music. It’s almost as if the noise has cut me off from my other senses.
Once I stopped chattering at myself in my head, the park came rushing at me – the whole chirping, rustling, swaying, quacking sound of it.
And without the music, the sky was a different blue, and I noticed that some trees have all their leaves and some have none. In one place near the lake, the trees bend toward each other like ballerinas. When the row of geese started crossing the path in front of me, I knew I’d been missing out all this time. Their quack sounds almost like mooing.
My walk felt longer that day. It was longer; without the music to set my pace, I was taking a leisurely stroll. I’m not sure I’d even call that exercise. But that’s OK, because I finally got out of my head and onto the path. It sounds better out there, and smells really good.