Before safety was on the front burner of adventure companies, a traveler could bike down Haleakala volcano on Maui right after sunrise. During our first visit, that sounded like a grand adventure, and so one morning a guide picked us up at 3 am, and off we went into the dark night, bicycles in tow. After a frosty and foggy ride for the first part of the trek, the sun burst through, and the trek down the mountain gifted us with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding countryside.
That would be expected.
But what was unexpected was the symphony of smells. Pineapple fields assaulted the air with the smell of ripe fruit. Breezes carried the salt air across the road. And then, rounding a corner, the road turned through a large grove of eucalyptus trees lining each side. In an instant, the air was soaked with their singular scent, filling up my lungs with a thick, damp, rich smell of my childhood.
I was home.
I thought about that eucalyptus grove today. Almost two years in the desert now, I am beginning to realize that perhaps it is not the desert landscape itself that engenders a feeling of home for me here. It is the nostalgic smells that permeate the air.
I walk through the birding trail along Patagonia Lake, and beneath my feet scrub oak leaves litter the ground. Stepping on them releases the pungent smell of my childhood in Salinas - the scent of San Benancio Canyon, of hikes on the Monterey Peninsula, of the newly developed park my brother tended to in its infancy.
I drive through the foothills of Rio Rico, windows rolled down, and the air is soaked in that leaf smell, and the smell of occasional evergreen, and the smell of dried autumn grasses which catch the wind and are carried across mesquite dotted meadows.
And I walk the frost dusted fairways of a golf course this and every morning, noting the solitary eucalyptus tree, its size indicative of longevity, and I find myself moving to stand at its base, hungry for the smell of my childhood.
Here in this desert, I have recently learned that the smell of home might be even more important for those who are far removed from its comfort. You see, recently when the little town of Sasabe, Sonora in Mexico was caught up in the violence of a cartel war, many of its citizens fled the town, forsaking their homes and all their belongings in order to protect themselves and their families.
They did not just wake up one day and decide to “make a change”. They were living their lives in a beautiful sleepy little border town, raising their families, sending their children to school, sharing meals with each other around simple tables. And then gunfire erupted in the streets, and kidnappings started, and the school was closed. And so, they fled.
Christmas Eve day we help moved a family of seven who had fled that violence into a two bedroom trailer. Because they came with almost nothing, Tim and I set about thinking about what they might need to set up a new home. After all, what good are donations of canned food if you don’t have a can opener.
But then I began to wonder about what might feel most like home on this holiest of holidays beyond just basic needs. So, we got a little tree and some presents, and I wanted to prepare a Christmas meal with all the trimmings, some small gesture of welcome to lighten the load. But I only knew American traditions, so I began to research what meal might be part of a Mexican Christmas celebration.
My research led me to the tradition of having pozole, a celebtratory Mexican stew, which I had never heard of. One thing you may not know about me is that I am not a recipe follower…I make things up as I go. But I searched high and low for all of the very specific ingredients, and I followed the recipe meticulously and let the stew simmer for almost a day.
The next day, with the warmed pozole in a crockpot safely plugged in their new kitchen, a group of us moved in their scant belongings and supplies. When we had finished unloading the car, I called mama over to the crockpot. Dad and the children stood with us in the postage sized kitchen, curious what was in the pot. Mama came to stand next to me to peer in, and I lifted the lid releasing the aroma.
One whiff, and her face exploded into joy.
Her whole family began laughing, and for one moment, we were all filled with joy with her. There were no beds, few personal belongings,and not really enough room for such a large family. But they were together. They were safe.
And the smell of pozole made this trailer a home.
When we arrived back at our own home, I opened the refrigerator and realized I had not done any shopping for our own family, and all the stores were closed. But we had a few frozen Stouffer’s spaghetti dinners, and we cobbled together a meal not fit for a king, but fit for two people who had just experienced where true joy comes from.
The next morning, Christmas came. In the pre dawn hours we walked our dog on the frosty fairway once again. I stood beneath the solitary eucalyptus tree on the side of the fairway and stared upward into its enormous canopy. The smell drifted down.
I was home again.
And I hoped this immigrant family was experiencing the same thing, in a new land, in a new dwelling, but with the aroma of home still in the air to comfort them.