Crack open a bottle of Hoppe’s Number Nine and you’re transported to another time and place. It might be your grandfather’s shop, or a favorite hunting spot, maybe something altogether personal and secret, but you will go there. There is no better time-travel device than our nose.
Science tells us of all the memory-kindlers, our sense of smell is superior to the other four. There is a four-lane freeway from nostrils to the memory center in our brain, and we are in the express lane every time we inhale.
For we bird hunters, perhaps more so. After all, our four-legged partners make a living with their schnozzolas, so we are in some small way tuned into their incredible olfactory abilities, mimicking them to a pitifully small degree. But even at a smidgen of their scenting ability, we can appreciate the remarkable way our nose takes us on hunting trips long after the blisters have healed.
Our chukar desert emits a pastel-hued atmosphere, fueled by a mélange of sage, hot sand and bitterbrush. The reaction to its quenching by a sudden downpour is genetic, first the smell of wet air and ground reaching us, then drops – if we’re lucky – soon after. Deep down, we know life-giving water is good, even if we must crouch under a rocky overhang until it abates. Even a wet dog reminds us water is good.
A cold snow has texture and an odor like no other winter phenomenon. It sticks in the throat, penetrates deep into the lungs. Add the tang of pine pitch and you are suddenly in a different world.
Skunk in the distance is the quintessential smell of rural America. Up close, we use other descriptions, and we never forget that day (nor does our dog).
We relive every shot from every hunt when the gun opens and smoke drifts from the barrel. That hard left-right crosser, the double over a staunch point … where and when, whom you were with are retrieved from the subconscious every time burnt powder bites your nostrils.
We’ll never suss out the mystery of what our dogs feel when they drink in the elixir of bird scent, except to know for certain that it is a deep, deep pleasure. Do they recall every bird? Is it a brand-new experience every time? Are there special birds? What makes them special? Is he hoping this is the one he can pounce on, swallow whole, and enjoy again later when it magically reappears in front of his retching muzzle?
Or rather delivered to us (we hope), where the coppery aroma of startlingly-hot guts taken from a small body assaults our senses.
Musty leaves beyond crackling, destined to join the soil they sprang from last year. Wet rocks along a stream that beckon a dog that deserves a quenching drink. The musk of mud and still water. Anticipation of the first bitter snort-gulp of icy beer shrinks the distance between ridgeline and truck.
Campfire smoke is the perfect accompaniment to old whiskey in a tin cup – like a wine snob, don’t forget to inhale as you sip. A charcoal grill, rib eyes sizzling, signals the end of a good day.
Long after the snow flies, I watch my dogs while cooking birds we’ve hunted together and wonder: is it the raw meat that draws them inexorably to the kitchen, or the stirring of memory …where they pointed, how they felt, the intoxicating odor of feathers recalled in a breath?
I might be giving them more credit than they deserve, hoping they recall the magical time when two predators worked as one. Maybe you do, too.