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One for the Road: Ode to the nose

By Shadow


When a motorcyclist tries to describe to a nonrider the allure of the open road, we often resort to such clichés as “the feeling of the wind in my hair” or “the amazing views” or some other equally tired explanation. Instead, I’ve tried to relate to people how being on a motorcycle opens up all my senses in ways that are not possible while watching TV or riding in a car.

When I first started riding, the anxiety I felt caused me to engage in shallow breathing, meaning that I never breathed through my nose. Just trying to keep the bike upright and not getting myself into any serious trouble gave me enough to do. Yes, I liked the feeling of being in the wind and all that. But once I got more comfortable on the bike and started to relax a little, I came to realize that my sense of smell is what impacts me the most.

It’s been scientifically proven that the sense of smell triggers emotions and memories in a way that our other senses cannot. Smell is the strongest and most primal of all our senses. There are complicated reasons for all this, having to do with the olfactory bulb in the brain being linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion. All I know is, when I smell certain scents—and there are plenty while on the road—my mind can take me to far-away and long-ago places and times, adding yet another pleasing dimension to my motorcycling experience.

Riding on the New Jersey Turnpike near the Newark Liberty Airport, the aroma of yeast from the Anheuser-Busch brewery reminds me of the Stegmaier and Gibbons breweries of my younger years, when I lived to party and partied to live. Yet odors while riding on other parts of the NJT, like the places where six oil companies’ worth of refineries spew nasty stuff into the air, make me glad that I no longer live in that area.

When I ride through farmlands, I can clearly recall the fun and excitement of picking apples in the countryside near my childhood home. Organized apple-picking “tours?” Nah… no such thing when I was a kid. We just snuck into the orchards, took what we wanted and scurried away before we got caught. That’s a myth, about the farmers with shotguns chasing kids out of the fields. They had pitchforks.

Marketing strategists fully understand the power of the nose, and many incorporate it into their promotional efforts. Aromatherapy has gotten to be big business, and there are scented oils, candles and lotions to evoke every mood imaginable. In 1960, the concept of Smell-O-Vision was introduced for the film Scent of Mystery so that viewers could “smell” what was going on in the movie. When triggered by the soundtrack, 30 different odors were injected into the seats. Not surprisingly, this particular marketing ploy wasn’t exactly a resounding success.

And who can forget scratch ’n’ sniff cards? In 1982, movie director John Waters used this for a remake of his cult classic Polyester. More recently, TLC has promoted “Watch ’n’ Sniff” cards for its popular (go figure) reality show Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. I mean, who wouldn’t want a fart-scented Watch ’n’ Sniff card to enhance your viewing pleasure?

One of the most interesting uses of scent is the introduction of the “Francis” cologne named after Pope Francis. According to a press release, “Pope Francis’s personality has been encapsulated in fragrance form with the release of a pope cologne by Excelsis Fine Fragrances.” This isn’t their first foray into the pope fragrance world, either. But if you’re wondering what “Francis” smells like, Excelsis CEO Frederick Hass said it mainly consists of bergamot and sandalwood to evoke the pope’s humble and down-to-earth character.

The sense of smell can also tell you where you are. If you happen to be riding on the back of a bike with your eyes closed, it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that if you get a strong whiff of fertilizer, you are probably riding through a rural area. (Please don’t tell me that you actually pilot your bike with your eyes closed just to find out what you can smell.)

There’s even a company that capitalizes on your fondness for your hometown. The website for United Scents of America says that their fragrances “are meant to evoke nostalgia for your home state, the state you currently live in or one that holds a special place in your heart.” Some of the featured scents for New Jersey include fresh buttered popcorn, cotton candy, caramel and coconut. Apparently the scent designers spent their summers at the Jersey shore. Me? I’ve lived in northern New Jersey for the past 20 years. Since this part of the state is the most heavily populated, I’m surprised they don’t offer Eau de Exhaust.

Interestingly enough, the use of scent for marketing in the motorcycle world doesn’t seem to have taken hold. I guess the “natural” smells of leather, burning rubber and nitromethane are enough to keep us olfactorily engaged with the riding and racing experience. It works for me.

Olfactory memory is also critical to survival. Simply, we remember smells and exactly what they mean. We all know what burning wires smell like, indicating it’s time to pull over. Quickly. The smell of diesel exhaust usually reminds me that I’m too close to the big rig in front of, or next to, me. And if I smell burning rubber that isn’t a result of my boots touching the exhaust, I know to look for tire gators in the road. If I hear thunder and see lightning, I know there’s a storm nearby, but if I smell ozone, I know to get off the road… now!

The sense of smell is quite complex and can sometimes send mixed messages. A skunk odor tells me to watch out for a black-and-white cadaver in the road so that I don’t carry the stink on my tires. But it also brings me back to the delightful summers at Girl Scout Camp Onawandah in northeast Pennsylvania where we lived in tents in the woods, paddled canoes down the Susquehanna, learned about a variety of flora and fauna, cooked our meals over campfires and often slept under the stars. And tried to stay away from skunks, along with the wily and dexterous raccoons, who were interested in the candy bars hidden in our foot lockers.

But I digress. See what even the suggestion of a scent can do?


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