The smell of California hits me as I exit the plane in Burbank late one evening in March 1987. I know it's different right away, but I don’t know why. Not until years later can I name some of the components of the smell: eucalyptus, palm tree, ocean breeze, and a dollop of smog. Knowing the ingredients now doesn't diminish the impact of the first whiff: exciting and exotic.
I'm there to visit Caltech in Pasadena, a graduate school I'm thinking about attending. My graduate school decision will change my life, but as I walk on the warm tarmac, I only think of the smell and how different it is. I left Rochester, New York, 6 hours earlier. It was snowy and cold. In California, it's dark and sultry. Impossibly tall, Dr. Seuss-like palms sway in the breeze.
I would eventually attend Caltech, leave after 3 years, and move to Washington State. My trips to California - be they Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Eureka - always bring me back to that first smell at the Burbank airport.
If the literal smell of California is land, sea, and smog, then the metaphorical smell represents escape. My exact prison and wardens are not clear or fair in retrospect, but in 1987, I named them as family and the non-life that I had on the East Coast. The smell that first evening on the West Coast hinted at a new start. Besides, California was where one of my troubled (and in trouble) uncles went to live in the late 1970s, and he turned his life around as everyone in my family claimed. California held sway over my imagination as a place of renewal.
Trust in my senses for guidance and inspiration started that night as well. The new smell woke me up. Sights, sounds, and smells are crucial to my method of finding out about the world around me. Physical perception of place leads to exploration, and exploring is when I'm happiest. Why does a place look, sound, or smell like it does? The first whiff of California was a key moment in a gradual awakening of my physical senses and the ability to begin asking these questions.