It’s pretty widely recognized that odors bring back memories more quickly, more intensely, and from farther back than do the other senses. Perhaps the most evocative fragrance I know is that of an indelible staining glop called “pine tar.” Some of you are old enough to know what I’m talking about. It’s the potion you use to make wooden ski bases waterproof and wax-friendly. If this was used on alpine skis, it was before my time. However, I continued to use it on a yearly basis for my hickory touring skis well into the 1990s. See appended photo (taken this morning, BTW).
All skiing-related associations aside, the scent of pine tar puts me on a rocky island in the middle of a pristine lake in Washington County, Maine, as a pre-teen. To this day, the particular smell of sun-warmed granite, pine needles, low-bush blueberries, last night’s campfire, and meager peaty soil seems to represent all that can be right and good with the world.
Pine tar itself subsumes this amalgam, adding turpentine and … I don’t know. Something else. Something pungent and faintly rotten. I imagine it to be some kind of cool Scandinavian herring-based version of the fish sauce common in southeast Asian cooking. To me this is the smell of ski trip anticipation. For many of us, tuning is as much a way to extend the presence of skiing into non-skiing hours at home as much as it is a way to improve the on-snow experience and the longevity of our gear. I remember, as a high school kid, standing on a windy night in our freezing garage, with the glow of an ancient Toastmaster electric space heater for company. (It might as well have been heating Space, for all the effect it had on the temperature of the room.) A Christmas-time ski outing was in the works. Time to get the skis ready. There was something alchemical or incantatory about the pine tar. This sense of witch-work was enhanced by the fact that you actually had to boil this stuff into the ski base with a torch. Sometimes it even caught fire briefly, and I think that was considered okay. In any case it was just catching up with my imagination. :)