The air today is full of the scent of dried grasses. The smell reminds me of Sunday afternoon rides in vanished summers, when we would pass through the expanding fringe of suburbs east of Los Angeles into the hot, dry lands beyond, past the orange groves and the vineyards, to that vast region of hills and valleys where all the roads were two lanes wide, and dusty hamlets of a few houses, a grocery store, a gas station and greasy spoon diner sat forlorn amid a few hardy trees amid the empty, brown lands. We would travel through ranges of hills , and down into small valleys where a windmill or two might be turning, pumping water for a few acres of green pasture or crops, then up into another range of hills on a high-crowned road running between barbed wire fences and lined with swags of telephone line hung from tall, brown poles. Sometimes the poles would run straight up a steep hillside while the road curved along cuts in the brown earth, or through a twisting arroyo offering a pass to the next valley. From the summits, mirages might appear in the valleys below, shimmering like water, but offering no reflection of sky or landscape. The deeper into the back country we traveled, the more unreal it all seemed. The line of mountains in the east, walling in the desert, might have been a mirage as well.
Those days seem more fixed in time now than they did when I lived them. Now, they are fixed in the past by memory. Then, they were detached from normal time, and might have been the seconds of dreams or the years of a spell. I never asked are we there yet on these rides, as I knew there was no there to get to. We simply moved through the landscape, with no planned destination, no fixed purpose. I was aware of time only as the imperceptible altering of shadows, or the ticking by of fence posts or telephone poles, or the slow onset of hunger. The clock in my stomach was the most demanding, and we would look for a place to stop and eat the food we always brought. Sometimes it would be a roadside turnout on a hillside, or a small grove of trees fed by an underground stream. Whatever the place, the ceasing of motion and the stilling of the car's humming, vibrating engine always brought a flood of new perceptions.
Remembering those moments when I would open the car door and step out into the summer day, the first thing that comes to my mind is always the smell of dry grass. It was overwhelming. Far more intense than the scent of our well-watered suburban lawn, or even those patches of tall grass, usually dominated by the exotic mustard, which flourished in vacant lots or in the field under the power lines which ran through our neighborhood, it was at once earthy, and vegetative, and reminiscent of bread baking, or cereal cooking, and even a bit like the smell of old books, and like the rattan furniture which sat on innumerable front porches of old Los Angeles houses. If there was a telephone pole nearby, it might add a slight tinge of creosote to the smell, and any trees would add their odors -- dry and woody oak, sharp pepper, and the even more pungent eucalyptus -- but the scent of the grass would dominate them all. The faint paper-like smell was the most interesting, though. That time of year, the broad fields and rolling hills were the color of old paper, and the sharp and simple lines of the California landscape, the distance often blurred by a slight haze, seemed like drawings of an imaginary place that might be found in a dusty old book. But the air of this book often stirred with breezes, brushing the heat over the skin and tickling the hair.
My other senses would take a few minutes to adjust, not only because of the overpowering quality of that olfactory delight. As, when going out into the night when leaving a brightly lit room the eyes must adjust to the darkness, after traveling in a car for some time, the eyes and ears both must adjust to the still world and its subtle sounds. After a few minutes, I would become aware of the rustling of the grass. Sometimes there would be meadowlarks singing nearby, and often the air would be buzzing with the sound of cicadas. Watching the grass, I would see the breeze make patterns that would flow across the surface of a field. Occasionally, a jackrabbit might bound out of the tall grass and across the road. Birds might perch on the telephone lines, and once in a while I would glimpse a still-winged hawk gliding upwards on a thermal in the blue heat of an otherwise empty sky.
We must have driven through those places in other seasons, as well, but it is always summer there in my memory, with the relentless, dry Mediterranean heat desiccating the grasses, releasing their pent up fragrance into the silky air. Somehow, the heat never bothered me then -- or, perhaps, I merely don't remember the heat bothering me. I have no memory of discomfort, but only of being wrapped in the softest and most welcoming of blankets, as though being laid down to dream of an ideal world in a timeless afternoon.