Friday, August 15, 2008

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Alaska is a land for men.

This is made clear from the moment you arrive. Fishermen and hunters, line up on the right. You womenfolk, go get some reindeer sausage and a few cases of brew at the Costco and bring it back to the cabin, chop-chop!

Now, I’m deeply urban. I have hiked in Yellowstone, and my palms get moist at R.E.I. (See "Stuff White People Like.") But most of the time I don’t give a rat’s ass about the great outdoors. My idea of a good travel event would be, oh, sneaking into some ancient Spanish cathedral long before the tourists get there and having it all to myself, which actually happened once.

But Alaska humbled me.

All that white and gray and green. Mountains so huge they make ours look like hills. Gigantic rivers of ice, a blue too gorgeous to be real. Lodges so remote you have to fly to them in little planes. Realizing that the creature comforts are terribly fragile.

And it’s BIG. Everything is so big that you feel insignificant. Distances are huge and the land is empty. There's no one around and there's not much to count on. For the people who live here, every day is a test, that ancient push-pull of man v. nature.

Perfume, in such a place? Yes, but chosen carefully. I chose three scents from Comme des Garcons Incense Series 3.

Zagorsk, which seems a bit contrived to me at home, makes sense in Alaska. It reminds me of the epic movie "Dr. Zhivago," of that scene with Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Julie Christie as Lara, swathed in fur, crossing the steppes. Zagorsk is cold and austere, full of pine, birch and cedar. It’s meant to evoke Russia. There is something melancholy about Alaska, too, though, months of nights that never end, a summer so short, and with so much work to be done. Zagorsk has the gravitas to handle such a place. Imagine how silly, how out-of-phase, some girly-girl floral would be here. Zagorsk was perfect.

Avignon, for use in praying to keep the Grizzlies away. (Seriously. It’s an odd feeling to realize that you’re not – not even close – to the top of the food chain.) This is a strong one, dark and rich, full of frankincense and patchouli, as Gothic as a medieval cathedral, ancient and stony. Imagine its scent on a fur collar. Or on a fur rug. (One does spend a lot of time indoors in Alaska, after all...)

Kyoto. When you visit someone’s home here, you take off your shoes, just like in Japan. There is a subtle undertone of that country even in the Anchorage airport, where you can get sushi but not a taco, and half the passengers are Japanese; where flying to Tokyo is no big deal for the residents, as it’s closer than most of the US is. Kyoto is meant to evoke serenity, quiet, focus, a teak temple. I wore it while staying at a friend’s cabin on a lake, where it never got dark, and the only sounds I could hear at times were the loons, out on the water.

Oh, and Guerlain’s Vetiver helped keep the mosquitoes away!

Notes for these scents include: Zagorsk: white incense, pine, pimento berries, violet, cedar, iris, hinoki wood, birch wood. Avignon: Roman chamomile, cistus oil, elemi, incense, vanilla, patchouli, Palisander. Kyoto: Incense, cypress oil, coffee, teak wood, vetiver, patchouli, immortelle, Virginia cedar.

Glacier photo, Prince William Sound, by Keith M. Borow. All rights reserved.

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