It is an unpleasant fact of my creative life that I must spend long periods of time smelling gross. Showers aren’t abundant in the middle of nowhere, unless they fall from the sky, and those only come when you don’t want them. These trips usually involve a slow slide into grossness until about Day Three, which is the point I have termed “Peak Nasty.” Peak Nasty reflects the idea that a human being can only smell so repulsive, and each missed shower past a certain point is really only gilding the odiferous lily.
I’ve hit Peak Nasty.
Peak Nasty doesn’t really bother me as long as I’m still out and about. If you have a partner, you both smell the same, so neither one notices nor cares. I usually only notice Peak Nasty when I do something like go to ruffle my partner’s hair, and realize that is no longer possible – it’s like trying to ruffle the hair of someone who’d decided to use motor oil as a grooming aid. It doesn’t ruffle so much as flop.
Where Peak Nasty really starts to wear on me is when – inevitably – we re-enter civilization. Unfortunately, the first contact is not usually a hotel. It’s usually a dining establishment, because Peak Nasty isn’t what drives me back into the real world; the need for food is. I usually decide that I cannot tolerate one more granola bar, or one more bite of jerky, or one more sip of lukewarm water, and the morning light is turning harsh and Oh, look, there’s a lodge eight miles up the road so let’s go eat a real breakfast.
And the scene is always the same. We’re shown to a table, usually somewhat isolated from other patrons, which makes me feel sheepish and relieved at the same time. Then the unsuspecting server approaches the table and a few feet before she reaches it there is a noticeable hesitation in her step, and the coffee in the pot she is clutching – that you are hoping to partake of – sloshes precariously, and maybe some of it spills over the lip and burns her a little and maybe it doesn’t. At this point you have two choices – you can either acknowledge reality and apologize for your condition, or you can pretend that there is nothing wrong. I had to take the latter route this morning because our server never really got close enough to the table to speak to at any length. She would zing in like a hummingbird to grab plates or fill coffee, and zing back out again just in time to avoid taking another breath. My only consolation is that I will (probably) never see her again.
How can I be sure that I smell this bad? Because I know what clean people smell like when I’m in this state. On one multi-day backpacking trip I went on a few years ago, the trail terminated at a visitor center. About a mile from the center, we started meeting day hikers. When I’m in this state, normally groomed people have a shockingly pungent, perfume-y scent that I can only assume is a blend of laundry detergent and commercial soap. You don’t notice this scent when you’re among the Clean Living. But it’s overwhelming when you’re at Peak Nasty. I can only assume that this phenomenon works in reverse.
I’ve never felt quite so conspicuous as when I’m at Peak Nasty in civilization, and yet I do it, because I really, really cannot tolerate one more granola bar.
But tonight I’m getting a shower.