Surgical mask smells like burnt sleeping bag

surgical-mask-smells-like-burnt-sleeping-bagBefore leaving the surgery center yesterday, the doctor gave me a surgical mask to wear at home to keep the dressings clean. Breathing in and out of my mouth through the mask, I could taste/smell something strange. At first I thought it was the remains of anesthesia on my breath, but when I took the mask off to brush my teeth and the taste went away I connected it with the mask.

My sense of taste works, as do my other olfactory pathways, the nose-throat channel and common chemical sense. So I’m not totally in the olfactory dark, despite the fact that my nose is plugged, and I can’t smell much, not even the open bag of coffee that my dog spilled on the stairs.

The thing is I’ve never worn a surgical mask before, much less tasted one. But it was a vaguely familiar taste/smell, one that took me hours to place (probably because I was still stoned from surgery). To decode the aroma, I had to go back to the summer after my first year of college, which I spent hiking around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the Teton mountains.

In between shifts at multiple low-paying jobs in hotels, a friend and I decided to take a quick overnight hike up above the ski area. We were halfway up a 5,000-foot climb when we realized that we forgot the tent. Summer nights in the Tetons are usually clear, which means cold. We shrugged it off; it was for just one night and we had sleeping bags.

We found a gorgeous spot to camp under broad-branching subalpine firs. A herd of moose grazed in the distance. We piled up dried pine needles for beds. The sun dropped low, and we built a crackling fire around which we ate our dinner of sandwiches and canned veggies. With the sun gone the night turned cold quickly, and I put on every stitch of clothing I brought and snuggled into my sleeping bag near the fire. We lay on our backs and saw so many shooting stars that we couldn’t think of anything else to wish for. I dozed content.

Not long after I roused frozen to the bone. It was the kind of deep chill you can’t shiver off easily. But before I knew it, I was warm as noon. I relaxed back into sleep. Some time after I smelled smoke and thought I was dreaming. This smoke smelled exactly like the surgical mask. I opened my eyes and discovered that I had rolled into the campfire and was sleeping on the hot coals. My sleeping bag–along with the grass, leaves and dry needles coating it–were smoldering. I rolled out of the fire, bummed that I would soon be cold again. It took a week to get the taste of that smoke out of my mouth.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: Some odors are especially sticky: in my nose, in my brain and in my heart. Those are the smells that are the topics of this weekly Wednesday feature, Reek of the Week.

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