Science tells us that of all our senses, scent is the one that triggers memory the strongest. You walk into a room and the smell of butterscotch reminds you of your grandfather who kept a dish of Werthers on the coffee table. Or you walk into a salon in Chicago and are suddenly transported to the apartment in Spain you lived in for a semester in college. It can be disorienting, this sudden teleportation to another place and time, that the smell of something can produce.
Sound, however, can be just as powerful, without the more disorienting side effects. A certain song can remind you of a past love. A sound effect drops you into the world of your favorite sci-fi show. The voice of a friend that you recognize years later.
I was on a trip to Glacier National Park in northern Montana with my dad a couple of years ago. I had done extensive research before we set out and had come across a post about a little restaurant. The review had raved about the quality of the food, the large deck overlooking a lake, and the friendly locals. Having spent the trip thus far alternating between peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and national chain fast food, I convinced my dad that we should try something a little farther off the beaten path.
We pulled up to the restaurant. A body of water did indeed stretch out to one side of it, though calling it a lake might be a bit of a stretch. Locals were tubing and swimming, trying to escape the heat. And there was a deck out back, though it was full of people and enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
We made our way inside the dimly lit interior. It was spacious and nearly empty. We decided to sit at the bar, which was perhaps a fortuitous decision. The menu consisted of mostly bar food, but the review I had read raved about the fresh cut french fries. My dad ordered a burger and I got mozzarella sticks and we decided to split an order of fries.
From where I sat, I could see into the tiny kitchen. The chef had just come in through the back. I watched as he took a frozen patty from the kitchen and tossed it onto the grill. The mozzarella sticks were also procured from the freezer. It was about seven minutes that we received our food. And it wasn’t terrible. The fries were good, everything else was just okay. But if that was all that happened, I doubt I would even remember the place.
As I was finishing eating, a woman comes in from the deck for a refill on her drink. She was in her late forties or early fifties. Long blonde hair was pulled back from her face and she was dressed for the warm weather. She was standing just to my left as the bartender mixed her drink. As she was waiting, Carrie Underwoods’ “Before He Cheats” begins blaring out of the jukebox on the other side of the room.
This woman, clearly at least mildly intoxicated, leans over to me and without preamble points towards the ceiling and says, “You know, I always assumed this song was written about me.” I think I smiled politely but didn’t respond.
“I was dating this guy and he, my little sister, and I took a trip out to Washington. While we were waiting for a ferry one day, he picked my sister up by the throat and wasn’t letting her go. He’d done that to me before, but I thought if my sister was with us, he would behave himself. But, anyway, there we were. And I needed to get him to stop. So, I took one of those little miniature baseball bats, you know the kind? I had one in the car and I took that out and started smashing up his truck. I went around and got the headlights and kept smashing up the truck until he let her go. There were a bunch of people around, just watching us. And I always thought that somebody who saw that wrote this song about it.”
And then her drink arrived and she made her way back to the deck as the song finished. My dad, sitting just inches to my right, had heard none of it. We finished our meal and went back to the hotel.
But I promise you, every time that song comes on, whether I’m driving in the car or walking the aisle of the grocery store, I think of that woman. Was her story the inspiration for a songwriter somewhere? Probably not. Does she even remember telling me the story? Almost certainly not. But I will forever think of her when that song comes on. And there’s something powerful in that.