Last September, as the season’s first snow was beginning to coat Denver, I went down to my basement to start pulling out my winter layers. I had packed away the heavy-duty stuff in a Rubbermaid tub, buried underneath boxes of books and holiday decorations. As soon as I opened the box, the scent hit me in the face.
It smelled like wood smoke, not a hint, but a thick, heavy wave of it. A little digging revealed the layer responsible, a blue down Cotopaxi Fuego puffy. I had last worn it almost a year earlier, on a late-season Editors’ Choice trip to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. As I held it in my hands, sensations from the trip flooded back to me: The lengthening shadows as the sun dipped behind the canyon walls; the way the chill suddenly blanketed our campsite at dusk; the vegetal smell of algae-lined watering holes; the feeling of loose sand shifting beneath my feet as our group hiked up an arroyo. The memories were almost immersive.
Like most other backpackers, I take a lot of photos. But a photo is always going to be a flat recollection—a window to the world, not a door. A good souvenir does something that a photo can’t, awakening memories linked to our other four senses. The feel of warm sandstone against the skin or the taste of a roasted marshmallow can transport you back to a place so viscerally that it almost seems like you’re there again. It’s why people still pick flowers and take rocks at national parks even after decades of being told not to. My smoke-scented jacket was a more Leave No Trace-friendly version of that: a bit of somewhere magnificent that I got to put in my pack and carry home.