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Boat Houses and the Smells of Summer

Updated: Aug 19

The crackling static on the old clock radio before a summer storm brings back so many summer memories. There was a lot of crackling on the radios growing up in Minnesota. Seems like there was always a tornado warning. A day to jump off the swing set with an umbrella and try to catch the wind like Mary Poppins. Or run like maniacs through branches breaking, screaming “DOROTHY!!!!!” like we were in the Wizard of Oz. But it is the smells of summer that really get me.

Chris and I are walking by an open landscape truck where the smell of gas and tools is overpowering, and we are both brought back to boat houses in our minds.

I have been in a TON of boat houses. On dozens of boats. On a myriad of nameless-to-me lakes, all known affectionately by my friends as “up at the lake.”

We didn’t have a lake house growing up. And I was most likely the only girl in Minnesota who decidedly could not waterski. And yet, I was America’s guest. “Wanna go Up North?” my friends with cabins would ask.

Summers were: wading into cold northern Minnesota lakes, fishing for Perch, getting yelled at by Dads for getting ski ropes caught in motors (we didn't have a boat either), and getting yanked out of supper clubs with my friends by the parents who caught us in there before age 18.

Amidst all the beauty of Up North, I have to admit my favorite smell is a boat house. The sudden quiet inside - out of the wind - the slap of the waves against wet wood, the smell of gasoline and lake water with all its promise sinking right into your sunburned skin. Usually, but not always, a dead fish floating, slapping against the waiting boat. And if the younger boys were lucky - a big live fish stuck in there in order to torment and try to catch. On the wall: the never quite dry life jackets, the fishing poles all tangled together by line, and the silly lake house signs people buy.

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I was lucky to be invited and I was lucky to have a Dad who opted for no summer place up north - but rather to see the USA. We hopped in the car and drove somewhere new every summer.

The windows always down, we smelled cattle and crops and each other for days on end- with nothing but brain. Sometimes my Dad would turn on a baseball game and my brothers would listen intently, keeping score. But mostly, we listened to the sounds of trucks passing by and the sound of my Dad’s wedding ring tapping along the steering wheel as he made a turn.

These rides were long and the dazes I went in to went deep. But then, I would snap back into consciousness by the smell of the car lighter igniting a Lucky Strike. Or the smell of the hot asphalt pelting against our car even though Triple A promised to bring us around the construction. Angry, my Dad would pull off at a rest stop to study the map and we would all perk up.

Rest stops had their smells. The thick, beefy air around the Union 76 in Ogallala, Nebraska smelled different than the thin pine air of Grand Junction, Colorado. ALL truck stops had good smelling pie. Is that still a thing?! Stopping was fun. Stopping was pie. ALL truck stops had bathrooms with that heavy strawberry perfume smell. Why was that a thing?

Finally, we would pull into a Holiday Inn. My Dad off to take a nap. My Mom and us kids to the dime sized pool. In the pool you would meet exotics - kids from Alabama or Washington DC with accents! Later, we would climb into beds and cots after all sharing the credit card sized Holiday Inn soap bar. Our hands still screaming chlorine: another one of my favorite summer smells.

As Chris and I walk on, we see our neighbor Jill. Jill had THE best boat house EVER in Wisconsin. There was a bedroom above it to sleep in and listen all night to the waves bring summer home. Dreamy. Jill tells me the smell of Bounce in the air is summer to her. She washed beach towels “up at the lake” as much as she swam in the water they dried.

But now it is late August in the midwest. And the cicadas here drown out patio cocktail conversation. And everyone except young, tired parents cringe at the Back to School signs.

Breathe it in, I tell myself. Turn off the AC, open the windows stuck by humidity, and breathe it in while I can.





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