It was late dusk when I was driving home. Regi and I had closed up our retail shop for the night in the busy town of Jackson Hole, and as we’d driven separately that day, I looked forward to the quiet unwind on my way home, just me and my true crime podcast. We followed each other until he waved me on as he stopped for gas. I zoomed by excited to get home. A third of the way through my commute, I reached the canyon where it would be another 23 miles without cell service, after which point it’s another 15 miles home. It’s a lovely drive and a nice (but forced) way to decompress. The Snake River flows on one side, the mountains climbing up behind. On the other side, The Bridger Teton National Forest. In the summer it’s not a big deal to get through the canyon unscathed. It’s light until nine o’clock and most of the animals have headed up to cooler pastures. But today it was nearing winter, when it gets dark at 5:00, the time of year you’re likely to encounter almost anything. A herd of elk crossing randomly, maybe a moose, or a mule dear…all headed to bed down for the night.
I rounded the corner right before the canyon shrunk to two lanes. I wasn’t speeding, unlike most other times, when I came upon a guy on my side of the road with his hazards on. No sooner did I glance his way to see if I could offer some help did I notice a blob in the middle of my lane. I wasn’t quick enough to avoid it and ran over whatever that guy had just hit. Thumpity-thump-thud-scitch-scitch-scitch. Four years in the middle of nowhere and I’d managed not to hit a single animal…until now? My heart raced, my mind wandered to a hundred large animal cemeteries. What did I run over? Was it alive? Did I finish it off? Bambi’s mom–please, no! Wretched dusk and clueless animals that jump out whenever they please.
Immediately after my hit and run there was a pullover where I could gather my wits and calm my nerves. If I hadn’t known better, I’d a thought the carcass was hanging from the underbelly of my car. At least a hind quarter or something because the S-M-E-L-L was dreadful, as if death had hitchhiked its way onto my Jeep. A car stopped to check on me, saying they’d run over whatever I’d run over, and they smelled terrible as well. Knowing Regi wasn’t far behind, I assured them with a smile then turned my hazards on. The raw meat stench settled into every available inch of legroom, headroom, carpet, glovebox, and cup holder. By the time Regi stopped and I relayed to him the chain of events, we headed home in tandem, my stomach shaky. I rolled the windows down. Awful. I rolled my windows up. More awful. No matter what I did, I couldn’t escape the smell.
Though it was already dark when I made it through the canyon, I signaled Regi to go on home–I wanted to run through the carwash before going any further. I plopped in all my extra quarters and upgraded to the highest level in hopes it would clear away the memory of what happened.
By the time I got home, I told the story to my daughter, Sophie and my cousin, Josh, who was staying with us. We decided it best to tell ourselves that I ran over a rabid elk and had that not happened, pandemonium in nature would have occurred.
“What am I gonna do? My car smells like something crawled into my engine and died. If the smell doesn’t go away, I won’t be driving it ever again,” I said. They cringed, shook their heads, and laughed.
For the next couple days I drove with the awful smell then complained again. “I have to do something. Maybe I should sell my Jeep and be done with it,” I joked ever so seriously.
Josh, the consummate neat freak, asked, “When was the last time you cleaned your car out?”
“Not lately, but what’s that got to do with the smell?”
“Have you spilled anything recently?”
“Of course I’m sure. You don’t get it. It’s not coming from the inside, like a french fry or a chicken nugget that’s stuck between the seats. It’s what I hit. I think it’s coming from the engine. I swear something is stuck under the hood.”
He said, “But didn’t you notice a weird smell a couple months ago? You ever figure out what that was?”
“I never figured that out. But it went away after a couple days. This time it’s not going anywhere.”
Josh knows me well. He knows I love starting projects, just not finishing them. He busts my chops for leaving the wheelbarrow in front of the gate rather than putting it away. For leaving a bag of garbage on the porch instead of walking it to the corner for the garbageman to pick it up. For dropping bags of topsoil right in front of the walkway instead of putting them in the shop. So the fact that he thought I could have spilled something in my Jeep and never properly cleaned it up made perfect sense. But he was wrong. The smell was coming from the outside, not the inside. How many times would I have to tell him?
The next day, with the sun out and the sky blue, I looked out the living room window to see that Josh had practically disassembled my entire Jeep from the inside out. What a stubborn cousin, but oh well. I was fine with him searching for something that didn’t exist because it meant I’d get my car detailed for free and I was A-OK with that.
An hour or so later I walked out to see what his deep dive uncovered. He looked at me without saying anything at first, his version of an Italian smack down with the blue eyes he got from his mom.
I hesitated. I took one baby step at a time towards him because I was nervous he was gonna throw something at me like a leg bone he’d found buried in the gas line.
“Smell this.” He’d pulled the rug out from the cargo space in the very back and shoved it towards me. I was grossed out and flinched, but obliged him with a quick sniff.
Okay, so it had a distinct smell, I’ll give ya that. After all, I’d thrown bags of soil in there, plants from the nursery, groceries, a gallon of milk that leaked out once, a very stinky dog after a long hike or two, and wet skis covered with snow that had to melt somewhere.
“This is what you’re smelling,” he pressed the carpet to his nose this time.
“There’s no way it’s been smelling like that and I haven’t noticed. What? It only started stinking the minute I ran over whatever it was?” But fine, if that’s what you think, and as a way to say thanks for cleaning my car, I’ll agree with you, I thought.
He spent the rest of the afternoon scrubbing the carpet, drying the carpet, then vacuuming the carpet until it looked brand new. Afterwards, he called me back out, “See what you think now.”
Small whiff. Nothing. Bigger whiff, still nothing. “Wow. The smell is gone. I’m impressed. But now that the inside is good, what do we do about the stink on the outside? I guess I can go to the carwash later. I’ll be interested to see what happens after the Febreeze wears off. I mean, it smells good now, but…” I stopped complaining, thanked him again, and gave him a hug. I didn’t want to discourage my cousin by my unusually pessimistic attitude (you’ll understand that when you get to know me better) that would prove him wrong bright and early the next day.
By nine the next morning, I was ready to leave and prepared myself for what would be waiting. Sure the back of the Jeep would smell like a pina colada on ice, but after driving it would smell like kombucha brewed with ripe elk meat.
But wow. I got into my car and not even the faintest hint lingered. The day before when I got within two feet of my Jeep the smell hit me like a bag of rocks. So I left home and after driving for fifteen minutes, confident the engine had toasted the rotting meat while I drove, I puffed up my chest and breathed as deep as I could. Nothing. I blasted the air. Nothing. I rolled the windows down. Nothing. I searched for the aroma that had been hanging in the crevices of my Jeep and found absolutely zilch.
I called Josh. “You’ll never believe it. It’s gone. Like, completely gone. This is really weird. How the heck did this happen?”
He laughed uncontrollably, I’m sure with a tilted head and open mouth. “Told you it was coming from inside.”
What started out as a funny story between two cousins made me realize something. It’s easy to spend most of our time on the outside, like me washing my car, when in reality the inside should have been my focus all along. Because what’s inside is what matters most.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way inside me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 139:23