A Year in a Moment: Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

“I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."

"Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in chapter 2 of "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

Pamplona, Navarre, Espana, July 9, 2016

“Running with the bulls.” A centuries old tradition embedded in an even older celebration – the festival of San Fermin – now nearly 700 years old and counting. We’ve all seen the images: muscular charging bulls with massive sharp horns parting a red and white sea of young men sprinting in terror down narrow cobblestone streets. Inevitably, the media highlight reel ends with a trainwreck of sprawling bodies, trampling, and the occasional life-threatening goring.

Each year the festival of San Fermin draws nearly 1,000,000 visitors to the small tranquil village of Pamplona in the Basque region of Northwest Spain.  The central spectacle of the festival is the “encierro,” or running of the bulls, which takes place each morning at 8 a.m. for a week. Six bulls and six steers arrive in the early morning to a corral at the base of a hill in town. Then, they run uphill approximately 850m to the “plaza del toros” (bullring). The run takes somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, but no individual person runs with them the entire route – the bulls run too fast, so you must stake out a position for a short sprint. Each of the six bulls face nearly certain death later in the day in the “corrida” or bullfights that take place in the afternoon. Essentially each of these bulls, bred to be aggressive, mean and fast, are running away from life toward their inevitable death at the hands of a matador who risks his own life to take theirs. Cruel? Inhumane? Yes. Dramatic? Romantic? Yes. Is the inevitable death of an animal at the sword of a matador worse than the plight of the average farm cow bred for slaughter via the food industry? I don’t think so: at least each of these bulls has a fighting chance at survival and a pre-corrida life where they eat, drink, rut and fight as opposed to standing in a pen full of dung, chewing their cud.

I’ve been drawn to the running of the bulls ever since I first saw it as a teenager. The thrumming of the hooves as the dust rises, the chanting of the crowds, the anticipation of the appearance of the flanks and horns in a high-speed chase, the danger, the exhilaration, and the long-standing traditional rituals involved have always evoked a romantic notion of risk taking, fear, physical prowess and courage. Not to mention the visual spectacle of an event where hundreds of thousands throughout a picturesque village all care enough for tradition to wear the exact same garb – women, babies, children, the elderly, locals and tourists alike. Also, deep down I have always believed that I possessed the requisite skills to navigate such an event safely and with aplomb - the parallels to bike racing and short track speedskating are striking: a high speed chase on a narrow slippery course with tight corners that requires speed, agility, balance, the ability to read the patterns of movements of the bulls and avoid hundreds of people trying to kill me. This was something I had essentially been doing my whole life. I was not afraid. Finally, I wanted to create a new life chapter – literally in this case – by documenting the experience through the lens of “chronoception” or perceptual time. I wanted to test my own horological hypothesis: to prove that the combination of the thrill, the beauty, the physical and emotional intensity, and danger-induced “flow state” would stop time and turn seconds into hours, even months in memory.

"Because flow de-activates large parts of the neocortex, a number of these areas are offline - thus distorting our ability to compute time."  David Eagleman

The morning of the run we made our way to our starting point, threading through throngs of revelers. One fact became quickly clear as we traversed the streets - almost none of the actual festival participants actually join the encierro due to the real and perceived peril. Everyone we had spoken to the night before seemed amazed I would actually run. But, in all reality there have been relatively few significant serious incidents over the years, and the actual danger of death may be less than a regular city commute to work. That said, the nature of the danger is real and visceral: six 1200+ lb bulls bred to kill with razor sharp horns and another six giant 1500+ lb steers stampeding full tilt down a narrow lane filled with more than a thousand intoxicated people sprinting forward while looking backward, zigzagging haphazardly to the left and right - one mis-step and those horns easily part flesh and bone - this, and the added threat that the horns often carry a form of bacteria that cause the wounds to suppurate and quickly become life threatening.  I looked around me as I entered the course and wondered – the drunk chubby young men, the gaunt older men, some wide eyed young women as well – I wondered how were they going to survive. Only later did I realize most “runners” just line the course and get the hell out of the way. Few actually run WITH the bulls.  But I had grander plans. I wanted to live “all the way up.”  

The encierro and subsequent corrida (bullfight), the associated danger, fear, ugly brutality and elegant artistry underpin arguably one of the greatest books by one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” encapsulates, romanticizes and relates the elements of the festival of San Fermin in a way that has enchanted generations. The prose also covers a very real element of the festival – the role of wine, beer and other forms of alcohol in the proceedings. San Fermin is a drinking event that puts Summerfest, Octoberfest and any other similar festival to shame for its bacchanalian extravagance. Like all the other elements of the festival it has its shades of romantic elegance and brutal ugliness. Picturesque mid-afternoon picnics with families on white linen with chilled local wines and short siestas under the trees as children play on centuries old walls eventually morph into throngs of 20-somethings from around the world swilling Kalimotxo - 32 ounce plastic cups of cheap wine mixed with Coca Cola available for about $1. The town fills throughout the day and somewhere near sunset most of those over 35 and under 18 leave. Then the garbage piles up, the noise and crowds expand and without proper sanitation rivulets of urine begin to run through the streets and fill the nooks in the plaza cobbles.

Navigating late at night the evening before to scout out the course through the throngs with my great friend, neuroscientist and local inhabitant, John Wesseling, I was amazed to ascertain he had never actually attended the festival despite living in walking distance from town for more than a decade. “Too much mayhem – we always leave town once San Fermin starts.” He said. He served as my guide through the increasingly crowded streets, and as we rounded yet another corner of a plaza where every patch of grass was crowded with young people from around the world staggering like zombies, vomiting or passed out, I began to understand his point of view. Perhaps it was the proximity to death’s hand hanging heavy in the air. Entire plazas looked and smelled like a garbage filled port-o-potties. The streets had become so crowded with inebriated people that it became a game of drunk people “bumper-cars” just to exit the city center. By 1:30 a.m. it was nearly impossible to move and we couldn’t wait to leave, but the 20 minutes it had taken to get to Plaza Castillo earlier in the evening now took more than an hour to navigate, ping-ponging aggressively through the throng on the way out. My whites were now stained with splashes of wine and Kalimotxo. I was “official.” After the bus ride and the walk to John’s house we finally made it home at 3:00 a.m., exactly as Hemingway would have had it. 

Wakeup was 6:00 a.m. In order to arrive to the course in time to stake a position in the encierro, we were told we should be there by 6:30 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. start. Such little sleep was daunting in and of itself, but for me it was compounded by the fact that I had only arrived in the country one day prior, and it had been a packed agenda - we had hiked for hours in the morning on the beaches and cliffs of the gorgeous home village of John’s wife Isabel – Zumaia, then drove to San Sebastian and walked for hours through the lovely old town and its cobblestone streets while carrying all our bags, and then traveled by bus to Pamplona where John and I immediately went for a intense bike ride at 8:00 p.m. into the mountains – 2.5 hours of hard riding including a 7km climb to the top of a mountain. We had returned from the ride at 10:30 p.m. in the darkening gloaming of dusk, and had only then headed into town for the pandemonium described above. Needless to say I was exhausted.  

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During our visit to Zumaia the day prior, John’s extended family ganged up on me at lunch. There were eight of them. All around the table they one-by-one told me in broken English or translated Spanish that I shouldn’t run… but afterward quickly asked if I was going to anyway – all with a strange twinkle in their eyes. I knew that deep down they wanted me to run. I declared I was running. There were murmurs. A mixture of worry and pride floated around the table. Then John’s 13 year old daughter, Alba, looked me straight in the eyes and ranted with a serious face in Spanish for a full minute. I didn’t follow. Isabel translated “You should not run. Don’t run. Please do not run. It is too dangerous. People get hurt. Last year there were five gorings, several were American…. Then there was a long pause… “But…, but” and her face changed to a smile, “but if you do run, you must wear something of a different color so I can see you on TV! – I watch every morning and I want to find you!”

After the initial inquisition, I was ushered over to sit next to Miguel, John’s brother-in-law and an aficionado of the encierro for years who knew the ins-and-outs of the course and its dangers. He pulled out his phone and loaded a map of the encierro and then expostulated on elements of the route. As he spoke he would slap the back of his hand into his palm as he laid out a series firm guidelines for the run.

First - You should be sober – is too dangerous if you are drunk… also is illegal now as of a recent law.” (OK, “check.)

Second, is not so much you must outrun the bulls – you cannot – instead you must outrun the other drunk crazy men and not get pushed into the bulls' horns. Please, John, avoid the horns… hooves too” (OK I’m pretty fast -  “check”)

Third, there are three sections to the run, you must absolutely avoid the first section of the course– the uphill is steep, all the young men are drunk and the bulls are angry and their are no barriers to jump over and there are two sharp corners – this portion is 250m long.” (OK, “check.”)

Fourth, you also want to avoid the middle part of the course this is 400 meters long and lined with stone walls – also there are too many people and not enough barriers to jump over if you get into trouble – this part is very dangerous. So don’t run this portion.” (OK, “check”)

Fifth, you must avoid the last part of the run – the last 200 meters and the final corners and tunnel are dangerous and people fall down and the bulls run over them.” (Um…???) 

“So, in conclusion… John… my advice to you is you should not run any part of the encierro… any other questions?”

We all had a laugh at this point as his advice was translated and I again affirmed my intention to run. Eventually we settled on the notion that I would run the final section and then into the bullring. “It is the only place that it will be possible to get a picture of you – the barriers will be lined w/ spectators starting 5:00 a.m., and the balconies rent for $1000 for 5 minutes for the encierro. Your friend John can show you the way and where to line up.”

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Three hours after dropping into a dead sleep the morning of my run, my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., and John knocked on the door shortly thereafter. I stumbled about mumbling to myself “sleep when you are dead, sleep when you are dead” and clumsily dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermin purchased the evening before. I donned the wine stained white pants, white shirt, red sash and red bandana and then a pair of running shoes. Sadly I had failed to find an identifiable piece of clothing for Alba to find me; so in generic garb I followed John quickly through the streets to catch the bus to town to fight our way through the throngs to join the encierro – the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was a Saturday – perhaps the busiest day of the 8 day event.

At about 6:45, John and I found the spot where I would run. There were two layers of heavy wooden barriers, and I had to climb through on all fours to enter the course. John wished me luck, told me he would be in the stadium, and that we would meet afterward at “Hemingways,” a bar just outside the “plaza de toros.” I moved out into the cobbles and throngs, and I was now fully awake and alive. I muscled through to the final barrier blocking the final 150 meters to the bullring by 7:00 a.m. Perfect position.

There I met two English speakers: Bill from Ireland who was clearly drunk, and Greg from the UK who was sober but easily 6’7” tall. We talked strategy. We agreed we would wait for the bulls to arrive and then run with them into the stadium – it sounded simple.

Then we waited. I wasn't nervous. I "got this," I thought. Then at 7:30 a.m., the police formed a cordon and kicked all of us out – aggressively shoving all of us outside the barrier and off the course. "Too many people" they said.

I had flown 4000 miles for this, and I wasn't accepting no. Greg and Bill felt the same way, so we ran full tilt down the hill trying each barrier – each time thwarted by the EMS and police who waved us away. Finally we reached the set of barriers right at the base of the hill, right at the very start, right by the corral itself. As we arrived, a fight broke out in the street and the police and emergency workers were briefly distracted. I threw myself to the ground and belly crawled through the legs of a policeman inside the first barrier and then across the wood of the second barrier to enter the surging throng. Bill and Greg followed suit and then we were in!

We had to move – now! We knew we didn't want to be at the bottom of the hill at the most dangerous place - no barricades to climb, fresh and angry bulls, and mostly drunk young men. We had regained the course at 7:48 a.m., and needed to push through the throngs of more than 1000 people if were to regain our original position. This is where my inebriated friend Bill’s aggressiveness combined with Greg’s height became the perfect combination -  Bill unrelentingly forcing his way through the throng yelling ahead and waving saying “We are coming Melissa!!” as though we were joining an imaginary friend, and Greg shouting directions based on the vantage point his height provided. Eventually we were able to shove our way through the throngs to regain our former positions 175m from the bullring. We arrived right at 7:59 a.m. and slapped high fives. One minute later, the fireworks went off – the bulls had left the corral.

In that instant everything went to hell – everyone panicked and started pushing and running pell-mell, some jumping over the barriers and others falling and running over each other. It was complete hysteria based on nothing. There were no bulls and wouldn’t be anytime soon. I knew from Miguel that it would take about 90 seconds to 2 minutes for the bulls to arrive, yet everyone was already running toward the bullring looking over their shoulders in sheer terror. Over and over again people slammed into me sprinting forward while looking backward, bruising me all over while I barely maintained my grip on the barricade. After the first wave, Bill and Greg were gone but there was a small group of us still in place. I left the protection of the barrier to join them in the street: all of us jumping up and down in place like Masai warriors trying to see the bulls coming over the crest of the hill. Then there was a second surge of runners and my adrenaline started flowing. Surely I thought, this must be it. I dropped from the barrier and thought about running, but again I could see no bulls, so once again I waited and for the first time I felt some trepidation. I was on the inside of a corner . . . if the bulls came tight, I could be caught in the horns and die . . .. Fifteen people have died over the last 40 years or so, and about 300 are injured each year.

But I was there to run WITH the bulls not in front of the bulls, so I waited. By now mostly everyone around me had run off, and for a few seconds I was almost alone except for a trickle of frightened runners threading single file in the center of the lane sprinting towards the stadium.

I breathed deep, slowed my heart rate, and focused my attention. It was exactly like the last lap of a bike race . . . then I saw them. The massive toros and larger steers mixed together galloping full speed up the hill with their heavy ponderous gait, the bulls with their heads down and massive wide sharp horns ready to pierce anything in their path and the massive steers mixed in, unstoppable. There was a small cadre of runners just ahead and beside the bulls and a massive sea of white following in their wake.

In the moment I began "thin-slicing" time. I could see the lumbering propulsion of shiny hooves striking cobbles, massive muscular flanks glistening and quavering in the light, murderous eyes behind the needle sharp points of horns tilted to give death’s blow. I was no longer myself - I was unraveling of my awareness into the events unfolding in front of me. This was my time - to stop time. 

Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and Awareness merge. Welcome to Flow.  -Steve Kotler

They headed right at me, right towards my barricade. All sound stopped and I grabbed the barrier, preparing to launch myself over the heavy wood and steel crossbars. Arms and hands stretched my shirt and grasped my arms attempting to pull me over. I fought them off and could see the mouths of the watching crowd moving in unison – they were chanting something. Then the herd was upon me: at first steers running 3 abreast, and then 2 bulls passing just behind them, their lethal horns clearing my soft abdomen by about 2.5 feet. The steers’ horns were taller than my head.

There was a small space, a gap, after the second bull and in slow motion I dropped, bent and sprang into  a sprint, running parallel to another steer and just ahead of two other bulls as I reached full speed. Sound and motion returned and now I was in the tail end of the “peleton de toros” preparing for the final sprint into the ring. I could see the hooves flashing, the rapid gait of the gallop, the ominous flanks of the steer just to my right and a bedlam emerging of runners from the widening sidelines attempting to join the herd. My spidey senses tingled - bad things were about to happen . . . .

We crested the hill. To the left and right larger remnants of the throng ahead that had stopped to wait were either attempting to run or jumping the barriers, or falling down on the stones. The steers up front were still running 3 abreast, and as the lane narrowed towards the plaza del toros the animals formed a gigantic snowplow: there was no room for the runners ahead, and so the detritus piled up like a bloody snowbank, white bodies punctuated with their red sashes layering and stacking to the left and right as the bulls and steers momentum continued unabated. As we headed down the cobbles, I was still running full tilt, un-afraid, seeing and predicting everything with precision– it was both fast and slow. Now we were about to enter the tunnel itself and ahead 100 men in a complete panic were scattering in front of 11 bulls and steers running 2 and 3 abreast at 15mph in a 15 foot wide tunnel with narrowing barriers to each side. There was perhaps 5 feet of open space in the middle. The steers attempted to shuffle and reposition to thread the needle and slowed as did the bulls behind them. I knew the runners behind could not see what was happening and arms out I fought off the onslaught from the rear.  As we slowed I felt the flotsam and jetsam of the river of humans behind me buffeting my outstretched arms, my heels kicking backward into shins, my elbows striking faces. In that moment I realized that in order to survive I would have to actually accelerate into the madness in front of me if I was not to become one of the trampled. The crescendo started – a combination of the cartwheeling of dozens of men falling to the left and right, stacking, screaming; the bulls and steers driving up and over the bodies, heavy sharp hooves on ribs, faces, groins, a pileup becoming 3 deep, 4 deep, 7 deep, 8 deep. Only a narrow lane of visible pavement remained as the first steers cleared the tunnel and scrambled into the bullring itself.

Once again time stopped: I could feel the press of flesh behind me, I could see every movement of the bodies in front of me – the peleton of runners all crashing, hands high and then fingers twitching as they were tripping, falling, being trampled by steers and toros and men, the few remaining runners still vertical like me scrambling up a lattice work of white limbs. I had no choice – in slow motion I placed my feet on body parts and ran across a jumble of men like so many fleshy stones. I climbed up and to the right to avoid the impaling horns of the bulls behind me and ran over top of a writhing sea of humanity and down the other side. I was 15 feet behind the last bull when I broke into the light of the bullring . . . . 

"There's this sense that sometimes time slows down and sometimes time speeds up, and sometimes when we are in the zone and lose track of time, or when we are doing an activity that elicits an adrenaline rush, time slows down. There's time dilation - altered states of consciousness..." -Jason Silva, Shot of Awe

I once raced a bike race in Downers Grove, IL, where in the final corner every single rider in front of and around me crashed in a huge pileup except me. In a weird denouement I coasted down the finish stretch to the roar of the crowd alone bewildered, bemused and eventually triumphant.

Entering the bullring was a déjà vu of that race. No one behind me survived the pileup, and I entered to the massive roar of 20,000 people just behind the bulls and steers. I ran full tilt into the middle of the stadium and then slowed and stopped, arms in the air as the handlers billeted the bulls and steers into the corral. Perhaps 300 other runners had made it into the ring and I was one of the last. I was euphoric. In a gladiator-like moment I turned and just kept my hands up enjoying the noise, the atmosphere, the joy of being “really alive.”

And then, after a moment, oddly… I realized I was nearly alone. Most of the other runners all had swirled away and dissipated to the edges of the arena. At first I felt proud . . . I thought it was “my moment,” but then the noise of the crowd changed its tenor. It went from excitement to . . . something else. Even as I circled in my moment in the sun I felt the change and noticed the ant-like unison movements of the other runners spiraling sideways and heading to and over the barriers.

What I didn’t know was that there was a huge monitor in the stadium showing the bulls, the course and the happenings before and behind me. What I also didn’t know is that there was a “Curioso”… an extremely rare situation that has happened only once before in the last 100 years of the encierro. A Curioso is a situation where one of the bulls bred to run, fight and kill, stops and decides to abandon the steers, peers and encierro, and instead explore other options rather than run to the ring to its eventual death. This Curioso browsed around chasing runners mid-course for about 30 seconds - going after a few runners with aggression - before resuming its journey. Everyone was watching the monitor realizing there was one more bull. I didn’t know he was out there. 

Behind me the doors to the tunnel had opened to let him in. Without the calming presence of the steers and with all the goading from the crowd, he was now pissed. He charged bucking into the arena, black glistening hide, wide sharp horns, and one particularly available target… the stupid Chicago boy in the center of the arena with his hands still held high.

When the voices changed, when the volume grew there was another artifact that helped me realize my danger – suddenly there was a thrumming and rhythm of hands at the barriers in front of me – virtually every person at ground level had their arms out – begging me and other remaining runners to be lifted over. For a moment I had no idea what was happening

All of this happened in less than ½ of a second, but suddenly I saw the bull out of the corner of my eye. He had plunged into the stadium and was near the side chasing a few lingering runners, but then he saw me in the center, directly en route to the safety of the corral. He started his charge, and the crowd roared in fear, and I sprinted full tilt to the wall. He was turning right when I last looked and I knew I had perhaps 2 seconds to make the barriers. I ran slightly to right so that I could use my speed to get up and over the wall versus run directly into the barriers and as I came into proximity of the 5 foot red painted concrete wall, a dozen hands grabbed me roughly and pulled me up and over, literally throwing me onto my back into the space between. I flipped as I fell and landed on top of another runner, who had ducked to avoid my body. My back cracked as I draped heavily across his frame and then I fell off him to the concrete below. I had had the wind knocked out of me but I was safe and alive . . . SO alive. The noise of the throng resumed and I stood up and joined in the cheers as the Curioso left the ring.

Here's the thing. This entire experience was less than a minute long… but it seemed like hours, even days… and has grown with each passing day. I had planned and designed for this moment for a long time in hopes of creating an “event horizon moment.” And so with the plans and a lot of serendipity I had experienced a perfect layering of beauty, danger, uniqueness, physical and emotional intensity and “flow” in such a way to create a memory worth a year.

 Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

Celebrating on my barrier after the running of the bulls

 After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck

After the run: the tunnel to the plaza del toros - home of the human trainwreck

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Epilogue: As it turns out it wasn’t over. After the Curioso was corralled the next section of the festivities began. The crowd roared and all the runners re-entered the ring and the sense of community, excitement and pride of having lived, thrived and survived was contagious - there were hugs all around from sweaty young men half my age. We had done it! I found Greg and Bill. We took a few pictures with Bill’s phone camera. Greg had dropped his in the run. I had not brought my phone based on other’s advice. We laughed and talked about our experience and then suddenly the crowd roared. It wasn’t over yet – entering the ring was a “vaquilla,” one of the  young, fast angry and horned heifers released for the continued amusement of the crowd. We all ran like hell and as I ran backward keeping my eyes on the young animal, I watched as it found its very first victim who was was none other than 6’7” Greg who was lifted like a floppy toy, thrown in the air and then gored repeatedly and ruthlessly on the ground. I ran to him terrified as others distracted the vaquilla and it galloped away and the crowd was screaming.

He sat up and I couldn’t see any blood. “Are . . .are you OK???” I asked as he got up and we scrambled away to the side. “I . . . I don’t know?” He said as he pulled up his shirt and we found some bruises forming on his back and ribs, but no punctures, no broken bones – he was fine. We laughed. I said, “Dude! You were the first person thrown by a bull in the arena! You’re famous!” He laughed and then we turned again towards the same horned menace who had made its way back towards us as runners jumped the barriers.

The vaquillas were still upwards of 800 lbs and mean as hell but what we could now could see is that their sharp horns had been capped to prevent the possibility of a goring. This is why Greg was safe and this also made the runners far braver. So began an “amateur hour” bullfight as brave, crazy, or drunk young men attempted to make toreador passes with these young heifers to touch their horns, slap their flanks.

Each vaquilla came out for about 5 minutes and I was determined to at least touch one, but they were fast and mean and despite the capped horns I watched each one lift and throw and trample and bury their capped horns into a dozen young men. This was unlike the running – I didn’t know the patterns and couldn’t predict the random sideways movements and though I came close a few times I never did touch one. I stayed safe.

The other thing, unannounced, that happened over this next hour is that near the end of each vaquilla run, they would loose one of the real toros into the ring with a handler. Still mean as hell and huge with uncapped sharp horns, the sea of humanity parted like ripples in a pond and the ring cleared in seconds. The bull would make one round, make a few half hearted charges to anyone too close and then be escorted out. I followed the crowd during these moments and had a hand and foot on the barrier ready to jump. After the six vaquillas and six parades of the main toros it was all over. The crowd and runners cheered, and we all began to file out through the tunnel. I made my to Hemingway’s bar, found John, had a glass of wine at 9:00 a.m. in honor of the festival, and then returned to his apartment to sleep. It took me a long time to wind down, the sun was hot in the room and the Spanish hills beckoned with other adventures, but eventually exhaustion ruled, and I was able to fall into a deep sleep.

In the afternoon we prepared to go back into to town. I started putting on shorts and a t-shirt but then stopped. I retrieved the dirty white uniform of San Fermin from the floor and put it on - the wine- and dirt-stained white pants and shirt. I tied the sash around my waist and bandanna around my neck, and returned to town, just another anonymous member of the throng, but uniquely stained inside and out with new colors of life, death, and really living.