Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Not hibernating yet

Last week, when the forecast called for temperatures in the mid-90s through the weekend, I pushed my usual weekly long ride up to Monday. With temperatures in the 70s and a Camelbak full of ice water, I thoroughly enjoyed a sweat-soaked grind up Carbiou. I hate and love this climb, which is so punishingly steep that I need to breathe while imagining the choppy four-beat rhythm and lyrics from "Caribou" by the Pixies, in order to maintain cadence:

I live cement 
I hate this street
Give dirt to me. 
I bite lament 
This human form 
Where I was born 
I now repent

Pleased with the effort, I pulled into the parking lot at Beat's office and hid in the only patch of 5 p.m. shade, next to a malodorous dumpster. "Bring on hibernation season," I thought. 

Caribou Road, near Klondike Mountain
Recent bouts of moodiness and rough breathing convinced me it was time to embrace the slump and take it easy for a while. High temperatures / pollen / wildfire smoke / more reasons not to venture outside just cemented the excuse. But then Beat wanted to do another after-work car swap on Thursday. The temperature at 1 p.m. was 95 degrees, and I decided if I was going to punish myself, I was really going to punish myself, via Winiger Ridge and the East Mag Dots. Yes, it must be obvious by now — I am not an avid trail rider. Around here, bike-legal singletrack is limited and largely full of rocks. At some point, I decided that I do not need to take a beating from my bicycle to prove I like to have fun. I'm nearly 40 years old and fine with my true identity as a fireroad-climb-loving fun hater. 

The initial hike-a-bike up Winiger began after an hour of steep climbing on washboard gravel and hot pavement, followed by rutted jeep roads. Before I even crossed the gate onto the punishing trail, my neck and arms were already coated in dozens of drowned gnats. Sweat streamed down my forehead into my eyes; I hadn't been able to open the left one for at least twenty minutes. My temple was throbbing ... no doubt an early symptom of heat exhaustion. The maniacal laughter in my head was probably another symptom. This was brutal. Ha ha ha! 

Yay for fun-hater-rewarding endorphins.

I bounced along the rock-strewn ridge, stopping frequently to admire wildflowers and catch my ragged breath, then crossed onto the Dot trails. This trail system, like most trail systems, is a hopeless maze that often leaves me disoriented and lost even when I'm not heat-addled. Unintentionally I ventured onto an unsanctioned social trail that became progressively more overgrown, until finally I faltered on rocks hidden in the grass and toppled over, jamming my thumb. Ugh. Grumble, grumble. Eventually I bashed my way out of the hidden forest and realized I'd forgotten my phone, so I had to race home before riding into town. Head throbbing, lungs searing, thumb sore, dizzy near the top of each climb ... and yet, my weird body perversely rewarded me with exhilaration and satisfaction. Just another reminder that it is more "fun" to do hard things than it is to complacently coast through my comfort zone.

Of course, by Friday, wind had blown in so much wildfire smoke from the west that just pushing my bike up the stairs outside our house sparked a painful bout of wheezing and coughing. Thankfully, I'd already formulated a great excuse to put my bike in the car and leave Boulder County. My friend Corrine from Alaska is riding the Tour Divide this year, and the tracker indicated she'd be passing through Breckenridge and Como sometime in the morning. This was the perfect opportunity to do some stealth dot stalking / spectating / cheerleading for my favorite race.* (*outside Alaska)

I caught up with Corrine on the Gold Dust Trail, just as I was wheezing my way up a steep pitch near 11,000 feet, and she was creeping down on her loaded bike. She stopped to cheerlead my climb, calling out "Yeah! You got this!" and waving her warms. She didn't recognize me until several seconds after I stopped next to her. So that whole time, she paused her own racing effort to offer enthusiastic encouragement to someone she thought was a random stranger. That's Corrine. It warmed my heart, even if it did take a little bit of the wind out of my sails, since I had intended to stop somewhere along the trail and cheer for her.

With a promise to catch her once more so we could enjoy a short break in the hot sun, I continued up to the pass and met Phillipa and Chris, two friends from the U.K. who are also riding the Tour Divide. After brief introductions Chris asked me, "Oh, did you do the race?"

"Yeah," I replied, "in 2009 and in ..."

"Beautiful course. I've ridden the TMB," he cut in. That's when I realized he was talking about UTMB. I'd forgotten I was wearing a UTMB shirt.

"Oh yeah," I said, blushing, hoping the conversation wouldn't veer to my embarrassing Alpine racing odyssey. "I raced in, uh, (looking down at my shirt) 2012."

"That's a tough go," Chris said. "I'm always impressed with you runners."

"Yeah, well, it's not a run for most of us," I mumbled. "More like a trudge."

"More like Tour Divide."

"Yes! Exactly."

I followed Chris and Phillipa down the Gold Dust Trail, where they promptly buried me in the fine, not-so-gold dust. I suppose anyone who can ride the Tour du Mont Blanc trails must be a fairly proficient technical rider, so I wasn't surprised, even if they were riding loaded bikes and 21 days of fatigue. I did see them one more time, as they took a wrong turn off the trail and spent 20 minutes retracing their enthusiastic descent.

I caught Corrine once more near the bottom of the trail. We ate snacks from our own stashes (no support here, no worries) and chatted too much about me (Corrine is a physician and always asks me questions about my health, which is appreciated, even when I'd rather hear her stories.) With an enthusiastic wave, she continued south into Como. She had a rough go early in the race, but seems to have found a rhythm, even though "every day is hard." It was fun to see her in the midst of such a significant adventure, in good spirits.

Propelled by Tour Divide stoke, I turned and continued back up Boreas Pass, then descended a jeep road / stream bed into Breckenridge. The final climb on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route back to Boreas Pass was full of happy nostalgia.

I remembered the last time I rode along this road, while visiting our friend Daniel in Frisco in 2012. I borrowed Daniel's rickety old hardtail and pedaled up the pass to cheer for another Tour Divide rider ... I forget her name after all these years. Tracy, perhaps? She had fallen far off the back of the pack, and was lonely and struggling, but determined to finish. After Tracy and I chatted briefly on that cold, rainy July afternoon, I felt so inspired by her determination and the mountain scenery that I decided yes, definitely, I would return to ride the Divide someday.

I wasn't able to climb Boreas Pass when I made that return in 2015. I quit the race just before this point, wracked with pneumonia and too many bad memories. I still wonder what the Tour Divide is to me, exactly. But it's simple, on a beautiful afternoon after another three years have passed, to promise myself that yes — I will return to ride the Divide someday.

Just over the pass, the sky was filled with a billowing plume from the Weston Pass fire, which erupted just hours earlier and had already grown to several hundred acres. Smoke was spreading so rapidly that I became convinced the fire was just over those mountains, and would move through and consume my car before I could get back to it. In reality the fire was more than a dozen miles away, but the proximity of all of these fires is disconcertingly close to home. This could be a tourism slogan for the state: See Colorado, before it burns.

Beat and I have been laboring at our own fire-mitigation project — brush and branch removal near our house. We've hauled at least twenty truckloads of debris up steep slopes, and the effort has proved to be a serious strength workout. This consumed our Saturday in what was hardly a rest day, and then our friend Eric — Corrine's husband, who is road-tripping down the Rocky Mountains while she labors on her bike — dropped by for a visit.

On Sunday, the three of us headed into Rocky Mountain National Park for a trail hike/jog. Eric — who has lived in underpopulated Alaska all of his life — got a kick out of the Sunday traffic heading into Estes Park, and took photos of the three-quarter-mile-long lineup at the park entrance while Beat and I grumbled. Of course the reason RMNP is so popular is because it really is an incredible place (and also well-developed and conveniently close to the Front Range.) Beat and I agree that we don't take enough advantage of the close-to-home adventure potential here.

Luckily we picked a more obscure trailhead within the park to start our outing — a long loop to Hallet Peak at 24 miles with 6,000+ feet of climbing. Eric decided to do a slightly shorter out-and-back to Flattop. My breathing was rough from the start — whether caused by hard efforts during the week while breathing pollen and smoke, or simply the timing in my health pattern, I don't know — but the first miles were a struggle. When Beat informed me we were only at 8,000 feet and I was already gasping, I urged him to go ahead while I tried to capture better rhythm. As I stumbled along the rocks, I stewed over a conviction that I will never have "normal" fitness — just good weeks and bad at inconvenient intervals, independent of training, medication, or anything else I can control. Then, after a number of miles had passed and the altitude soared, my breathing randomly improved. I switched to positive thinking about undulating toward balance ... or, even if this pattern continues, it doesn't really matter. I can still get outdoors for beautiful outings, regardless.

By the time I rose above treeline near 12,000 feet, my breathing had strengthened enough to manage lung-emptying blasts from an intense headwind. It was quite incredible, this wind, with 50+ -mph gusts that reverse-thrusted my body to a complete stall and drove a bone-piercing chill on a hot summer day. I stumbled along the rocks, struggling to maintain upright balance as Beat came down from Hallet Peak. He agreed to endure double-time in the wind to climb the mountain one more time with me.

Beat is such a sweetheart. We hid in the windbreak on the summit, just long enough to enjoy a sandwich and views on a mountain we had all to ourselves.

Battling our way back to Flattop. Not pictured: 50mph winds.

The wind calmed and the heat cranked up as we descended. I felt continually better as we went and made a determined effort to keep up with Beat, with marginal success. When I start an effort with shallow breathing, it usually stays that way or worsens. So this was encouraging, if perplexing. What should I even do with this unruly body? I don't know the correct answer, but I do know that hibernation is not a real option. 
Sunday, June 24, 2018

All downhill from here

I'm one of those weirdos who looks forward to the summer solstice because it marks the beginning of the descent toward my favorite season. The week before last was a difficult one for me, with poor air quality and asthma symptoms as a reminder that I'll likely never be entirely free of respiratory distress. I also had a flare-up of other symptoms that I've come to view as indicative of a thyroid slump (although notably mild this time around.) Amid the 90-degree temperatures and smoky air, I started to feel bummed out. My "summer S.A.D." Not a big deal, but it does seep into the enjoyment and productivity of everything I do. 

Last weekend brought a strong storm system, and a significant if temporary bout of relief. It was startling, when I set out for a run on Sunday, to realize how much stronger I felt compared to my sputtering efforts during the week prior. The air was clear. I could breathe! I loped down Bear Canyon and up Bear Peak in steady rain, became drenched as I splashed through the trail-turned-stream, enjoyed quiet solitude along Boulder's most popular trails on a Sunday afternoon, and felt warm and comfortable despite soaked clothing. Ideal! My breathing and mood continued to improve during the first half of the week, with cooler temperatures, fog, and afternoon showers. Yes, I live in opposite land as a former California resident now residing in the "300 days of sunshine" state, craving rain. With still-sharp memories of the sun-worshipping I did in Juneau, I conclude that I simply want what I can't have.

Summer does have its positive aspects. Near the top of the list is relatively easy access to the high country, which becomes an impenetrable fortress of avalanche terrain / death-slide steepness / 70-mph winds during the winter months. Mountain season is brief, and further punctured by monsoons and their accompanying lightning and hail. Like nearly every other outdoorsy person in Colorado, I always approach the end of summer with guilt that I didn't do nearly enough. I still haven't climbed Longs Peak, backpacked the Colorado Trail, run any of the 30-mile mountain loops on my radar, bikepacked to Breckenridge, pushed my mental limitations with a Class 3 ridge traverse, and on and on. I feel exhausted just thinking about all of it. The quiet, moody seasons can't come soon enough.
 Unsurprisingly, I operate best along the middle ground between "do all of the things" and "hide in the cellar with a glass of ice water." This weekend I was able to get out for two familiar favorites. On Friday, Wendy and I embarked on the High Lonesome Loop, a 16-mile ring of goodness through lush forests, around icy lakes and along high alpine meadows spanning the Continental Divide.

 We agreed upon an 8 a.m. start (I think in Wendy's ideal outing we would start at 6 a.m., and mine at 10, so compromise.) From Eldora we walked directly into a bank of ominous clouds and a temperature of 43 degrees. Less than a mile into our hike, the sky opened up with thunder, lightning, and frigid rain. I reasoned that we were well protected in the forest for the next five miles, and since the weather forecast called for a mere 10 percent chance of *afternoon* thunderstorms, surely it would clear up by the time we hit tree line. To bolster confidence in my own prediction, I stubbornly refused to add any layers as we climbed into wind and rain. After a couple of miles of seeing nobody, we encountered one of Beat's co-workers, who was descending. He too hoped to complete the High Lonesome Loop in the same direction, but was deterred by thunder and sleet just a few hundred feet higher. He'd taken a half day off work and gotten an early start to take advantage of a rare opportunity, and was visibly upset by the fact he'd been thwarted by weather. "Screw morning thunderstorms," he said grumpily.

 Our late-ish start and mellow pace paid off, as we arrived at the Divide just before 11 a.m. to clearing skies, along with a biting wind. I finally put on the light jacket I'd brought with me. Wendy looked like she was dressed for the White Mountains 100 all over again, bundled in a thick fleece, shell and gloves. This made me wonder if maybe my thyroid actually is acting up. Surely I should feel more chilled than this, when it's 40 degrees and I'm soaked with rain and sweat amid a 30mph wind? Well, best not to overanalyze it.

 Wendy celebrating on the big, scary cornice that we needed to downclimb (which turned out to be not that big or scary.)

 Temperatures warmed throughout the day, but the moody weather persisted, to the point where I brought my jacket to our late lunch at the pizzeria in Nederland, in case of patio seating and downpour. It was a great day.
 On Saturday I woke up with sore muscles — a reminder of my diminished "running" endurance following a low-mileage spring — and a plan to join Beat on a 20-mile loop around Rogers and Rollins Pass.

 Beat is training for his big summer races, and doesn't want to dawdle with me too much, so we agreed that he'd run to James Peak on his own for the first leg, and I'd turn around after meeting him on the descent. I did push the first six miles as hard as I could in a vain attempt to keep up. Usually it takes me three hours and change to hike from East Portal to the peak, and at 2:18 I was a mere half mile (and about 400 vertical feet) from the top when I met Beat coming down. Still, I could have done that in 15 minutes. It would have been a good PR! Next time.

 Descending James Peak.

 Between Rogers Pass and Rollins Pass is a five-mile traverse along the Divide. There's a route marked by CDT posts and an occasional faint trail, but for the most part it's a tundra walk.

 In several crossings I have yet to see more than a single other group of hikers along this traverse, and the views are stunning. Here Beat is looking toward our neighborhood.

 View of Arapahoe Peak.

 That looks like a cold place down there. My kind of place. Although skies were kind, the wind was still bitingly cold on Saturday. Where I had been underprepared on Friday, I was overprepared for this outing, and had to wear my thick shell to block the wind. It was a bit of a sauna in there.

 It will probably surprise no one when I admit that I am not so good at tundra walking — balancing atop loose boulders and grass clumps usually results in mishaps. I rolled my left ankle four or five times along the traverse — never badly, but as we neared the pass, my ankle was increasingly sore and I was annoyed. Why can't I dance along the mountains like those high-profile Boulder runners I admire? Or like Beat, for that matter? I suppose I could stop complaining about clumsiness, and instead work harder to combat it. But it's difficult not to be a skeptic. If I never get better at something while actively practicing that exact thing, for years, why would I believe that standing on a balance board is going to change anything?

 It was nice to reach Rollins Pass Road and jog for a while ... although I was again reminded that while I am not great at negotiating loose rubble and babyheads with a bike, I'm still more naturally suited to rolling over uneven terrain than running. It's difficult to explain this to my non-cyclist friends — that I need a bike to help correct my poor balance.

Here is one of our favorite not-so-secret spots in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Forest Lakes. It's a lovely spot, and I keep telling myself we need to return here with a tent. Perhaps this will be the summer I make good on that one promise, at least.

Yes, solstice came and went, and summer is here. As another promise to myself, I will try to make this blog post the last I openly complain about heat or bad air, or guilt about not cramming in more "epic" mountain adventures (admittedly fueled by social media), and embrace the goodness of summer. There is a lot of it, I know. 
Sunday, June 17, 2018

The scars we keep

With Katie Monaco and Lael Wilcox in Banff before the start of the 2015 Tour Divide

The other night I had that dream again: It's night on the unknown mountain. I'm clinging to clumps of grass on a steep shale slope. I can hear pebbles clinking down the face; they sound like marbles on glass. Rain pelts my face, a tumultuous stream reflected by my headlamp. I'm facing the wall, paralyzed by fear, because I can feel pebbles pressing into the soft rubber of my shoes. Unknowingly I'd scrambled up a rock face wearing roller skates, until it became too steep to manage. Now if I budge an inch, the pebbles will slip and I'll plummet down a wet chute into certain oblivion. My grip is weakening. I slowly turn my chin upward. In my dim and chaotic spotlight, I see the edge of a man's shoes — bright yellow Hokas, caked in mud. He's skirting along a narrow ledge about a foot above my head. His headlamp beam meets my face. With little faith in this stranger whose situation can't be much more secure than mine, I slowly release a neoprene-gloved hand from its grassy hold and stretch it toward him.

This is the part of the dream that startles me awake, although sometimes I reach the part where the benevolent stranger pulls me to safety. This time, the dream went dark too soon. I awoke drenched in sweat, sometime after 2 a.m. on Wednesday night. I kicked off the covers and walked to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. The thermometer beside the sink said it was 81 degrees inside the house. I took a single sip and held the glass to my forehead. A smirk curled around my lips. "I can't believe I'm still having the PTL dream."

"The PTL dream" is a replay of something that actually happened to me, or at least it's the way I remember the experience now. The stranger who pulled me by one arm to the ledge was a fellow competitor in the Petite Trotte à Léon, an extremely ill-advised 300-kilometer mountain race in France that I attempted in 2013. My race was a classic horror show — waltzed into a technical challenge far beyond my experience level and skill set, had some close calls, became so steeped in anxiety and paranoia that my strained eyesight remained blurry for six months, didn't sleep for four days straight, had what I think can accurately be described as a nervous breakdown, sprinted blindly through the woods and later through dangerous road tunnels, and was "rescued" by race personnel while catatonic on a bus bench. The short version makes it sound even worse than it was — clearly there are worse things, and there were good moments to break up the drama. But five years later, memories of the experience still cause me to break out in night sweats.

I'm hesitant to use the term PTSD to describe my voluntary participation in a recreational activity. But the bad dreams ... the visceral reactions to vivid memories ... the way I still shy away from mountain adventures where I can't guarantee myself a high level of control ... these are real symptoms. Recently, I've been thinking about the little traumas that accumulate in our psyche over the years, as real and permanent as the scars stretched across our skin. A recent acquaintance, another one of those crazies who thinks it's fun to run 100 miles in Alaska in the winter, posted a confession about racing that drove home some of my disconnected thoughts.

 He wrote: "Why the trauma? I realized what wasn't there was the weeks of nightmares and whirlwind of feelings that followed. The report didn't show the fear, the disappointment and embarrassment. (The race) left a scar, one that is still healing and worse yet it took away something I loved, something I was good at. I've continued to challenge myself physically and pursue adventure. But the game has changed. And I sit wishing my change wasn't so defined by this one race."

He was describing an incredibly difficult race that he finished, also five years ago. By anyone's standards, it was a huge success. But successes can't mask distress and heartache, emotional upheaval and paralyzing fear. We choose to participate in these events for their incredible rewards, but there's a dark side as well. Emotional highs and lows last long after muscles have recovered and injuries have healed.

Outside Whitefish, Montana, during the 2015 Tour Divide
I didn't start writing this post to rehash PTL or abiding phobias. But my bad dream and my friend's confession prompted thoughts about more subtle psychological strain and my complicated feelings about the Tour Divide. Since this year's Divide race started on June 8, I've been wholly distracted by it — following friends and also the race leaders along the map, visualizing the mountain passes they're climbing, imagining the places they stop to camp for the night, trying to remember where I was "on this day" in 2009 or 2015, dreaming up strategies "for next year." Next year? Am I really thinking about it that seriously? I've already mentioned it here once or twice, so I suppose I am.

But whenever I give more thought to racing the Divide "next year," the darker moments from 2015 creep in: The way my lungs filled with dust and yellow crud, until every cough felt like like shards of glass ripping through my airways. The way every breath felt and tasted like drawing air through a thick rubber mask. The overwhelming dizziness near the top of most climbs. The way mosquitoes would swarm as I lay in the dirt just off the road, crushed by weakness and unsure whether I could muster the stamina to move another thousand feet, let alone a thousand miles. The way the sun boiled my skin after I started taking antibiotics, and then boiled my brain when the fever set in. The way I could continue to turn pedals while staring into the horizon with such supreme indifference that I wondered if this was what it felt like, to lose the will to live. That sounds overdramatic, I know. It's an incomplete but succinct way to describe a complex experience — becoming sick, losing physical capacities, and the mental coping mechanisms that followed.

Why didn't I just quit? Or at least, quit sooner, since I was doomed to fail anyway? Similar to PTL, it was always a decision, and not one I can justify now. Hindsight is 20-20. It wasn't that I was trying to be tough or brave, or prove anything, really. I suppose I naively held onto hope that things would get better, strength would return, joy would intensify, and I'd feel whole again. It's difficult to let go of stories I've already told myself, to admit that I'll never be in control. But my hubris turned what had been an incredible life experience into something sour, something that turns my stomach when I think about it, makes me taste all over again the sickly sweetness of the hot blueberry Odwalla juice that I forced down when I could eat nothing else, makes me feel the bile that gurgled in my stomach as I plodded — on foot and pushing my bike — up the gentle incline of Ute Pass in Colorado. I finally shut down later that day in Silverthorne. I've regretted most of the 2015 Tour Divide ever since.

Looking healthy and chipper during the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Perhaps this is why I want to go back — I want to take a sour life experience and turn it into something incredible again. I want to reclaim the strength that's been compromised ever since 2015, and reignite the fire. I want to train hard, dance along the edge, feel fierce, and finish strong. But there's also a part of me that wonders whether it's a delusional pipe dream, because my potential has faded for good. Even if I regain all of my past physical stamina, perhaps my psyche is too scarred to prop up my weaknesses.

My experience on the Iditarod Trail this past March leaves me with these questions. Amid my ongoing health rollercoaster whose timing rarely fits my agenda, I had to start the ITI while I wasn't fully healthy or strong. A relapse of breathing difficulty was just one problem — there were others — and I barely muddled through it for days. Similar to past experiences where I went too far or pushed myself too hard, what kept me going was faith that the best was still to come, and incredible joy could still follow. Then the weather just kept getting worse, the effort more taxing, until I was spent. Utterly spent.

Then, on the final day, a small miracle materialized out of the depths of my weakness, and I found incredible strength. This ignited a high that I've only felt on these extreme margins, a beautiful state of bliss that I would battle to the ends of Earth to experience. Recently, most of my writing efforts have turned toward recounting my 2018 adventures in Alaska — yet another Iditarod race report, after I promised myself no more — just because I want to reconstruct the experience, if only for myself. Trying to construct an intelligible narrative hasn't been straightforward or easy. A lot of what happened makes no sense to me. Immediately after I experienced this incredible burst of energy and bliss — and accomplished my goal of finishing the 350-mile walk to McGrath — I went back to Anchorage and more or less cried for a week. This strange sadness is not something I'm sure I can or even want to process. Like my bout of strength, it materialized out of seemingly nowhere. The sadness left just as abruptly, and hasn't come back. I've been fine since we returned to Colorado. And yet, I suspect the scars remain.

Still, scars are not a reason to shirk away from the incredible potential and intensity of life. I used to say that if some kind of selective brain scan could completely remove my PTL experience from my memory, I would take that option. Now, I'm not so sure. The way that trauma still resonates has become meaningful — a kind of visceral jolt that breaks through doldrums. I may even value my bad dreams, which only seem to return when I'm anxious about something else ... perhaps too much obsessing about the Tour Divide.

Interesting that this is what I think about during a quiet week away from adventure. A boost in pollen followed by wildfire smoke from the west sparked some asthma reactions, and I avoided exerting myself outside this week. I did brave a couple of runs, where I felt wobbly and slow, somewhat wheezy and drenched in sweat. When I decided on a racing "hiatus" for the summer at least, I resolved to avoid my usual training traps — stubbornly adhering to plans or mileage goals among them. If I wasn't feeling it, I wouldn't push myself. Now that the rain has returned and my lungs have cleared, I'm sleepily blogging away a Sunday afternoon ... thinking I'll venture out for another slow run, in an hour or two, just to get outdoors for a couple of hours and breathe that clear, cool air before summer returns.

As much as I loved my long rides in recent weeks, I suspect I'm also capable of evolving into a mellow, mostly non-adventurous person — perhaps even happy that way. Should I extend my racing hiatus indefinitely? Walk away? The scabs from my Bryce Canyon crash a couple of weeks ago are sloughing away, leaving behind fresh pink scars. I look at them and smile, so perhaps I have my answer.