Our Road Trip

My sister Sarah and I both graduated in the spring of 1996, and thus chose to spend our as-yet-unemployed days taking a fine road trip. The proposed path took us out of the Midwest, with Chicago as our portal, through Minneapolis and forth across the plains to the badlands of South Dakota, the Black Hills, the Rockies, and on to the Northwest shore. We then proceeded down the West coast, visiting friends, relatives, and whichever places struck our fancy while we were in the vicinity. Since money and patience did not fail us, we made it across the arid Southwest to lovely Louisiana, and returned to our home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan by way of Tennessee and Kentucky.

This is a bit of a chronicle of our journey.

It will be composed of moments, more than details, and will only change occasionally, as I have net access sporadically and between long bouts of camping in the wilderness. With that said, enjoy. If you are reading during the process, you might find this update reference a useful shortcut.

--Okay, I have written all the vignettes I'm going to write (and learned the importance of writing things down while they are fresh in your memory).
For those who have asked "where did you go?" here is a summary, and here are some pictures.

gold bar


Speed is an issue when traveling vast distances. We have determined, my sister and I, that we will take our time on this trip, explore local alternatives to the freeway. Still, this is a difficult thing to practice when leaving a big city, a day and two hours later than expected.

The city is Minneapolis, the freeway would have been 35W, the alternative, which we are on, is highway 169, and traffic is... stopped.

"This is ridiculous!" Sarah ejaculates, "This is an expressway. The freeways around Ann Arbor never stop!"
"Minneapolis is much bigger," I mumble.

We roll two car lengths forward and then stop again. Large trucks effectively block any sign of what lies ahead. I'm looking at the map.

"Pleasant Court," says Sarah. "Will that get us back to 35?"
"That only goes into this big shopping center."
"I can't stand this! If this is how the highway is going to be, find a way for us to go back to 35."
"I would wait five minutes."
"In five minutes we'll be one block further."
"five minutes," I say, "the clock says 3:41."

--We've decided to leave the clock on Michigan time as a way of staying connected to home--

We wait.

We pass under the street light that had us stopped.
3:43 : 50 miles per hour.
3:46 : we're going 65, through forest, past lakes and farmland.

"This is nice," says Sarah. I agree, and we contemplate sweetcorn for dinner.

Want an adventure on a road trip?

Venture into a large Sears store looking for a bucket.
The silver-haired, capable-looking fellow in hardware directs us to sporting goods, by way of painting supplies. We get waylaid in porting goods for a bit, seeking camping equipment. No buckets. The people we ask about them have no clue.

"Gosh.. I don't know where they would be."

I decide to go row by row through the housepainting section. I see paint on all sides. Rollers. Sponges. Just as I'm about to give up, an employee pauses at the top of the row to offer assistance. He's a lean native American, the sort that in more simple times might have earned a name for himself as a tracker or trail guide. I tell him of my quest. His answer is startlingly sure.

"we don't have any."

I blink. He points to a space just behind my left knee. "If we had any they'd be right there. we're out of stock."

Stunned, I return to sporting goods. My sister is seeking me. "Where have you been?"
"Looking for a bucket."
"They don't have any."
"yeah. This fellow said they're out of stock."
"Let's blow this joint!"
I grin.

It's so neat how true adventure can bring two sisters together.

Sarah says I must enunciate better. Especially as she's driving.

"Pretty sky," I say.
She slows the car. "What?"
"Pretty sky." I point.
"Oh. I thought you said police car."

Migrating Monarches create a morbid sort of artistic dance as they seek to cross the interstate. The swirls and eddies caused by passing cars toss them out of control. Twirling and fluttering fiercely, these delicate wisps and traceries of orange and gold rarely make it to the other side. To the observer, the aerial display has a difficult and startling beauty. The driver with a conscience has a hard time of it. My sister heralded our entrance into a migratory path with a tsk of her tongue against her teeth.

I look up. "What?"
"I squished a monarch." "What?"
"I kilt a monarch!"

Only later did I learn to marvel at this proof of the butterfly's delicacy, coupled with proof that the migration goes on.

We saw a bluebird in the black hills. It was early evening. Seeking a campground and perhaps a trail ride, we took a gravel road up a hill south of the Crazy Horse monument-in-progress. The trail guides were away on the trail, the horses still present looked swaybacked, and we decided to keep heading South in search of grounds that came with showers. But the detour was worth it when we first crested the hill and there on the fence was perched the prettiest little bluebird.

Early morning at the Angostura State Park Reservoir. We're planning to try for two cave tours in the first half of the day followed by some mile-eating driving across Wyoming. As the sky turns pink, we share one of those memorable exchanges of heartfelt opinion that harken back to younger, more single-minded days of siblinghood.

"It's cold."
"No, it isn't."
"Yes it is."

Perhaps road trips lend themselves to Quests. We decided our last stop in Minnesota, where we bought sharp knives and 2 bowls which we will no doubt fight over at the end of the trip, was going to be "it" for housewares. And after four nights of camping we were convinced we didn't actually need a bucket. But another quest stepped in just a couple days later, as if to fill an intolerable gap.

we had found an almost magical campsite. Rushing past Billings, Montana as darkness fell, we decided to make for two things: more distance and a free campsite. We wanted to head over Beartooth pass into Yellowstone park ion the morning, along a scenic highway that began in Red Lodge, Montana. Some 12 miles South of Red Lodge was a series of state forestry service parks, the most remote of which offered free camping of the rather rustic flavor.

We rolled in around 10:30 by the light of a moon that was just shy of full and chose the flattest site for the tent we could find. That turned out to be so close to the huge picnic table that the line from the rear pole of our 20-year-old tent was tied to the table bench instead of to a stake in the ground.

That night was the first time this trip that I did not rise in the middle of the night to relieve myself. I was awakened by the noises my sister was making about the cold, and those were vociferous enough to convince me I could stand the pressure a few more hours. It's cold in the mountains, and that's where we were.

The next morning we awoke to our first clear view of this beautiful site. Mountain crags were to our West, the scenic road coursed up the mountainside to our Southeast. Just a small marsh away from us was a rocky mountain creek.

And as I was brushing my teeth -- and here begins the quest part, oh patient reader-- we were visited by two large birds that we could neither of us identify, but both had to admire. They were large as crows, with crested black heads and yellow eyes. The rest of their bodies were near-black iridescent blue, and they flew with long strokes of the wings, reminding my sister of an owl's silent passage.

No, we didn't get a photograph. In fact my sister is the only true eyewitness; at the time, I was without my contacts and could only discern general shape, size, and color.

We spoke of this bird to our friends in Bozeman the next night with no progress toward identification. Our second days in Great Falls we Kayaked a bit of the Missouri with Aart Doleman, recent husband of an old family friend, Andree Deligdisch. Noticing Aart's avid observation of the wildlife, we told him about the bird sighting, but he said we'd better ask Andree.

Before going to the C. M. Russell museum that afternoon, we sat down with Andree and Peterson's Field guide to birds. We determined that, but for its size and color, it might be a Jay. That was the opinion of Mr. Hamilton, Audobon Society member and owner of the cabin next over from Andree's in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, where we headed that weekend. Though none of the photographs in his various guides matched the image in Sarah's (or my) head, he was convinced we'd seen a Stellars Jay, fairly common in those parts.

We did in fact see some Stellars Jays during our subsequent days at the cabin. One of them even seemed to be a similar color to the birds we'd seen before, but it was so much smaller. The final detail which stops us from considering the case closed is the form of flight. The brisk wing flapping typical of the jay does not compare to the floating grace of our early morning visitors. If anyone has new ideas on the subject, please send them to me.

This trip may yet convince me to start wearing my glasses during mornings in the wilderness. First there was my fuzzy appreciation of our mystery birds. Then while we were at the cabin I had another limited sighting of wildlife.

I was sitting out on a stump brushing my hair, catching the first influence of sunshine. In the mountains that arrives at the oh-so-early hour of about 10 am, and it can be hard to get moving before then. So I'm sitting there, my nearsighted vision ambitiously surveying the next stump over, when my sister hails me in a loud whisper.

"Deer! Anne! There's a deer!"
"Over to your right."
I look right.
"No, right in front of you."

I slow down and stare hard straight ahead. Something moves. Below me in the river valley is a doe and her fawn. She obviously doesn't smell or see me so I sit very still. The path she is on climbs up into the clearing not ten feet to my right, and I will her to come closer, hoping she remembers the salt lick that used to be right behind where I am sitting.

Closer she comes, but she seems to sense something's afoot, for she moves slowly and cautiously, with a couple hesitant forays in other directions. Still some forty feet out, she halts and looks alertly forward, ears at attention. Perhaps the breeze shifted. With no further hesitation she turns and bounds back into the woods from whence she came.
After a split second the fawn follows.

A feeling of joy wells up in my heart at the sight of their confident bouncing. Perhaps it is because of the strength and freedom being displayed. Then again, perhaps it's because the powerful motion allows me to follow their progress a few moments further. Small consolation for the fact that they never did come within my range of focus.

Still, I saw more of them than Sarah, who was too far across the clearing to see down into the valley right below.

One thing to know if you're going to be driving across the Northwest is this: gas is really expensive in the mountains. Just think: they have to truck it all the way up there, and once you're up there they know you've got nowhere else to go. The names and the grades often vary too. You're thinking to yourself, "wow, Supreme Unleaded, only $1.43 per gallon," but the grade is only 85. We finally called home to find out what we could get away with. "Stay above 87? Good, 'cause 92 is a dollar sixty-nine per gallon."

Mom had heard gas was real pricey in the West but hadn't said anything because she didn't want to depress us. That's okay, we adapted. In fact, judging whether or not we were getting the best price in the next 200 miles became a fine-tuned skill.

Coming out of Spokane, Washington, headed for the Cascades by way of scenic highway 20, we stop to place a phone call and decide to fill up the tank at $1.43 (and nine tenths) per gallon. Just four blocks later the price is $1.44(.9). Five miles further it goes up another cent, and once we're actually in sight of mountains it's already up to $1.59(.9) per.

And don't you just love the way they add that extra 9/10? It's usually in the tiniest lettering, so it almost looks like a degree mark floating at the upper right corner of the price, like it was indicating a temperature. Either that or the type is exceedingly narrow. We've gotten pretty cynical about it and estimate gas will cost us nearly $450.00 from Montana to the end of the road.

But there's our tip for you: consider how remote will be your area of travel. Then stock up on gas.

Catching Ferries

Plan ahead, learn the ferry schedule.

Call or visit the port, hear from them (not just a visitor center volunteer) how early you may need to arrive in order to catch the ferry you want.

Prepare to wait (leaving the car there and wandering around town usually permitted but not once admitted through U.S. customs in Sydney [on Vancouver Island]).

Enjoy the ride. Do not expect to see whales in the heavy traffic paths the ferries take.

It Takes Twelve Stakes

I have discovered that my sister can work miracles with a heavy hammer and a light-weight tent stake. Twisting and turning one of the thin aluminum rods that must be sunken to the head for a secure hold on the strings of our 20-year-old pup tent, she may pound it in 5 different spots and more angles, but she will succeed. The main problem is rocks, though one state park had a gravel bed for tents that was paved with cement only 3 inches below the surface. Our stakes must descend five. In British Columbia, the park service has spent years laying crushed gravel on its camp sites and letting RVs pack it down. At our first B. C. site, we asked the park operator beforehand if it would be possible to get tents stakes in.

"Oh, sure," he says.

When he comes round later for the $15.50 we owe him we make him try to pound a stake in under cover of cold rain. Oh so helpful, he tells us we should get 8-inch spikes. Then he hands the hammer back to my sister and returns to his dry cabin.

What amazes me the most about Sarah's prowess is her choice of inspirational phrases. One need not listen carefully to hear her declare "It's not going to work!" or "This is ridiculous!" And yet, these seemingly defeatist phrases serve to stoke her anger, to make her more powerful, more determined. I scuttle around being as useful as I can, letting slide such statements as "This is impossible!" and in very little time, this amazing miracle occurs, and our tent is pitched.

In Victoria, British Columbia's capital, they have festooned their parliamentary buildings with lights. At night it looks like something out of Disney world. The lights do not illuminate the building. rather, they are arranged to reflect its structure, and proclaim it proudly to the night life. I hope the whales think it looks funny. I certainly do.

Human night life in Victoria is pretty active. Around the bay from the parliament, we stepped into the Java Cafe's open stage poetry night. At the mic was a long-bearded man in black proclaiming to a sympathetic audience that he was the winnie-the-pooh of the universe. The place was packed. I got my water and Sarah her Mexican hot chocolate, and we found space at a rear table. As the talent on the stage ebbed and flowed, my mind found occassion to consider my most recent poetic inspiration, this road trip. My sister and I are not all that unalike, as I rediscoverd when I noticed her fetching a napkin, borrowing a pen from another table, and persevering to write a poem about Victoria, even on the face of roughly pieced glass which made for us a tabletop. As she finished with the napkin, I took it from her, and so wrote my poem on the other side. A fine memento it will make.

Is the World Ready for a Postcard of an Oregon Slug?

When my sister first encountered one, she gave off this little shriek and dropped the piece of firewood it was on. I, of course, came straight over and we both stared in fascination at the largest slug we'd ever seen. It was almost two inches from head to tail, except now it was closed up tight, with the fore-parts that do the sensing fully retracted. Sarah experimented with a twig- hitting the slug lightly so it curled up more compactly, the folds of its skin looking like leaves wrapped around its middle.

I wondered aloud if this could be a Banana Slug. When the Park Operator came by with more firewood, we asked him what it was. "Oh, I don't think it has any special name," he replied, "it's just a banana slug." In explanation of the name, he pointed out another, longer, slug that we hadn't noticed. Unlike the first slug which was rather green in appearance, this one was definitely a dull yellow, with brown splotches. Rather like.. a banana!

Unhappy at the prospect of stepping on one of these slugs or getting any in our tent, we set up camp there on Vancouver Island, and actually made it through the night slug-free. After a weekend back in Seatle dealing with car trouble (when mechanics give you an estimate for a $900.00 repair, always question it most carefully. Ours ended up costing us $3.00), we proceeded to the Olympic Peninsula home of the Olympic mountains, beautiful beaches, and temperate rain forest. Slugs can't get enough of that damp climate.

On our way down to Ruby beach, we passed two slugs making the long treacherous crossing over the path. After seeing the many sights of the beach- the red-streaked weeping wall, the shallow ocean-made cavern, the ocean, the driftwood, and even a small whale carcass, we headed back the opposite way. At the site of the first slug crossing, Sarah groaned that it looked like it had been stepped on. At the next one, we couldn't stand it. The poor slug was in the middle of a path that was enjoying high foot traffic.

So Sarah and I Stood Watch. For three minutes we stood there, directing tourists around the slug. At this point the creature had made five inches of progress and we, being members of generation X, couldn't wait much longer, so we let it move onto a stick and then airlifted it to safety. Sarah dramatically declared we had done our part to protect the lives of the Washington Slug. Definitely a feel-good moment. That night we camped in the Hoh rain forest -surrounded by slugs -very happily.

Wanting to share my experience with the folks back home, I looked all over for a postcard with a picture of a slug on it. Repeatedly, I found nothing but Elk, Cougars, Trees with Moss, and oceanscapes. Finally, deep in Oregon, I found this postcard. With clever perspective, the photographer made a yellow slug loom hugely against a black background. In orange letters, it asked "Is the World Ready for a Postcard of an Oregon Slug?"

And it was too much.

I think banana slugs are.. cute, really. So I'm still waiting for a postcard that depicts them that way. Seeing as how I've left that part of the country, I'll probably be waiting a long time.

College Cove

Have you ever read a fantasy book? One that had mermaids sitting on craggy rocks amid ferns and exotic grasses, enjoying the ocean spray? Go to Northern California. The only thing your imagination need provide are the mermaids.

Canyons of Ferns and Redwoods call you back to prehistoric times. We were told that Spielberg had been to this area just two weeks before we got there, to film part of his Jurassic Park sequel. These areas, visited daily by a soft misted fog, can serve as backdrops that lift you from your worries- transport you from your daily druggery, and encourage you to just sit on a rock, or stroll on a beach, and daydream.

We stayed four days in Arcata California, just North of Headwaters Forest, one of many local redwood groves. After a pleasant walk through the redwoods on the edge of the Humbolt University campus, Marnin and Sarah and I took a drive up to Trinidad, to see Marnin's favorite beach. We parked the car at the side of a circular drive, and after a short walk through the woods, clambered down a quick descent, past a small waterfall, to the beach.

A few other students were there, seeming to explain the name, College Cove. Marnin told us he goes there to regroup when school gets to be too much. It is one of the most peaceful places I have been in my whole life.

I fell into a day-dreamy state that encouraged me to sit perched on the rocks, watching the waves stroke the sand below me, envisioning what I might like my life to be like at the end of this trip. Sarah climbed higher in the rocks across from me. Marnin, having found an old wine cork in the sand, struck up a playful mood between the two of them, by throwing it at Sarah. She of course, threw it back at him, and by the time I got moving down the beach, they were well ahead of me, laughing and wrestling in the sand. At what looked to be the other edge of the cove there was another pile of rocks right at the water's edge. Sarah and Marnin climbed around, barely avoiding getting wet. I sat down for more daydreaming, figuring they'd be back. The soft light of the evening sun was slowly being obscured by a veil of fog. This gave the western sky an ethereal pearlescent quality, the light pinks of light captured in the fog shimmering against the casual blue of the sky.

I was truly entranced, until Sarah and Marnin came back around to inform me the plan was to exit the cove from the other side of the rocks and they'd been waiting for me. No stress, we just headed on back, out of College Cove.

After a pleasant picnic lunch in Redwood National Forest, Sarah and I delay our departure from the site for to watch a raven couple. Sleek and Iridescent blue-black, their bodies are larger than crows' bodies, and furthermore they carry themselves with more character and grace. The stately forest seems the perfect setting in which to watch these ravens converse, with both body language and surprisingly subtle vocalizations. Following the other through the trees, one seems to be asking for something, if nothing more than attention. I've never seen birds nudge and nod to one another like that.

Being the first time we were consciously observing Ravens, it is the perfect opportunity for us to compare them to the mystical birds of our Red Lodge campsite. The mystery birds definitely had peaked heads, which the ravens lack, and yellow eyes. Sarah declares her belief that they were "mutant Stellar Jays" and we leave it at that, glad that we had this moment of discovery with the Ravens.

After waiting for construction crews to clear out our way, we finally exit highway 1 and head inland. The sun is setting. Just after dark we reach the Santa Rosa Valley. We open the windows for a deep inhalation.

The air is warm, moist, and full of fragrance. In between breaths we identify what we're smelling.

"Smells like pesto. Oh, that's basil."
"Mmm.. fresh baked bread."

We groan in synch, "Road Kill."

The absence of light seems to heighten our sense of smell, and we open our mouths to aid it even further.


Hello, central California.

Welcome Back, Monarchs!

I have seen Monarch Man. With an Orange Cape and a huge "M" on his chest, Monarch Man is just one of the crowd that turns out of Santa Cruz every October to welcome the monarch butterflies back to nearby Natural Bridges State Park, the largest overwintering site in the country. Did you know there are two distinct populations of monarchs in North America? Those East of the Rockies spend the winter in Mexico, but on this side of the mountain range they join the human migration, to southern California.

We just happened to get to Santa Cruz the day before the "Welcome Back, Monarchs!" festival. After spending the night in the car, breakfasting on the beach front, and spending a happy couple of hours in the Surfing Museum, we were convinced to go to the festival by the sight of a few monarchs wheeling through the trees.

It is a wonderfully gradual experience. As we go into the park, we see a young girl with large wooden butterfly wings on her back, calling out "puppet show at 2:00!" Everybody's wearing black antennae or little monarch crowns. A boy runs by to let his parents know that the parade starts at 2:30. There is food and refreshment available to be purchased, and the park visitor center is festooned with butterfly paraphenalia. We go in there to learn more about the migration, then decide it's time to take the Monarch Trail.

This wooden ramp is at such a slant that children think it's really fun to run down, ignoring their parents' pleas on behalf of safety. Those who can read pause at placards hanging from the rails - on the visible side is a question about the butterflies, and on the reverse is the answer. We learn that Monarchs cannot survive freezing and that they cannot fly at temperatures below 50 degrees. We also learn that these monarchs, the one who migrate this whole distance in one trip, live twice as long as the other two generations per year.

As we slowly progress down the ramp, we pause often to point out Monarchs above each other's heads. We are entering a grove of Eucalyptus trees, whose dense foliage and occasional flowers offer the butterflies shelter and food throughout the winter. We are about to understand the practice of "clustering". Monarchs hang in closely spaced rows along the long slender branches of the trees. They look like so many dry leaves, until a breeze or passing butterfly disturbs the rest and they open their wings. Such a display of color!

Sarah and I move forward until we're nearly under these clusters. Beside us at the rail that protects this grove from ruin under trampling feet, a young woman discusses with a friend the issue of whether or not she wants "male energy in my life." Some small child whispers, "I see a butterfly."

With a rush of sound, the whole crowd gasps and a knowledgable sort cries out "Cluster Burst!"

An entire cluster of perhaps a hundred Monarchs takes wing, fanning out over the upturned faces before circling back to land on other branches. It is.. lovely. We stand there craning our necks for another 15 minutes before deciding that moment was the pinnacle of the show.

We buy postcards.

We sail on.

Is that what we think it is?

For those of you who live among cotton fields, this story may sound inane, but Sarah and I saw our first cotton field in mid-October.

The drive from Santa Cruz to Yosemite is really quite lovely in a fields tended by migrant labor sort of way. All Along, Sarah and I are trying to guess the species of plant we're looking at. Some of them are labeled.

"How do you know?"
"There's this big sign next to the road."

Mostly we're just guessing.

"Do you suppose those are limes?"
"They look like limes... "
"Do you think those could be pecans?"

"Look! Is that cotton?"
We pull off the road.
"That has to be cotton."

Like typical tourists, we stand and gape. We walk closer. I take out my camera for a memorial photograph. Sarah picks up a cotton bole, from the ground, deciding to take it home.

"That's stealing!"
"It was already broken. They aren't going to miss it."

Later on we see a field that looks harvested and ponder aloud our doubt that people would have left as much on the stalks as the mechanized cotton pickers do. But we see no people. It's early yet. We move on into the drowsy sunlight.

Just Our Eyes

We spent a lazy first day at Yosemite National Park. We napped, got our campsite, had lunch, chatted with some rock climbers, and took a short walk that turned into a bit of a hike. And I have to say in the end I was glad we didn't take our cameras.

We were just walking along the base of a rock face. To stay right beside it, we had to start climbing a little-- the ground rose in rocky bumps and bulges, old enough to have the cover of a forest and a dirt trail. This is the way the climbers come, and in fact we pass two groups of them, one coming down, one just getting started.

We have only one half-full bottle of water, so we can't go far. But as the trail gets steeper and more rocky, we start to develop this sense of adventure. Then there's this long stretch, a slope, of somewhat loose rocks set in sandy soil. Sometimes we have to kick our feet into the dirt to find purchase on something that won't give way when we apply our weight to it.

Sarah and I each take a different route, then both pass between a scrubbly tree and the cliff face, and there we are, at the crest of the trail. There's a huge boulder there, but there's also a good-sized flat space, where we stand to take in an incredible view of the valley and surrounding formations. This is where we first take note that neither of us brought a camera. But I don't feel disappointed for long.

Somehow it gives greater importance to looking, with just our eyes. We spend some time at that, soaking in the experience. Nobody else will know what we saw, can see this light, from this spot, on this day, but us.

We can't see the river, and a number of the buildings we know are there are also obscured by trees. It's late afternoon, so the light is not fierce, but neither is it the warm light of impending sunset. It's just clear all around.

Directly across from us, and far above, is a ridge we know to be a lookout. We discuss whether those are trees or people, that appear to be waving at us. I squint. The figures are too long in the same position to be people. Probably too big too. Hard to tell at this distance.

We're almost out of water, so we head back down. Each of us pick out yet another creative path down the treacherous slope. Going up was easier. Soon, though, we hit the regular path and return to our car.

Sarah gets her camera and walks out into an unkempt field to find the perfect picture of half dome. After a while she comes and takes me out there too, to lie in the grass, watch the light slant its way over the valley, listen to bugs, and relax into the moment, eyes wide open.

At the bottom of King's canyon, Sarah stops the car. Tarantula. It is walking amiably accross the street. The span of its legs is perhaps 3 inches, probably less.

"Bend down close to it, Anne."

So the picture is just the tarantula, sillouetted against the dividing line, black against yellow: warning!

Other tourists join us. He gets close to it, provoking a defensive crouch. I don't get any closer. My scientific curiousity is not as brave in the wild.

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Last updated: 1-22-2003 (last story added 1-18-1997)

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