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Archive for September, 2009

I scrounged through my glove compartment for my secret stash of coins. The small Tupperware container wasn’t hard to find. I was pleased to see I’d also stashed a couple dollar bills in there. It’s something I always recommend – keeping a small can or tin of change available. It comes in handy at some point, for coffee, or a soda, or a parking meter. This time it would get me into an unusual attraction that I’d spotted along I-15 as I approached Blackfoot, ID. Nestled in the city’s 1912 train depot was my unexpected find – the Idaho Potato Museum.

I admit I was skeptical at first, so much so that I blinked a couple times when I first saw the “Potato Museum” sign. Blasting across Idaho en route to Nevada, I hadn’t planned to make any stops. But my curiosity was too much to bear. What on earth could be in a potato museum? I had to find out.

A kind receptionist greeted me at the desk of the combined museum-gift shop. The entry fee was 3.00, discounted to 2.50 for AAA members. I paid my fee and stepped through the doors into an agricultural world of wonder.

With topics ranging from the history of the potato to harvesting techniques to the development of farming equipment, the multi-room exhibit held more than I could have imagined. One glass display case held the world’s largest potato “crisp,” measuring 25 by 14 inches, recorded in the Guiness Book of World Records. Another boasted a colorful collection of potato head dolls, sporting styles that ranged from a Spiderman outfit to a Philadelphia Phillies batting helmet. Other museum cases displayed potato mashers – hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes.

On the less whimsical side, a variety of potato-oriented antique farm equipment made it clear that the spuds that grace our American tables don’t arrive there without hard work on the part of the growers. Long, wooden potato sorters and a hefty burlap sack stitching machine were just two of the many pieces of machinery on display.

Side exhibits included buckets, baskets, crates and even special shoes designed for preparing the ground for planting. Murals depicted laborers at work in the fields. Burlap sacks were plentiful, many with unique designs and all proudly labeling the prized contents.

One educational – and amusing – wall presented cutouts of potatoes with tidbits of potato trivia, giving visitors a few facts to tuck away in cranial corners for future knowledge – or to enjoy for the moment. After all, who hasn’t ever wondered how many 4” French Fries it would take to circle the Equator? The answer, per the display at the Idaho Potato Museum, is 393,779,549.

I couldn’t help spotting a large reproduction of a Marilyn Monroe poster, featuring her posed in the middle of a potato field, wearing a remarkably attractive burlap outfit. Spurred on by a comment a reporter had made that the actress would look good even in a potato sack, her publicity agent devised a clever marketing promotion that featured her in a bag-turned-fashion-outfit from Long Produce in Twin Falls, ID.

A video presentation ran continuously in a center room, giving guests a glimpse into the potato industry from a historical perspective. Noted botanist Luther Burbank is credited with developing Idaho’s most popular potato, known as the Russet Burbank, which dates back to a single “seed ball” he discovered in New England in 1872.

Several wall-length layouts of photos and captions offered information on various aspects of potato production. One detailed the grading of potatoes for commercial distribution. Another described optimal climate, soil and irrigation factors.

I took a second walk through the museum before leaving, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Sure enough, I had managed to overlook an early twentieth century rodeo queen’s burlap outfit, as well as a potato autographed by Dan Quayle, complete with its own glass display case.

A bonus for visitors is a complimentary box of hash-browns, handed out in a clever sack-style bag. I tucked this gift away in my car and hit the road, taking with me a little newfound insight into Idaho’s top agricultural industry.

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Lamoille, NV

I drove into Nevada from the north, leaving Twin Falls, ID and traveling a highway dotted only by sagebrush and an occasional miniscule town. I reached Wells, NV, early enough in the afternoon that it made sense to keep driving, so I checked my notes and headed for Nevada’s claim to non-desert: the Ruby Mountains.

After an odd response from an upscale ranch in the area (“We really only take guests we already know, or who know someone we already know…”) I stumbled across the Pine Lodge and Hotel Lamoille. Here hospitality was abundant, both from Pine Lodge, the restaurant, and Hotel Lamoille, a three room lodging establishment. And it was located just an easy twenty minute drive down State Route 227, south of Elko.

Formerly one business and now owned by two separate owners, the two sit side by side and make a convenient and comfortable stop for visitors to the strikingly scenic area. And with the soothing greenery of Lamoille and the hideaway ambiance of a very small town, it’s a good place to escape from the standard casino-studded cities along Interstate 80.

Under gray skies, I pulled into the driveway of Hotel Lamoille, a small structure with a western façade hiding a basic house in back, converted to hold three guest rooms. There was no response when I knocked on the front door, but a quick call to the hotel’s posted phone number brought a quick response. I was soon checked into Room 3, tucked around the back of the building. Cows grazed in a pasture behind the building and a field to the side stood ready for visits by local deer.

More a suite than just a room, I had a living room with couch and DirectTV, a bedroom with a quaint antique dresser and very comfortable bed and a private, newly-remodeled bath – all for a reasonable fee. Freshly painted and immaculately clean, it defied the somewhat funky image of the building from the outside. As an added plus, Pine Lodge was just next door, offering easy access to a hot meal. After a day on the road nibbling on snacks, I was ready for some real food.

Pine Lodge is housed in a cabin-style building with an interior resembling an old hunting lodge. Tables fill a room with an impressive stone fireplace, while booths line the back wall, each offering a large window view of a wildlife diorama, complete with aspens branches, brush and an assortment of taxidermy guests who would clearly not be stealing any bites of my dinner.

The restaurant offers a wide variety of steak and seafood entrees, but I chose an off-the-menu option of pasta with tomato and basil, served with a green salad and warm French bread. Entrees all come with a potato choice and vegetables – more than I needed. It was no surprise that I turned down dessert.

I slept well and, as promised, morning arrived with deer just outside. I startled a young buck by opening my door too quickly, but he soon returned to continue his morning munching on the nearby foliage. A light rain during the night had left the air crystal clear.

As for my own morning meal, I was graciously treated to breakfast by Marsha, Mike’s wife and co-owner of the Hotel Lamoille, at the other local eatery – there are just two in town and only one serves breakfast. The Bitter End Tavern – formerly, and still called, O’Carroll’s by locals – was clearly the center of town activity, with most customers sitting around the bar exchanging local tidbits of news. Marsha and I took a table and shared an omelette while she gave me printed historical and geological material on the area. Like Mike, she was a good ambassador for the area. I left breakfast ready to explore.

I made a couple stops before leaving the town of Lamoille. The first was to photograph the Little Church of the Crossroads, a century-old Presbyterian church at the end of the main street. Built in 1905, the impressive prairie style structure stood out amidst the more subdued buildings in town, resting against the area’s dramatic mountain backdrop.

A second stop took me inside The Gallery, an antique store and framing company owned and run by Marsha and Mike, my hosts from Hotel Lamoille. The fascinating shop held an eclectic assortment of refinished furniture, antique dolls, weathered western gear, old-fashioned prints, patchwork quilts and kitchen goods. A few minutes in front of Mike’s wood stove warmed my hands before I said my goodbyes and headed for the hills – literally.

Nestled in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the draw of the Ruby Mountains – known locally as “The Rubies” – is reason alone to visit Lamoille. The 13.5 mile drive into Lamoille Canyon offers up close views of granite cliffs, glacial formations, lush green vistas and stunning mountain peaks, all of which defy the standard notions of Nevada scenery.

I hit the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway under almost mystical conditions. Fall foliage painted the lush, green landscape with splashes of bright yellow and gold, yet the twenty-three degree temperature I found as I climbed in altitude sent soft, white snowflakes down from the skies. Winds whipped through the canyon with frenzied force and I had to work a little to keep the car firmly on the road.

Easy access to the hiking makes Lamoille Canyon a popular destination for mountain enthusiasts. Hikes vary in length from the relatively easy round trip jaunt of around 3.5 miles to Island Lake, to journeying along the entire 42 mile Ruby Crest Trail. Regardless of the length and duration, any hike in the Ruby Mountains leads to breathtaking scenery.

Nevada doesn’t get much in the way of praise for scenic travel, creating a stereotyped image of the state as one vast, flat desert. Thankfully, my visit to Lamoille changed that image for me. When I think of mountain vistas in the future, I’ll still think of Taos, NM and Jackson Hole, WY, of Eureka Springs, AR and Gatlinburg, TN. But I’ll also think of Lamoille, NV. It’s just proof that there’s always something new to learn on the road.

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I would have been kidding myself to portray my night as even remotely resembling one of a true sheepherder. The lonely worker of the late 19th and early 20th century would not have turned on a laptop to type notes about that day. Inside the 6 by 10 ft. space with rounded canvas ceiling, a heater would not have been turned on by a simple twist of a knob. A light wouldn’t cast an inside glow at the flip of a switch. Hot and cold running water wouldn’t have flowed from a basin near the door.

In those days a western sheepherder, often Basque, would have hovered over a morning campfire, fixing breakfast from whatever provisions happened to be stored in the wagon. A hot breakfast wouldn’t have been waiting inside a nearby house. And, traveling alone for months at a time, accompanied by only a sheepdog and one thousand sheep or more, he wouldn’t sit with others over food and chat about travel and daily life.

Guests of the K3 Ranch Bed and Breakfast, on the other hand, have the option of enjoying a sheepherder wagon with modern luxuries as part of the deal. Though the main house on the ranch property offers three exquisitely decorated rooms, I’m always up for an adventure, so I headed for the lodging option that would give me exactly that.

I’d arrived at the ranch by way of a gravel road. Only six miles from the relatively busy city of Cody, I might as well have been in a different world altogether. Expansive vistas spread out around me in all directions. Rich, red rocks rose up from the ground, speckled with sagebrush.

I was greeted by owner Jerry Kinkade, who zoomed up on a motorized mini-tractor. Buddy, his faithful canine sidekick, welcomed me as well, gladly accepting a pat on the head. “Hop on,” Jerry quipped, “Let me show you around.” I jumped on, he stepped on the gas, I grabbed frantically for a side bar and the adventure was on.

After a bumpy trip around the circular driveway, we pulled up in front of the ranch house, bordered by an island of strikingly beautiful red rock. A narrow pathway led up the side to a skillfully sculpted “meditation chair,” formerly a nondescript diesel fuel tank yet now artistically displaying southwestern-themed cutouts – a kokopelli, a turtle, a mountain goat and others. Sunlight filtered through the designs, giving a mystical feeling to the already breathtaking scenery.

“I used a little Native American magic when I made those,” Jerry shouted up to me. “They change colors; they’re white or blue in the daytime and then, at night, they turn black.” I admit it took me a few seconds to think that one through. It was my first glimpse of my host’s mischievous personality.

I maneuvered my way down the path again and was ushered into the ranch house, which housed three guest rooms: The Teton Room, The Rocky Mountain Room and The Chuck Wagon Room. Each sported clever features such as tin ceilings, scenic murals and beds built into hay or chuck wagons. Artistic details added to the ambiance of each room – teepee sconces with fringe, doors adorned with metal artwork and even a brass headboard turned sideways for use as a towel rack.

“We even have karaoke machines in every bathroom,” Jerry announced proudly. I was beginning to catch on, immediately eyeing the wall-mounted hair dryers as Jerry grinned with a bit of devilment.

Our tour continued through a great room with plenty of sofas and chairs for reading and relaxing and a dining room, complete with stacks of cowboy hats. “We all wear hats at breakfast,” Jerry informed me. “That makes it a cowboy breakfast.”

A kitchen on the lower level of the house was accessed by means of a steep, narrow circular staircase – not for the faint of heart – and, stepping through a side door to the outdoor area, a patio was built under a teepee covering. For cooler nights, it provided a wood burning fireplace inside, with surrounding woven twig and wicker chairs.

I was shown the 1890 sheep wagon, my chosen lodging for the night. Beautifully restored by a woman in Meeteetse, WY, it was simple inside, as close to authentic as possible, given the running water, electricity and wireless access that could be picked up from the main house.

“And here’s your fifteen thousand dollar bath house,” Jerry pointed out waving his arm towards a small wooden structure just a few steps away from the sheep wagon. Indeed, it was just as well designed as the other aspects of the property, with all the usual bath necessities, including shower, color coordinated towel sets in cocoa and sage and a basket of premium bath amenities.

One special feature of the sheep wagon was a private deck that extended from the front door, giving additional square footage to the accommodation and a perfect place to watch deer graze in the bordering pasture. A table and two chairs made it a scenic, sunny place to hang out.

Breakfast is included at the K3 Ranch and mine was cooked by Jerry himself – eggs over easy with pancakes and fresh brewed coffee. It was a great start to the day, made even nicer by table conversation with Jerry and his wife, Bette.

Post-pancakes, another treat was in store. Included in the menagerie of ranch residents were two horses, Stormy and Zip, who were all too happy to show off their skills. With the almost magical touch of a horse whisperer, Jerry soon had the equine partners obeying a variety of commands. They could sit on voice command, slap high fives with either hoof and smother Jerry with kisses, as well as perform a variety of other feats.

Cody, WY is a fascinating town to visit, with plenty to offer visitors. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center alone is worth a trip, hosting five museums within its walls. Old Trail Town offers a look at restored historic buildings, set on the original spot that W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody laid out for the city that bears his name. The historic Irma Hotel is worth a visit to see the immense cherry wood bar.

Some places are harder to leave than others and this was one. I took a few minutes to climb the red rocks and sit in the meditation chair before leaving. The sun painted rich color across the surrounding mountainsides and the breeze flowed softly through the clean, country air.

Though there is no shortage of lodging options in town, I felt lucky to have found the K3 Ranch. The location couldn’t have been better – close to Cody’s attractions, yet just far enough away to get some real non-city cowboy atmosphere. And the hospitality offered by Jerry and Bette Kinkade is clearly top-notch.

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I arrived in Big Timber, MT, during early evening hours, ready to be tucked away for the night. I’d called ahead and booked a small room with shared bath, always a bargain way to stow away in historic hotels. It is a financial luxury, traveling alone, in that I can almost always take the smallest, least expensive room.

The Grand Hotel Bed and Breakfast, as it is called nowadays, was built in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current hotel owner will say that restoration is an ongoing process, but it was clear from the moment I stepped inside that extensive work had already been done. Woodwork, tin ceilings and natural brick all showed evidence of tender care.

I was given a key to Room 1, located conveniently on the second floor, not far from the stairs. Decorated in rich peach tones, it had a brass bed, antique dresser and old-fashioned children’s prints hanging against the walls. The room was cozy but large enough to be comfortable and just a short walk to the restrooms, which were plentiful in proportion to the guest rooms.

I’d driven without stopping for lunch, relying on snacks in the car, so I was ready for a good meal. The hotel was serving dinner in both a formal dining room and a more casual saloon. My inclination was to slump over something easy to consume quickly and casually, so a booth in the saloon was perfect. A plate of pasta and veggies solved the hunger.

Big Timber is the type of town that closes up completely at night, falling into an empty silence that is not broken until the sun rises. The peace of the empty streets created the ideal atmosphere for a good night’s sleep.

Morning led me to the dining room, where the breakfast that is included with lodging is served. The meal was described as “Chef’s Choice,” which might sound scary in a school cafeteria. But it wasn’t a problem there at the hotel. Strawberry pancakes, accompanied by eggs, juice and coffee soon landed on the table.

I lingered before checking out, enjoying the ambiance of my peach-toned room, as well as the overall historic feeling of the hotel’s interior spaces. Even after turning in my key, I reclaimed the corner booth in the saloon and jotted down notes over a soda.

A bonus for stalling before leaving was the chance to meet with owner Larry Edwards, who took over the business in 1990. His hands-on involvement in keeping the business running smoothly was apparent as I watched him make the rounds in the restaurant area, greeting guests and making sure details were covered. Even the “critters” get regular baths, he told me, referring to the various trophy heads mounted on the walls.

Downstairs, however, in the basement of the hotel, was where the most intriguing discovery of my morning waited. Beyond the smooth surfaces of the refinished banisters and the swanky interiors of the hotel’s common areas was a steep stairwell, leading to a dusty chamber filled with antique washing tubs, tables and mangles – the remnants of an early Chinese laundry. A short cascade of steps led into the room from a back door, where customers would have brought their clothing for cleaning and pressing by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The town of Big Timber is small, without much in the way of tourist attractions. But it sits in a scenic paradise, alongside the Yellowstone River and up against the Crazy Mountains. And its location – 80 miles west of Billings and 60 miles east of Bozeman – makes it an easy place to pause when crossing Montana.

Though private landholders make access to the mountain terrain somewhat difficult, there are public roads from both the west (Cottonwood Rd.) and east (Big Timber Canyon Rd.) that allow mountain enthusiasts a way into the spectacular surroundings. The 40 alpine lakes and 66 miles of trails make “The Crazies” a desirable destination for both hikers and anglers.

It’s not difficult to find standard chain lodging when traveling along Interstate highways. Sometimes it’s even what a road-weary traveler is looking for. But it’s nice to know there are other options. The Grand Hotel in Big Timber is one of those hidden finds – easy, convenient and economical, yet full of ambiance, comfort and history – definitely a good stop along the highway.

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It’s no mystery that the area a few dozen miles south of Bozeman, MT is called Big Sky. Gazing up from the scenic Gallatin landscape, the sky seems larger than the mind can comprehend, stretching across the heavens like an endless, overhead sea.

I could feel the tension and stress begin to evaporate immediately as I followed the Gallatin River north along Hwy 191. Thirty-five miles north of West Yellowstone, I stepped out of my car and my feet hit the dry Montana dust. I knew I’d found a little slice of Western paradise.

The 320 Guest Ranch had been on my radar for some time, but timing and logistics had kept it as no more than a bookmark and a wish. Finally, the pieces had come together for an overnight stay.

I asked for a cabin that would be some distance from the center of activity. My yearning for the life of a cowgirl recluse was handed to me in the form of a key to Cabin #40, at the very end of a long row of similar structures. Though technically one half of a duplex, there would be no one in the other side that night, giving me exactly the peace and quiet I wanted. Even better, I had a wood-burning fireplace and a generous stack of firewood just outside the door.

I decided to do some wandering before settling into my log hideaway. I would pass on the numerous recreational options – horseback riding, rafting, hiking and more. I was content to wander the grounds, visit the horses and simply breathe in the fresh air. One stop I had no intention of missing, however, was the restaurant, housed in an impressive log building that had been developed around one of the ranch’s original log cabins.

The interior of the dining hall had none of the trappings of touristy western décor. This was the real deal – a true guest ranch for those desiring an authentic experience. I took in the bear rug above the saloon’s bar, the old harnesses hanging on the rafters and the original oil paintings on the restaurant’s walls. Under wagon wheel chandeliers and to the soft strains of cowboy music, I easily fell into the ranch spirit.

Not surprisingly, the menu was focused on local fare, with creatively prepared selections of elk, bison and fresh fish. There were plenty of choices. Even my now-vegetarian appetite had no trouble being satisfied, as the chef whipped up a delicious pasta dish with fresh pesto and generous portions of sautéed mushrooms, zucchini and fresh peppers, topped with pine nuts and fresh grated parmesan cheese. I resisted the dessert options, which included mixed berry cobbler and crème brulee.

The 320 Guest Ranch is hardly a newcomer to the Montana hospitality scene. It dates back to the late 1800’s when father and son Sam and Clinton Wilson had properties next to each other, later combined to form what was then called the Buffalo Horn Resort.

In 1936 Montana’s first female doctor, Dr. Caroline McGill, purchased the property and ran it as a healthy retreat for patients and friends. The historic McGill cabin still remains, available to guests as a rental unit.

Ownership was subsequently inherited by friends of Dr, McGill, the Goodwin family, who ran the ranch until selling it to current owner Dave Brask in 1987. Since then the ranch has flourished, developing return customers, hosting conferences and providing guests with a welcome escape from the stress of daily life.

I spent a peaceful evening in the cabin, interrupted only by a brief altercation with the fireplace flue, which resulted in a very non-peaceful piercing screech from the smoke detector. I was grateful I didn’t have a neighbor in the next cabin. But the episode faded away into a quiet evening with a glowing fire. It was a relaxing night and I slept well, waking up to a day of pristine weather and a hearty breakfast buffet, included with lodging.

I love finding places that I can recommend without the slightest hesitation. The 320 Ranch falls right into that category. Whether as a lodging guest, a conference attendee or a customer stopping by for a good meal or trail ride, it’s a great destination. I’d save a little room for the berry cobbler. And make sure the flue is open before kicking the fireplace into gear.

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A Normal Day

When I spend a period of time in Jackson Hole, I help out at a local lodge, one of dozens – more accurately a dozen dozen or more.  It’s not feasible to head out on adventures every day.  The budget doesn’t allow it and the work assignment is both enjoyable and financially wise.

So this is how I’m spent my days this week – offering advice on the area to local visitors and trying to let them know what not to miss.  There’s never enough time to see everything.  This is the third summer I’ve worked here and there are still trails I haven’t followed and local activites I’ve yet to work into my schedule.

On the regular circuit though are breakfasts at Bubba’s, walks to the Town Square for the Sat. Farmer’s Market, local hikes around nearby lakes and a bit of plain old relaxing.

That’s my story for most of this week.

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I don’t know exactly what I expected when I drove into Afton, WY, with plans for an overnight stay at a log cabin. Most likely I expected something funky and rustic, something a big step down from the upscale accommodations seventy miles north in affluent Jackson Hole. After all, Afton is a relatively small town of approx. 1800 people, located in scenic, but not tourist-attracting Star Valley. But I was about to learn a lesson about expectations.

Driving north from Utah, I’d taken my time along the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, stopping to explore canyon features along the way, including a 1.3 mile loop hike on the well-maintained Limber Tree Trail. With a stop in Garden City, UT for a raspberry shake – an area tradition – I continued north through short distances of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming highway, arriving leisurely in Afton at the Old Mill Cabins.

All of the cabins were wonderful. Lodgepole and Aspen were the smallest, both one room with two queen beds and a front porch facing a pine-carpeted hillside. They had indoor and outdoor sitting areas, as well as private bathrooms and the modern conveniences of televisions, compact refrigerators and gas fireplaces.

But a third, larger cabin was situated at the end of the row, giving it a feeling of additional privacy. Though more spacious than I needed, the cabin had a living room area that looked like it would be conducive to writing. I couldn’t resist the luxury of the extra work space and made Cottonwood my home for the night.

Though nestled in a sliver of canyon area, with natural surroundings in every direction, the immediate areas around the cabins were landscaped beautifully, with low rock walls partnering with juniper bushes and lush, green lawn areas stretching between clusters of aspen trees. As if the cabins and surroundings were not already relaxing enough, a wooden walkway between Lodgepole and Cottonwood led to an enclosed hot tub set back from the cabins. French doors formed the entrance to this luxury, beckoning from the top of cascading stone steps.

I reluctantly left the cabin and headed into Afton for something to eat, where I found Hegg’s Grillin’ Barn. The décor was just downright adorable, from the booth backs with barn and silo scenes to the assorted Americana plaques and knick knacks on the walls. To make the place even more unique, the upstairs area served as a shop for Amish furniture, some of which was displayed on the front porch – for very reasonable prices, at that. I ate half of a mushroom, swiss and avocado sandwich and returned to the cabin.

I’m road-traveled enough to keep some sort of supplies on hand. I pulled my travel coffeemaker from the car, ground some French Roast beans and set it up for the morning. I managed to scavenger up an apple scone from a recent grocery run and placed that by the coffee maker, too. Morning was covered.

Rob and Rhonda, owners of Old Mill Cabins, have built a wonderful option for lodging.  Attention to detail is evident in every regard, from the artfully crafted log structures themselves to the leaf-design metalwork that holds the hand carved cabin names on each front porch.

The fact that these hand-built cabins are available for overnight lodging is a gift to the fortunate travelers who happen to pass through. The peaceful location, the rustling of the aspens, the tumbling waters of the creek: these are all bonuses. And the hot tub’s pretty wonderful, too.

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