Dispatches
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Monday, August 30th, 2021

Cloudbursts & Torrents, Thunderclaps & Gunshots

Monday, August 2nd, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Snowshed, Southeast Arizona.

At this point, we can all expect Max’s next hike to be an adventure. But some more than others.

It’s August already, so I can go ahead and admit that this is one of our best monsoons ever. Meaning that every week, I spend hours cleaning and reconditioning my gear after sweating in high humidity and getting soaked in yet another thunderstorm.

It was finally time to head back to Arizona. My last experience of chaining together both maintained and abandoned trails hadn’t worked out, so this Sunday I wanted to stick to good trails. There were really only two trailhead options over there, and I’d hiked my favorite in June. The remaining trail definitely wasn’t my favorite – it involved a very steep initial climb and a long, high traverse that was completely exposed, ending at a bleak saddle. But the day was forecast to be mostly cloudy – which probably meant storms – and I figured I could vary this hike by extending it a mile or two onto a part of the crest trail I hadn’t hit before. The upper part of the hike would have absolutely no protection from storms, but I should be used to that by now. And if I returned early enough, there’d be a red chile pork burrito and a local IPA waiting for me at the village cafe.

I made good time on the highways, and there were only a few small cumulus clouds shifting over the range amid a crystal blue sky. But I knew that would change.

The first trail zigzags up a densely forested canyon bottom, crossing and recrossing a creek which was running strong from the past month of good rain. With few or no stepping stones, crossings are tricky, and I fell once – fortunately backward onto the rocky bank instead of into the water. The clouds were coming together and darkening overhead as I finally began the steep climb out of the canyon, through dense oak scrub. It was a good time for wildflowers, butterflies, fungi, and slime molds.

It wasn’t hot, but as usual it was so humid my shirt was soaked by the time I reached the forested upper slopes. A glance back at the northern part of the range showed rain already falling only a few miles away. The humidity slowed me down so that it took almost two hours to climb the first three miles and 2,000′, and when I moved onto the second trail in the chain and entered the pine “park” at the halfway point of the day’s hike, the sky ahead was low and dark. I realized the storm would hit me on the exposed traverse.

The arms of the storm were surrounding me as I began the traverse up the side of the long, deep canyon – three thousand vertical feet between crest and bottom. Near the beginning I suddenly saw a familiar pattern beside the trail ahead – a diamondback rattlesnake. It was full-grown, its body extended toward me, and its head was covered by vegetation only a couple of feet from my forward boot. Not a good position. I backed up just as the snake snapped back into its defensive coil and began to rattle.

I couldn’t pass it on the trail, so I had to climb up the steep, brush-choked bank of loose gravel at the side, hoping I wouldn’t slip and fall right on top of the snake.

It was shortly after that that the storm hit, and I had to dig out my poncho. Rain quickly became torrential, and since there was no place to shelter, I just had to keep climbing through it. This was the heaviest storm I’d been out in this year. I had to keep my eyes glued to the trail, but lightning seemed to be striking on the ridges far above – the time between strikes and thunderclaps was reassuringly long.

It was raining so hard on this steep slope that each little gully quickly became a torrent I had to carefully step over, and bigger drainages had been reshaped into temporary banks of debris that were more treacherous than usual. I kept telling myself the storm would move away soon, but it dumped on me for almost an hour – two miles of climbing – before moving off east down the canyon.

I’d passed the switchback that bypasses a big rock outcrop, and was crossing the short but coarse talus slope when I realized my feet were soaked and it was time to change socks. The oversize fragments of talus provided a good changing bench. That delayed me another 20 minutes – again, I wasn’t going to reach my planned destination for the day.

On the final stretch before the bleak saddle, where a ghost forest of fire-killed ponderosa dots the slope, I heard a raptor shrieking, and assumed it was hundreds of yards away on the opposite slope. But it kept up its cry of alarm several times a minute, and scanning the nearby trees, I found it only about 50 feet away. As I kept hiking, it kept moving to perches near me – it must’ve had a nest in a rock outcrop near the trail.

By the time I reached the saddle at 9,300′, I was already pushing my schedule – the time I needed to return to the vehicle in order to get that burrito and beer. But I’d been here twice before already – I just had to venture farther on this hike, even if only to the junction with the crest trail, less than half a mile farther. That would give me a view into the next big watershed, justifying the day’s effort and discomfort.

There was a trail, but just barely. It started out through a vast stand of chest-high ferns, with just the barest trace of tread hidden among them. Of course they were all wet from the storm, and although my pants were soaked already, I knew all that additional water would soak right through my boots so my temporarily dry feet would be wet again soon.

As short as it was, it was an interesting trail. Past the ferns it climbed across a bare, dramatic rock outcrop, then through a tunnel of aspen seedlings, emerging above an old, broken concrete springbox where it met the crest trail.

Whenever I encounter a structure like this, many miles and thousands of vertical feet from the nearest road, I can’t help thinking of the poor equines that had to carry those bags of cement mix.

I followed the crest trail down to the next saddle, which overlooked the big canyon I’d hiked into in June. I was filling in my mental map of the range.

On the way back, the hawk rejoined me in the same place, crying its regular warnings. I was in a hurry now. I’d used up time I barely had and was still hoping to reach the cafe just before closing.

I pounded down that steep slope, ignoring my wet, worn-out feet and joints, as if my body were 50 years younger. I was timing myself and making much better time going downhill. Three miles later and 2,000′ lower, when I reached the pine park, I was right on time, but storm clouds were forming again.

A mile down the next, steepest trail, my right knee reached a crisis stage. It hurt to walk on and it was impossible to lift it to step over a fallen log. I’d never had trouble with that knee before, but I dug the knee brace out of my pack, strapped it on, and continued. It started to rain again under a mostly clear sky, but only lightly, and it stopped before I reached the canyon bottom.

I checked my watch again, and then it hit me. I’d made a really stupid mistake. I’d forgotten about the time difference – something I’d never done before, on dozens of trips. There’d been no need to hurry, because I’d cut my hike unneccesarily short, and I had plenty of time. I could’ve continued on that crest trail as originally planned. I slowed down, and brutally chastised myself, cursing my stupidity. All that work and pain, and I could’ve gone even farther without even rushing!

But I soon had more to think about – before I even reached the first creek crossing I came under another downpour. Now my right little toe was killing me – that fast descent in wet boots had raised a blister – and I could hear the creek roaring ahead.

Although I had to keep my head down in the heavy rain, crossing the flooded creek turned out to be fairly easy. I didn’t have time to think, I wanted to reach the vehicle and change into dry clothes, so I just crossed the damn creek in any way I could.

Just as I got fully naked in the half-open vehicle – in an empty overflow parking lot big enough for 12 cars, at the end of a very rough dead-end road way back in the mountains – an elderly couple in a Prius drove up and parked right next to me. I stared at them, hoping they’d get the message I needed some privacy, but they just smiled and waved as I laboriously pulled on my dry clothes.

A half hour later, I was sitting in the cafe enjoying my early dinner, among staff and diners blissfully maskless, when a dozen middle-aged fully-masked men and women, dressed like generic naturalists, burst rapidly through the tiny dining room and disappeared into the back, where as far as I knew there was only the kitchen and a restroom. They never reappeared.

After the big meal and the beer, I really wanted to book a room at the lodge. But I had yet another busy week ahead of me, so I hit the road at 7 pm New Mexico time.

The clouds were glorious. The sun had just set by the time I hit the highway north to Silver City, with no cars ahead of or behind me.

But I was wrong. Less than a quarter mile up the highway a big SUV filled my rearview, and it passed me, “SHERIFF” painted across the back. Then a rock hit my windshield and cracked it.

The sheriff’s car slammed to a stop ahead and whipped a U-turn, parking on the opposite shoulder, so I pulled onto the right shoulder, rolled my window down, and waved. The deputy came over and I showed him my windshield.

He said he was on a call – shots had been fired between vehicles on the highway ahead. But he spent about 15 minutes photographing my windshield and all my cards, and gave me a number to call. He was all amped up, and I wished him well. He told me to be careful, but didn’t stop me from driving on.

A little ways up the road the convoy appeared – a half dozen vehicles with lights flashing, speeding toward me – city police, county sheriff, state highway patrol. Past them, as it got dark, a half dozen more light-flashing law enforcement vehicles streamed past, one after the other. Finally, ten miles outside of town, there was a roadblock – but only on the opposite lane. I never found out what had happened, but I was kind of a nervous wreck by the time I dealt with my wet gear, showered, and climbed into bed.

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Another Easy Hike

Monday, August 9th, 2021: Hikes, Nature, Pinos Altos Range, Plants, Southwest New Mexico.

After last Sunday’s soggy, painful descent from a downpour and long drive through a major law enforcement operation, I needed an easy hike near home. My fallback involved three trails chained together: a 4-mile up a lush canyon, another 2 miles ascending a peak on the Continental Divide Trail, followed by a 2-mile ridge hike to another peak. Round-trip distance would be 16 miles, all of it on well-maintained trails, with accumulated elevation gain of 3,500′ – less than I normally aim for.

It’s close enough to town that I almost always encounter other hikers, most of them venturing no farther than the head of the initial canyon.

Our monsoon wildflowers were spectacular as usual – as I hiked, I catalogued the species I’d seen already and eagerly watched for new ones.

I passed two parties in the first two miles, but saw no one else until I was about halfway between the two peaks, up on the 9,000′ ridge. There I encountered a trail runner, an athletic guy now in his 40s whom I’d seen occasionally ever since I moved here. He used to be a technical mountain biker, and I was glad to see him off his machine and onto his feet.

At the second peak, I stopped only briefly. It was still early, I still had plenty of energy, and if I went straight back for the 16-mile round trip, I’d get home much earlier than usual. So I decided to add some mileage.

The best way to extend my hike seemed to be to return to the first peak and take the CDT farther north. I didn’t think it would add much elevation – it just snakes northeastward along a slightly lower ridge – but it goes through a burn scar so I should have some views over the landscape.

From the junction at the first peak, this unfamiliar section of trail traversed several hundred feet down an outlying ridge to a fire road. Much of it was on the edge of the burn scar and was overgrown with locust, but some shrubbier stretches had wild raspberries.

From the fire road, the trail enters a “moonscape” burn scar which has been taken over by shrubs and annuals, traversing the south side of a ridge, occasionally passing through surviving stands of pine and fir. I was planning to hike about two miles on this section of trail, so my final round-trip distance would be 20 miles. A lot of miles, but all of them on good trail. And later, back home, I would calculate that the ups and downs of this traverse would add 1,200′ of elevation to my hike, yielding a total of 4,700′ for the day – not too shabby!

Crossing the burn scar, every time I stopped I saw a dark cloud growing over the first peak, now a mile away on my right. Rain had not been forecast for today, but I knew that storms often form over the mountains even when it’s dry in town. In reality, during this monsoon, every time I hike, I get a storm.

The blister on my toe from last Sunday was still healing. I’d made a felt ring around it which had kept it from hurting so far, but as I watched the storm grow nearby, I realized that if my feet got wet again, the 10-mile hike back to my vehicle could become very painful.

I stopped after 45 minutes on the new trail – my measure of the two mile distance – and sure enough, shortly after I turned around, the storm hit me.

Rain poured down, lightning flashed and thunder crashed, and while the poncho kept my upper body and pack dry, my pants and boots were soon soaked. As always, I had spare socks, but I’d have to wait until the rain stopped to change. And it didn’t stop until 45 minutes later, when I was on my way down from the first peak.

By that point my toe was so bad every step felt like a nail driving into it, and my pants were so soaked it felt like I was carrying 5-pound weights on each leg. I had to pour the water out of each boot, and as in the past, used my spare bandannas to dry my feet and sponge water out of the boot linings.

I had spare felt in my pack and made another blister protector. But my pants and boots held so much residual water that after another mile of hiking the second pair of socks was soaked and my poor toe was on fire again. Now, after 15 miles of hiking, the chronic injury in the ball of my other foot had been triggered, so I was limping on two painful feet, and still had 5 miles and 2,000′ to descend. I had no recourse but to pop a pain pill. Like most of my monsoon hikes so far, this “easy” hike was turning into quite an ordeal.

Two miles farther along the pain in my toe was so bad I had to stop again, take off my boots, wring the water out of my second pair of socks, and apply a dry piece of felt to the toe. That enabled me to limp the remaining 3 miles to the vehicle – and fortunately from there it was only a 20 minute drive home!

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Summer 2021 Escape, Part 1

Thursday, August 12th, 2021: 2021 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

Fat Basketball Players’ Retreat

My temporary living space is dominated by a desk, covered with piles of paper. Each pile represents one of the 6-8 major projects I’m juggling simultaneously. It’s the elephant in the house – I can’t ignore it, as long as I’m in that place I can’t avoid that desk and the obligations, demands, and arguments I’m embroiled in as I struggle to get my life back.

Suddenly there was an unexpected hiatus over at my real, empty, fire-damaged, long-under-repair house – a flooring crew was refinishing the wood floors, and no other work could go on for a couple of weeks – hence I was experiencing no demands from, or arguments with, the contractor. Instead of rejoicing I fell into a deep depression. I still had so much to do, and so many deadlines to meet, and that desk still dominated my living space, demanding that I spend every day working. I literally had to escape, to preserve my sanity.

The only real option was the funky alpine resort village 3 hours north of here, where I’ve always stayed in the cheap, fishing-themed motel. All their rooms were empty at midweek, but the new owners refuse to communicate directly with customers, requiring all reservations to be made online, 24 hours in advance, and it took me two days of calling and emailing and fruitlessly exploring other options to learn this. And by then it was the weekend and they were all booked up.

But I was temporarily flush with “funny money” from insurance, and finally, I located a much more expensive 2-bedroom vacation cabin that hadn’t been booked yet – apparently the last lodgings available in the area. And the property manager actually answered their phone and happily took my same-day reservation.

Fortunately, since I was still following my COVID shopping routine of stocking up on two weeks’ worth of food in advance, I didn’t have to shop. I just had to pack, and this would give me a chance to test my new high-performance camping cooler – one of the few items of fire-destroyed camping gear I’d been able to replace so far.

I called ahead and made a reservation for dinner at the only restaurant in town, and raced up the mostly empty highway through the long series of mountain ranges between here and there. I arrived just in time to check in before the office closed. My heart sank when I walked in the little cabin, saw the furniture, and felt the beds.

The beds consisted of super-soft, 4-inch thick memory foam on top of thin, soft mattresses. When you put pressure on the beds, you seemed to sink endlessly down into them, which is the worst thing possible for back pain. Who actually likes soft mattresses? Fat people? And the living room consisted of an overstuffed fake leather recliner and a futon couch, both of which seemed to be designed for 7-foot-tall basketball players. The ergonomics of this cabin were far worse than the cheap motel room, whose pillowy bed had triggered an episode of severe lower back pain the last time I’d come up here.

But I’d learned my lesson back then, and hoped to avoid back pain now by sleeping only on my stomach, and sitting only on the straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs. There was no wifi, but that was probably a good thing. And the restaurant was only a 10 minute walk away on the gravel roads. It was cool up here, so I changed into warmer clothes and strolled over, carrying my rain shell just in case.

Next: Part 2

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Summer 2021 Escape, Part 2

Friday, August 13th, 2021: 2021 Trips, Baldy, Hikes, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips, Southeast Arizona, Whites.

Previous: Part 1

Day of the Fungids

The next day was Friday, and I was hoping to hit my favorite nearby trail before the weekend rush. In fact, I realized I should now be able to do the full loop for the first time, hiking up one route to the top and returning down the other. It totalled 17 miles, but involved less than 3,000′ of accumulated elevation gain.

I drove the shortcut, the rough backcountry road through alternating mixed-conifer forest and vast grassy meadows across the rolling, 9,000′ plateau to the trailhead, where I parked next to a new, lifted Toyota pickup where two college-age guys were preparing to start a backpack. They were both at least six inches taller than me. All I had to do was shoulder my pack and lock the vehicle, so I took off while they were still getting ready.

I crossed the big meadows around the mouth of the East Fork of the Little Colorado, and stopped after about a half mile, as usual, to stretch, and to tighten and secure my bootlaces. The young guys caught up and passed me there.

But, also as usual, I was full of energy at the start of this hike, and soon caught up with them again as the three of us climbed through the fantastic sandstone boulders that are the highlight of this trail.

Halfway up this first slope, we passed a party of two young couples who were camping in the forest below the trail – only two miles from the trailhead. Like on my last trip to these mountains, I was surprised to find so many young people “slackpacking” – hiking only a short distance to camp near a trailhead, something my generation would consider pointless.

I was on the young guys’ tail all the way to the big rock exposure at the top of the ridge, and passed them where they had stopped there to take in the view. I knew there was a second rock exposure farther on, also with a good view, and I never saw them again.

I remembered seeing a lot of mushrooms on my last visit here during monsoon season, but nothing like this time. Mushrooms were so plentiful they became the theme of the hike – especially the flamboyant Amanita muscaria. But the wildflowers came a close second.

From the big rock exposures at the top of the first ridge, the trail continues climbing the ridgeline through dense spruce forest with no views, so I kept racing upward. Near the point were I’d stopped and turned back on my first and longest previous hike here, I caught up with and passed a solo backpacker, another really tall guy, probably in his 40s. It made me wonder. I was doing this entire trail system as a day hike. There were no connecting trails, so why were so many people doing it as a backpack? It seemed at best only a one-night trip, which didn’t seem worth all the effort of backpacking. Sure, you could camp out at the crest, but there wasn’t any place to go from there except back down.

Shortly after passing the backpacker, I reached the burn scar near the top, where the east route becomes the west route.

This burn scar in spruce forest, at over 11,000′ elevation, is an eerie place, but during this abundant monsoon it was teeming with verdant shrubs and annual wildflowers, and water trickled down across the trail at many points.

Storms had been forecast for the whole weekend, but so far, although cloud cover came and went, I could see nothing menacing overhead. The temperature was perfect, which was probably lucky for me, as I was testing out a new pair of pants.

My regular pants were heavy cotton, and had been selected for thorn-resistance. But during this monsoon I’d suffered so much from waterlogged pants wicking moisture into my boots, so I’d spent some time researching both waterproof and thornproof pants.

REI and the other “hiker” brands don’t address this need at all – they assume their yuppie customers will stick to well-maintained trails or climb snowy peaks devoid of thorns. REI staff in Tucson actually admitted to me, to their chagrin, that despite being in the arid southwest, they get the same inventory as their counterparts in Seattle. My only recourse, as with my boots, was to research the hunting suppliers. That’s where I learned that thornproof and waterproof pants constitute part of the “upland” hunting wardrobe – applying to hunters of non-aquatic game birds like pheasant and grouse, because they have to bushwhack through thorny thickets, often during storms or in heavy morning dew.

I’d ordered an affordable but highly-rated pair of U.S.-made upland hunting pants, and so far my only problem with them was the lining. It hadn’t been clear from the product info that they were lined, and although the pants had zippable side vents from knee to hip, the lining would probably make them really hot on most summer days in our climate. So I was doubly glad it was cool today.

After a half mile or so, the trail left the burn scar and re-entered intact spruce forest. And suddenly I was facing a glue grouse, pacing back and forth on a fallen tree trunk only ten feet in front of me. I stopped and was able to get my camera out – another recent challenge in itself.

I’d broken the lens assembly on my previous camera, and had spent over a month trying to find a replacement, and a way to protect the new camera from similar accidents. Whereas in the past I’d carried the camera alternately on a wrist strap and in a pocket, I was now wearing it in a holster-type case on my belt, where I tried to remember to slip on the wrist strap before pulling out the camera.

The big bird – they’re the same size as the average chicken – cooperated by remaining on the log as I took a few pictures. Then it made a noise and another grouse exploded out of the bush at my feet, and they both took off. It was the animal highlight of my trip.

This segment of trail left the mature forest and climbed gently through tiny meadows and dense groves of spruce seedlings, until it reached its high point in a saddle below the actual peak, which is sacred to the Apaches and off-limits to Anglos. At this saddle, I’d been hoping for a view over the vast country to the west, which descends for hundreds of miles to the low desert around Phoenix. But it was densely forested, and in rare peeks between the surrounding tree trunks, all I could see was more high, densely forested mountains in the near distance. So I continued down onto the outlying ridge above the canyon of the West Fork.

That outlying ridge finally brought me to a narrow saddle with an open view to the southeast – so I at least had a new perspective on the ridge I’d climbed in the morning. I’d climbed so fast that it was still early in the day, and I realized that if I didn’t slow down, I’d be done with the hike by midafternoon. I didn’t want that – I wanted to spend more time up here in this special alpine forest that is so rare in our Southwest.

Past the narrow, semi-open saddle, the trail began switchbacking down the very steep side of the West Fork canyon. Eventually it reached the head of the drainage in a burn scar where spruce seedlings were returning and wild raspberries were abundant.

Past the burn scar at the head of the West Fork, the trail curved leftwards through intact spruce forest into a big side canyon, where it finally crossed a robust creek. This trail may lack the spectacular rock outcrops of the East Fork – although there are plenty of boulders in the West Fork forest – but it actually has more varied habitat.

As part of my “slowing down” plan, I was paying even more attention now to my surroundings – primarily plants, fungi, and butterflies. In the stretch of trail past the side creek I saw my first coral fungus.

I was surprised to be feeling pretty sore and weary. To get back to the vehicle, I had to continue on this trail to its junction with the “crossover” trail, a 3-1/2 mile link between the trailheads. So no matter how much farther it was to the junction, I would still have those 3-1/2 miles to cross over.

But before starting the hike, I’d glanced at the elevation profile for the crossover trail, and had concluded it would be all downhill from this side. So at least I had that in my favor.

Eventually I started encountering meadows, which encouraged me to believe the junction was near. Each one ended up giving false hope, but at least I could see the West Fork meandering scenically below.

Finally, crossing a grassy slope high above the little river, I spotted a person far ahead. Then suddenly a bird flushed out of the meadow ahead of the distant person and shot overhead and past me. It appeared to be a falcon, which would explain why it was on the ground. When I reached the people who had flushed the bird – a couple a little older than me – I was so excited about the bird that I forgot to ask them how much farther it was to the trail junction.

After the falcon incident, I couldn’t ignore the pain in my left foot and right ankle. The right ankle pain was exactly like what I’d had in my left ankle a couple of years earlier. I was limping on both feet again, just like last weekend, and not looking forward at all to the crossover hike. I was transitioning from excitement about my beautiful surroundings into a “got to just survive this” frame of mind.

Fortunately it was only about a half mile beyond the bird incident that I met a college-age couple who pointed to the crossover junction, only a hundred yards farther. There, I crossed the rushing West Fork on a crude log bridge, and to my surprise, faced a steep climb on the other side.

In fact, I’d completely misinterpreted the crossover elevation profile. This trail was like a rollercoaster, climbing and descending hundreds of rocky feet at a time, sometimes at up to a 40% grade, through deep forest and across vast rolling meadows, over and over again, for the entire 3-1/2 miles between trailheads. In my condition, it was like some sort of legendary trial.

One of the few benefits of the crossover was the abundance of coral fungi.

The anticipated storm didn’t hit until I arrived back in the village, and even then it was only scattered showers. I changed out of my heavy gear and limped over to the restaurant, where I’d made a reservation the previous evening. This time I had a steak and a glass of pinot noir.

Next: Part 3

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Summer 2021 Escape, Part 3

Saturday, August 14th, 2021: 2021 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

Previous: Part 2

Couch Potato

Saturday was about resting and recovering and relishing my time away from the terrible pressure of home. I had plenty to read on my iPad, and throughout the day, I did some long slow stretching and iced my foot and ankle at intervals. I knew how to treat my foot, but the ankle really worried me. It was swollen and my boots tightened right on the pressure point, so no more hiking until it healed.

There was one seemingly identical cabin next to me, but the folks staying there were having a near-continual party in their tiny back yard with a large group of companions from elsewhere in the village. And of course, the larger cabin across the road had a barking dog – it’s impossible to get away from barking dogs in this era cursed with social media.

I found that the futon couch was actually more comfortable than the bed – but to use it as a bed would require opening it flat, which would call for some brute force that would risk triggering my back pain. So I was stuck with things as they were. I’d brought fixings for a simple dinner at home that night, and went to bed early.

Next: Part 4

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