Category Archives: In the Mountains

On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2

This post is part 2 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? 


In May of 1877 Nez Perce Chiefs Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote received orders to move onto the reservation designated by the Treaty of 1863 by the middle of June. The Nez Perce had already divided, some consenting to the 1863 agreements, moving their homes onto the grounds centered around Lapwai, and others holding to the tribal norms that no governing body could control an individual’s rights. The treaty had reduced the size of the tribe’s previous agreements with the United States by almost ninety percent – from 7 million acres to just under 800,000. In their place towns and farms sprung up overnight, each with their own hopes and dreams, competing with each other for the dollars of weary travelers and boasting the promise of the new frontier. 

A Town 

From the little town of Fenn to the saddle where it crests Mount Idaho, Hwy 95 makes a sweeping arc around Tolo Lake to include Grangeville, the county seat. If, while traveling legal speeds from Fenn to Grangeville, you happen to glance toward the hills, you might catch the town of Denver. 

Denver Cemetery Road

The intersection of Canyon Road and Denver Cemetery Road marks the way past or through the town of Denver, Idaho, now a field of black loam and wheat.

Located in the exact geographic center of the Camas Prairie, Denver was founded by investors from Moscow, Ida., Pullman, Wash. and the Camas Prairie. 

The investors purchased a total of 2,720 acres from Hon. L.P. Brown of the town of Mount Idaho, selecting 640 acres to be the townsite. In the book The Oregonian’s Handbook of the Pacific Northwest, a mass of information on Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana gathered by the newspaper The Oregonian, Denver is described:

 …it was a necessity, from a commercial standpoint, of a town at this point, that induced its location here. The syndicate, in choosing this point, located a young city that would be easy of access from all points and where it would naturally command the trade of a vast territory that, from its resources alone, must become thickly settled in the near future…The promoters of the new townsite claim that Denver is destined to become the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho. 

It was hoped that Denver would replace the then county seat of Mount Idaho as “the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho.” Research into Denver’s dates of creation and demise are unclear but by one account it existed as early as 1863 and as late as 1906. So by all accounts it was well established when the Nez Perce bands agreed to occupy the reservation. It’s hard to stand at the edge of a field and reconcile a town on the GPS with only a canvas of wheat and rape, absent the bustling streets of a metropolis that once claimed its own newspaper, The Denver Tribune, two hotels and a livery stable. Denver’s population reached a bustling 200 when it was just more than a year old. Now the postmaster delivers to addresses designated “rural route” and only a signpost, Denver Cemetery Road, remains. 

Tolo Lake, Camas Prairie, ID

Tolo Lake on the Camas Prairie. The town of Fenn, Idaho, population of around 40, sits about five miles in the distance.

A Lake 

In the twilight of the arrival of settlers and missionaries and left with little alternative, White Bird, Toohoolhoolzote, Joseph and Looking Glass agreed and began to make arrangements to move to the reservation. In early June 1877 a final gathering was organized between members of five non-treaty bands at a traditional camping ground on the Camas Prairie five miles from Grangeville and just eight miles from the reservation border: Tepahlewam or Tolo Lake. 

It was here that White Bird’s band held a tel-lik-leen a traditional, peaceful ceremony in which past triumphs were remembered in salute to a collective history. As night fell on June 14 three young men broke from the band to seek revenge for a father’s murder – a successful outburst that dominoed into more attacks on settlers in areas including Cottonwood, now a town, originally a halfway house, and Grangeville. Of the tel-lik-leen and what caused the men to seek revenge West writes: 

Whatever inspired it, this tel-lik-leen provided the spark that set loose the greatest modern crisis of the Nez Perce people…At some point on the circuit, something happened. By one account, their horse stepped on some drying camas roots; by another, they frightened a child. Someone then taunted Shore Crossing and his honored place in the ceremonial (tel-lik-leen) train: “If you’re so brave, why don’t you go kill the white man who killed your father?”…Overnight, Shore Crossing decided to right the imbalance.

The attacks continued for three days across the praire. Knowing they would soon meet the retaliation of the U.S. Army, the tribes abandoned their move and turned back to the canyon of White Bird’s village. 

Now infamous for its entombment of a resurrected woolly mammoth and a favorite of local fishermen, Tolo Lake is an unassuming spot on the prairie. A small blue watering hole easily overlooked within the vast fields of rape and alfalfa, barbwire fences and stock horses line the oiled gravel roads leading to the lake. The hum of 18-wheelers on Hwy 95 becomes a lull with the sound-offs of robins and ravens. 

Standing on the edge of the lake, placid to an empty sky one can almost see the grasses trampled by hundreds of horses. Looking north to the unhindered horizon it’s not hard to understand the heartbreak and tensions those assembled must have felt and their desire to create a ceremony around their loss. And it’s easy to imagine what the settlers saw and interpreted. Here the prairie is flat to the horizon, a rare place for a state as rugged as Idaho. Horses grazing three miles away can be seen by a standing man. Hundreds of Nez Perce gathered, performing a ritual ceremony that was, in fact, celebrating past battles, may have easily been interpreted as a cry for war. 

Up Next… “A Road, What’s in a Name?” 

On the Road: What’s in a Name?

Notes from the Road: Grangeville, ID – Before leaving on this road trip I was given a book entitled The Last Indian War by Elliott West. A non-fictional account of the year 1877, West reveals a pivotal time in U.S. history when American Indian nations were driven headlong into the unyielding power of the United States government. Specifically, he details the Nez Perce, the events leading to the Nez Perce War and finally the land that resolved to be the tribe’s homeland, the state of Idaho.

Map of Nez Perce War

Map of Nez Perce War. Click to see full size.

Seizing an opportunity to find out more about the landscape on which our teenage years alighted we took West’s book and a knack for asking questions and planned our first leg to follow the Idaho panhandle across the now finite boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation. This path would take us to our hometown of Grangeville 17 miles outside the Nez Perce borders. There we would cross the Camas Prairie, its purple flowers and retired trestles patched with fields of young wheat and furrows of black loam, and follow Hwy 95 to the canyons of the White Bird Battlefield, home to the battle that launched the Nez Perce War.

Deciding on a Story

With West’s book as companion, we decided to skip the 38 historic Nez Perce landmarks in lieu of elsewhere revelations. We were more concerned about Tolo Lake, Yellow Wolf Road, the town of Denver and others. Places where stories embodied the minutia left off the historical markers or out of the mainstream history books due to simple limitations of space and time. In his book, West writes:

Segmenting time, or periodization, is something we have to do if we want to organize the past and give it meaning. But it’s dangerous. By choosing some dominating event and saying that its period starts here and ends there, we run the risk of neglecting other events that don’t fit well into the scheme we’ve created, and that in turn risks distorting our view of how events have worked and built on each other to make the America we have come to know… History is not the same, no matter how you slice it.

I was very aware that even by reading West’s book, centered on 1877, I was in effect “slicing history.” But that’s a risk I was willing to take. It’s easy to know you live near a battlefield when the road to a favorite beach is impregnated with historical markers. Like some giant historical painter’s wheel or even an epic lottery, smaller stories lend their names to sign posts on gravel roads and prairie knolls by edict of the historical society or the simple weight of history.

And these were what we were after.

Up next… “History, a Town, a Lake”

Know: Fourteen New National Monuments

Here at Vas-y Fille I’ve decided to mix things up by adding some “know” to the “do”. Because that’s what being curious ultimately boils down to right? Here’s some news that’s continued to catch my eye for some time: 14 potential new national monuments are in the works courtesy of the Obama Administration.

Despite the draft status of the list and its need for further, more serious review, it has managed to incite a backlash among conservatives; particularly the state of Utah in which two of the proposed national monuments are located. But the point here is not to argue politics. I did a little research on each of these to understand why they’ve been nominated. Here’s your chance to learn about these places and maybe put them on your list for summer adventures before the crowds descend.

The San Rafael Swell

The San Rafael Swell. Only one paved road crosses the approximately 600,000 acres. Source:

San Rafael Swell, UT

Located in South-Central Utah, the swell is a 75 by 40 mile weather-worn outcropping of sandstone, shale and limestone. Surrounded by the canyons, gorges and mesas that make Utah famous for outlaws and painters the swell holds residence for eight rare plan species alongside ancient rock art.

The Northern Prairie, MT

Few opportunities exist to conserve invaluable grassland ecosystems and their native plant and animal life. If selected, the Northern Prairie would become more than 2.5 million acres of grassland that borders Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area and Grasslands National Park in Canada. The cross-boundary conservation would provide a new bison range and preserve habitat for endangered species like the sage grouse and black-footed ferret.

Northern Montana Prairie

In Montana, the greatest threat to native prairie has been conversion to cropland. Source:

Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve, NM

Inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken (more than 30 percent of the population) and the sand dune lizard, the 58,000-acre preserve is a mecca of sand dunes and bluestern grasses. Placing the preserve in monument status is considered the best opportunity to avoid listing the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard as threatened or endangered.

Berryessa Snow Mountains, CA

In California, this region stretches from the lowlands of Putah Creek, through the remote areas of Cache Creek and up into Goat and Snow Mountains. Nearly 500,000 acres, it sits in the center of California’s inner Coast Ranges and is a prime corridor for migrations and habitats of an expansive list of wildlife. It’s also an unusually rich part of the California Floristic Province, considered by many to be a biological hotspot.
Heart of the Great Basin, NV
The Heart of the Great Basin centers on three mountain ranges that stand from 10,000 to 12,000 feet – the Monitor, the Toquima and the Toiyabe. Vast quantities of petroglyphs and stone artifacts allude to the area’s inhabitants almost 12,000 years ago. The region is also the center of climate change scientific research, notably in relation to the Great Basin Pika (read an article from the Journal of Biogeography on the Great Basin Pika). It includes alpine tundra, aspen groves, numerous rushing creeks and plays home to high desert sage grouse.
Otero Mesa, NM
Deep into southern New Mexico, the 1.2 million-acre mesa is a vast landscape of rolling hills covered with grasslands. Stuck in constant battle between environmental groups and oil and gas developers, the area is one of the largest intact grasslands in the Chihuahuan Desert. Summertime monsoons turn the grasslands vivid greens making fall the ideal time to visit. It also plays host to more than 1,000 native wildlife spieces including the only genetically pure herd of pronghorn antelope in New Mexico. Unfortunatly much of the grasslands area has disappeared or reduced to small patches barely able to support native wildlife.
Northwest Sonoran Desert, AZ
West of Phoenix, the Sonoran Desert is largely remote and undeveloped, featuring potential for up to 500,000 acres of new wilderness. The existing Sonoran Desert National Monument protects 487,000 acres – the proposed new monument would protect additional desert to the West. Mostly broad, flat valleys with widely-scattered, small mountain ranges contribute to the landscape including the Pinacate volcanic field. Two visually dominant plants distinguish the Sonoran Desert from other North American deserts: Legume trees and columnar cacti.

Volcanic rock, sagebrush and grass cover an arid region of canyons approximately 14,000 square miles.

Owyhee Desert, OR/NV

Named after the native Hawaiians who accompanied Donald McKenzie on his 1818 exploration into the Idaho, Oregon and Nevada region, the Idaho portion (Owyhee Canyonlands) was designated wilderness in 2009. The proposed monument status would extend protection into Oregon and Nevada. The Owyhee Desert is considered one of the most remote areas in the lower U.S. with natural arches, juniper covered mountains and ancient lava flows. Many of the branching forks of the Owyhee River are pursued by river runners from around the world. The region is also home to the world’s largest heard of California bighorn sheep.
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, CA (expansion)
In 2000 the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was created to protect an extraordinarily diverse range of vegetation found in southwestern Oregon. Political constraints established the southern boundary at the California State line so it does not currently include the Klamath River tributaries. More than 50 inches of rain each year creates mountainous slopes forested with conifers – host to rare species such as the Northern Spotted Owl. The most accessible part of the existing monument is the Hyatt Lake area in Oregon.
Vermillion Basin, CO
LIke the Otero Mesa, the Vermillion Basin is also under threat of oil and gas development. Whitewater rivers flowing through petroglyph-filled canyons establish a critical migration corridor and wintering ground for big game. The petroglyphs feature bow hunting, religious figures, footprints and wildlife. One in particular rises over six feet high on a ledge 40 feet above the canyon floor. The region’s name comes from maze of sandstone cliffs and canyons that glow with red-orange rocks
Bodie Hills, CA
The town of Bodie, Calif. is one of the most famous ghost towns in the West. With a population that once reached 10,000 residents its weathered wood buildings are now preserved as part of Bodie State Historic Park. Valued for their mineral wealth, the surrounding hills are now saught for bird-watching and hiking. Uniquely, the establishment of Bodie Hills as a monument provides an opportunity to link both cultural tourism and ecotourism which would benefit the surrounding communities.  
San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands Scenic Byway is unique - its the only state byway that inclludes a marine highway. Source:

San Juan Islands, WA

The San Juan Islands feature 750 islands located along the U.S. / Canada border create deep channels and reef-studded bays that are home to myriad marine species. They also support major migratory routes for Orcas. Currently, 83 of the islands are preserved as part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge and many are off-limits to visitors. The San Juan Islands are part of the San Juan Archipelago split into two groups defined by national sovereignty – the San Juan Islands belong to the U.S. and the Gulf Islands belong to the Canadian province of British Columbia. The islands are part of the traditional area of the Central Coast Salish or Flathead Nation.

The Modoc Plateau, CA

Spanning close to three million acres of public land, the Modoc Plateau is tucked into California’s northeast corner and extends into Oregon and Nevada. The plateau is thought to have been formed nearly 25 million years ago and now supports several heards of wild horses. It features the Skedaddle Mountains which cover close to a half-million acres between California and Nevada. The California portion alone is considered the second largest area of unprotected wilderness in the state. Lava Bed National Monument sits at the Western edge of the plateau.
Cedar Mesa region, UT
Southwest of Blanding, Utah, the 410,000-acre area of Cedar Mesa sits just south of Natural Bridges National Monument. It also features an impressive 800-year-old ancestral Pueblan village one of thoughsands of prehistoric and historic sites from Paleo-Indian big game hunters to Mormon settlers. Edward Abbey afficionados will recognize the area as the setting for the unforgettable chase scene in The Monkey Wrench Gang.Creating a National Monument
The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President of the United States to declare by public proclamation landmarks, structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government to be national monuments. Its purpose was to allow the president to quickly preserve public land without need to wait for legislation. The end goal is to protect all historic and prehistoric sites on U.S. federal lands.



Do: Sledding Under Summer Sun: Mt. Rainier’s Camp Muir Hike

Views south on the way home from Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier

Views south on the way home from Camp Muir, Mt. Rainier

There are some adventures you plan for and others that lend themselves to short notice opportunity. A hike to Mt. Rainier’s famed Camp Muir can certainly be the latter. In July, summer in Seattle is in full swing and when every forecaster in the Pacific Northwest racks up points with predictions of a week of uninterrupted sun, it means the snow-covered slopes of the Puget Sound’s mountain guard are hosting 14,410 feet of expansive vistas.

Camp Muir, named in 1888 for John Muir, the legendary advocate for wilderness and founder of the Sierra Club, lies on the southeast side of Mt. Rainier between the Muir Snowfield and Ingraham Glacier. Originally named “Cloud Camp”, the site sits at 10,100 feet and, on a clear day, boasts stop-and-stare views of the lower Cascade mountain range including Mount St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. About 4,600 feet higher than Paradise, the starting point and parking lot for many of Rainier’s adventures, the area serves as base camp for those seeking the longer trek to summit Rainier. Out of 12 approaches to the summit, Camp Muir provides seven including the route up Disappointment Cleaver, affectionately referred to as The Yellow Brick Road.

Asahel Curtis photograph of Rainier Park Company President Henry Rhodes (front), Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent O.A. Tomlinson (middle), and National Park Service Director Stephen Mather (right), against a backdrop of Mount Rainier, 1928.(Photo courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington)

Rainier’s blanket of glacier ice exceeds that of any other mountain in the conterminous U.S. and once covered most of the area now within Mount Rainier National Park boundaries, extending to the very shores of the present Puget Sound Basin. The wear and tear of Mount Rainier’s glaciers make it appear deceptively older than it really is: The first eruptions that formed the mountain came just more than half a million years ago (pre-glaciers) and the most recent occurred in 1840. But the largest and most dramatic eruptions occurred from about 25,000 to 15,000 years ago.

Waking up to another day of sun on the horizon puts an escape from city and sea to summit in short order, even though the short notice planning put myself and a friend in the the parking lot a bit after 1 p.m. on a Saturday. We took note of the number of hikers wrapping up their day, stowing gear and wringing out socks. Most who set out to do Rainier’s higher day hikes get an early start. For snowboarders and skiers in particular, it’s the means to traversing the snowfields before the afternoon sun takes its toll. The round trip hike between Paradise and Camp Muir is estimated at 7 to 9 hours – plenty of time on a summer day to get a late start and still make the full trip in daylight. For the two of us it means fewer people on the trail as we return.

The Skyline Trail heading home.

Leaving Paradise we followed the Skyline Trail 2.3 miles upward to Pebble Creek. For this first half of the climb the remains of Rainier’s sordid volcanic past, nutrient rich layers of ash and pumice, support stands of subalpine trees and fields of mountain flowers: Avalanche Lilies, Pink Heather, Rosy Spirea, lupine and Yellow Cinquefoil. The summer bouquet and a lone, chubby marmot soon give way to fields of crumbled andesitic rock left by traveling glaciers. The first fingers of the Muir Snowfield appear, the cars on the road to Paradise become silent, winking only in the afternoon sun and the jagged peaks of the Tatoosh Range rise to meet the southern horizon.

Leaving Skyline Trail and arriving at Pebble Creek one gets the impression of an ad hoc transfer station. The terrain makes the gritty switch to rushing water, mud and melting snow and the intersecting trails release a variety of hikers, climbers and seekers. At around 7,000 feet early risers mark the final miles of their descent; Skyline hikers interested in a detour take in the mystery of the terrain beyond the blue guide sheet and skiers and snowboarders collect gear, casting discerning last glances at their final runs. Just past the creek crossing, crowds begin to thin along with the air and a sense of camaraderie becomes subtly perceptible between the hikers navigating descent.

From Pebble Creek, the next 2.2 miles yawn before hikers with an ascent of 2,800 ft. up the Muir Snowfield. When recounting what an ascent of Rainier (and numerous other summits) entailed a colleague of mine narrowed it down to one singular focus: placing one foot in front of the other and, with every step, developing a “cadence that helps you get through the scaleless pushes”. Here the seduction of northwest greenery gives way to the grit and grey of a travel-weary snowmass, pocked by suncups and the last snowfall a distant memory. At 8,000 feet, the landscape barren, we stopped oggling the distant views and each settled quietly, deeply into a one-two, left-foot, right-foot march. Until this point the weather of the day remained gorgeously clear. The exertion of the hike and high altitude sun kept outer layers stored in our packs but at 8,500 feet the small pillow cloud we’d kept a half-hearted eye on made a beeline for our locale. Famous for its lenticular clouds, Rainier dispatched a ring of fog across our elevation that turned our world of glittering snowmass into 20-foot visibility. Being familiar with the mountain from a distance, and having been warned of this effect by the Guide House staff, we kept stepping, entranced somewhat by the chatter and echos of fellow climbers descending. Twenty feet stretched to 30 and soon we stood distinctly above the sea of fog, three hikers alone on shore of snow with our mountain cap.

There is a strange point of limbo with each adventure in a barren space when you’re certain your destination is close at hand but unsure of just how close. Or how far. Now familiar with what the return terrain entails, annoyance grows in the repeated expectation that your destination is just around the next turn. Our limbo began shortly after 9,500 feet and I’m certain a number of steps went by before I realized the brown, oddly shaped rock I’d been staring at was actually a hut and the hut was connected to a brown, curved wall with smaller, similar structures. In such unbroken terrain it’s difficult to measure the distance remaining against pace. Maintaining my cadence turned out to be a better bet, we had another half hour to go.

Fog rolls in on the way home after leaving Panorama Point

Camp Muir offers intimate views of Rainier’s upper icefalls and rugged ridges along with a hungry glimpse of what the next 4,410 feet of ascent entail. Nestled just above Anvil Rock are stone and wood huts that house climbers and hikers. It’s also home to a small group of climbing rangers in a small stone hut first erected in 1916. After our four and a half hour hike in which we gradually became the lone ascenders, the stone guide buildings and sheltering wall seemed like a thriving mecca complete with gay tents and a wise populace of the initiated. Our day’s end arrival was unusual but not unheard of. We photographed our achievement and the surrounding views, ate dinner and scouted our route down as the camp’s temporary residents prepared for tomorrow’s climb to summit or hike to home.

If reaching Camp Muir could be compared to the fun but tedious task of holiday shopping, the descent would be the euphoric rush of ripping open present after present the morning of. The beauty of the Muir Snowfield descent is the eradication of every hard-earned step by the simple thrill of glissading – sliding down the snowfield with 10,000 feet of mountain beneath the soles of your shoes. Laughter and elevation mixed to leave us enamored, gasping for breath, tripping over our own hands and knees, eyes watering in a rush to get to the next slide. The serious intention of each foot in our ascent was abandoned in short order, replaced in complete with a simple, child’s-eye propulsion to sit down, heels up, lean back and go!

Jamie glissades down the final stretch to Pebble Creek

We ended the snowfield near Pebble Creek as the light turned from full to fading. Reaching the paved trail we abandoned getting home with intention to choosing whatever speed suited our individual taste. Deep pinks and violets washed Glacier Vista and the walls along Skyline Trail, reflecting in small pools ringed with sleeping lupine and complacent snow. We choose moonlight over headlamps and at twilight, crowds absent, watched the path return to its rightful owners. For a few steps two black foxes joined our path, intent on keeping their direction but carrying a wary eye. And, as we crossed the parking lot, the lights of Paradise quiet and festive, we stepped between two doe content to stand their ground as we passed in search of our ride home.

Things to Note:

When hiking to Muir or any other snow or glacier route, waterproof or highly water resistant footwear is recommended. And pack layers, avoiding cotton, so you can quickly add and remove as the weather changes. Winds at Camp Muir can be intense and chilly on even the warmest days. Bring a light down jacket to pull over your other layers and retain your body’s heat while you rest at camp. Maps of the Paradise Area Trails can be found at the visitor’s center or the Guide House. They stop at Pebble Creek but the trail to Camp Muir is fairly well marked. Bring a compass at the very least. Once the clouds move in its easy to wander off the path without noticing. The official NPS trail is marked with thin poles with pieces of colored duct tape. Once into the snowfield and glacier areas, stay in the snow. Though moving to the rocks seems drier and quicker, they’re loose, slippery and each step creates a landslide below you or directly beneath. Crevasses do open on the snowfield below Camp Muir between 9,200 and 10,000 feet. Although some are wanded – marked with poles by NPS –  others are not and they change in size. Use extreme caution. Bathrooms do exist at Camp Muir, sans toilet paper so pack it with you. Bring plenty of water, there is none at Muir.

Final note – glissading. Though the pipelines for glissading are smooth and clean, they still contain an errant rock or two – keep an eye out and try to steer around. Bring a plastic bag or two for sliding on. Or choose pants wisely – you need something with little friction but strong enough to withstand the wear. An old pair of light rain pants is ideal.

Getting There:

Recommend calling ahead for road status. In winter months the road can be closed daily between Longmire and Paradise. Take I-5 to SR 512 (exit 127), then travel east on SR 512 to SR 7. Travel south on SR 7 to SR 706 in Elbe and continue east through Ashford to the Nisqually entrance of Mt. Rainier State Park. Follow the road to Paradise and Paradise Inn. The trail head is located to the left of the ranger station, just past the lodge. Pick up a trail map at either the visitor’s center or the Guide House. The paved Skyline Trail is just over the embankment and either direction will take you to Panorama Point. Head north from Panorama Point to Pebble Creek and McClure Rock. From there use the path other hikers have taken and your compass to stay on course.

Round trip: 9 miles / 7 hours

More Info:

An administrative history of Mt. Rainier
About climbing at Mt. Rainier


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