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Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« on: January 19, 2014, 01:33:02 PM »
Some months ago I had checked the schedule for my beloved Rice Owls football team and discovered that it was scheduled to play games in San Antonio and Las Cruces on consecutive weekends.  This circumstance absolutely begged for a trans-Pecos Texas road trip, and so it was done.  On Saturday, October 12, I drove to San Antonio and watched Rice defeat UT-San Antonio 27-21 (which turned out to be a pivotal victory in the Owls' march to the Conference USA title), then headed down US 90 to Del Rio to begin the recreational part of the trip.  One thing that hadn't been planned was the partial federal government shutdown, so Big Bend National Park was off the destination list.  However, Big Bend Ranch State Park was still open, and I made it the first stop on the trip.

Sunday, October 13
I drove from Del Rio to Alpine, where I stopped for lunch and did some final shopping before my stay at Big Bend Ranch State Park.  From there, I drove through Marfa and Presidio, where I filled my gas tank, to the park, finally arriving at Sauceda just before 5 P.M..  At the front desk, I had the great fortune to encounter Roy Saffar, a park volunteer whom I had gotten to know on a previous visit to BBRSP, except now he informed me that he had been hired on as a ranger a couple of months before.  I spent the night at the bunkhouse and took the opportunity to sample a bit of wine provided by one of my dinner companions from his own vineyard.

Monday, October 14
The weather forecast looked a bit iffy for the day, so I decided to stay close to Sauceda.  I'd never hiked the Horsetrap Springs trail before, so this would be the occasion.  It was a fairly pleasant hike, and to my relief not only did it not rain, but the sun even came out for a while.  I was able to time my hike such that by early afternoon I reached Horsetrap Springs proper and ate my lunch there.  It was quite scenic, and after I finished my lunch I spent some time wandering around the springs looking at birds. 

Horsetrap Springs:

13A14002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I still had a couple of hours before dinner, so on Roy's recommendation I went searching for an old earthen dam left by an early rancher near Tascate 1.  There was no trail there other than the extension from the Horsetrap Spring trail, so I spent most of my time bushwhacking.  As it turned out, I didn't have enough time to find it before heading back for dinner, but I did see some interesting exposures of Leyva Canyon quartz trachyte lava;  the lava when cooling contracted and cracked, forming columnar rock exposures.

Leyva Canyon quartz trachyte:

13A14004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

At dinner I found out that Roy's friend Roy Morey the retired botanist had arrived for one of his frequent stays.  I had met him briefly on my previous visit.  When I say that he wrote the book on Big Bend National Park flora, I'm not using a figure of speech; he literally wrote the book on that subject.  He was spending his retirement writing another book, this time on the flora of BBRSP, and to that effect he had bought a condo in Lajitas and was spending about six months out of the year in the area doing research (the rest of the time he spends with his wife in their home in Oregon).

He wasn't the only new arrival;  at least half the bunks on the male side were taken, more than I had ever seen in my previous visits.  One of them, in fact, was being taken up by the park manager, Barrett Durst (I think he had vacated the manager's residence because his wife had relatives visiting, and he graciously gave up his bed so that they could sleep in there).  His theory was that, due to the closure of Big Bend National Park because of the partial government shutdown, BBRSP was getting a lot of people that otherwise would've been going to BBNP.  He also said that he had been getting interview requests from media, something he'd rarely gotten in the past, asking about BBRSP.  Apparently, BBRSP was being discovered.

Tuesday, October 15
I'd been curious about the area around Hiedra Canyon and Cueva Larga, so I decided to check it out.  Unfortunately, it had been drizzling frequently during the morning, and after examining the condition of the road to Yedra 1 and 2, I decided to put it off for another day.  Instead, I decided I continue adding to my GPS database of campsites in BBRSP by going to the Pila Montoya area.  I stopped at the La Posta campsite and ate lunch there, then continued down the road to the Pila Montoya campsites, finally parking at the composting toilet and trailhead next to Pila Montoya 3, which was occupied by a considerable assortment of vehicles, tent, and canopies.  From there I hiked down the old roadbed into Fresno Canyon and back.  Fortunately the drizzle had stopped by now, although it remained overcast the rest of the day.

On the way to Fresno Canyon:

13A15009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Upon my return to the trailhead I met one of the gentlemen staying at Pila Montoya 3.  He was from San Antonio and said he and a buddy had already visited the park several times and this time were staying for five nights at the campsite.  They were well-equipped for their stay; they had a large tent with two canopies beside it sheltering tables with cooking implements and a small grill.  Suitably impressed, I drove back to Sauceda for dinner.

Ranger Roy had mentioned something about going out with Dr. Roy to the northeast part of the park, something I'd been thinking about doing myself, so after diner I asked Dr. Roy about it.  He replied that they had decided to do that on Thursday, and I would be welcome to come along.  I therefore adjusted my plans to do this.  I'd been planning on leaving on Thursday and going up RM 169 to Marfa, and that route would go right past the Casa Piedra trailheads where the Roys were planning on going.

Wednesday, October 16
Big Bend Ranch State Park is a big place, but somehow I always find myself drawn toward the Soitario.  With my geological background, I find it to be a fascinating place.  Thus, I again found myself driving the 17 miles from Sauceda into the Solitario.  Dr. Roy had told me previously that he would be spending the day on the north rim of the Solitario, and indeed on my way there I found him on the side of the main park road photographing a cholla.  Thanks to the recent rains, the cholla were starting to bloom, and Dr. Roy found an excellent example that was too good not to photograph.  I continued onward down the Solitario road to the eastern part of the structure and stopped.

Can you spot my vehicle?

13A16001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

My goal was to walk along part of the unmaintained four-wheel drive high-clearance road that parallels some old water lines leading up to a couple of pilas (tanks) on the rim.  Although technically this road is open for vehicle use, it looked like it hadn't been driven on for many years.  That's not surprising, because the upper reaches of the road to the pilas is steep and barely exists, while the lower reaches are almost entirely washed out.

Dos Pilas:

13A16004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The view from my lunchtime spot shows most of the northeast rim of the Solitario:

13A16006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Dr. Roy previously had mentioned to me the existence of some excellent rock exposures in the Lefthand Shutup, so after lunch I hiked into the shutup.  About a mile in I found the outcrops he was referring to.  These are rhyolite dikes that intruded the older rocks when the doming that formed the Solitario began.  The doming from magma (molten material) accumulating below the surface cracked the bedrock, and the magma flowed into the cracks.  When it later cooled, the solidified magma itself cracked, forming joints that gave the outcrop a columnar appearance.

Rhyolite sill over Shutup Conglomerate at the entrance to the Lefthand Shutup:

13A16014 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

It was a very pleasant hike;  the morning had been cool and overcast, but by this time the sun had come out, and it had warmed up nicely.  I walked back to my vehicle (taking the obligatory picture of the Solitario Bar along the way)...

The Solitario Bar:

13A16015 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and passed Dr. Roy's vehicle on the north rim.  Back at Sauceda that night, he informed me that he had unfortunately failed at his primary goal of his trip, which was to photograph two rare cacti species in bloom.  That's why he had been on the north rim of the Solitario that day, but apparently he misjudged the timing and found they had already bloomed.  However, the trip to the northeast part of the park was on for tomorrow, and he, Ranger Roy, and I made plans to leave soon after breakfast the next day, around 8:30.

If you couldn't find my vehicle in that previous image, here it is with the rim of the Solitario in the background.  Note the bands of white novaculite in the rock strata - this layer and its neighbors are about ten times as old as the rhyolite sill in the previous photograph!

13A16017 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

At night, the bunkhouse was indeed crowded....

13A16021 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The next day would turn out to be the most interesting day of the trip, so much so that it deserves its own post.

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #1 on: January 19, 2014, 02:22:25 PM »
Thursday, October 17
As it turned out, 8:30 A.M. came and none of us were ready.  Ranger Roy had gotten the day off, but he needed to take care of a couple of items, while Dr. Roy had some phone calls to make, and I was busy packing my things to leave.  Thus, it was closer to 9:30 when we finally left, with the two Roys in Dr. Roy's 1997 Ford Expedition and I following in my 2003 Jeep Liberty (amazingly, Ranger Roy's vehicle of choice is a Ford Mustang convertible; I commended him on his driving ability to get one of those all the way into the park interior, and he replied that a fit of insanity was a more appropriate description and that he was going to trade it in for a Jeep or FJ Cruiser).  The weather was by far the best of my stay; there was hardly a cloud in the sky, and the temperature would broach the seventies Fahrenheit.  It took almost 1.5 hours to get to the West Casa Piedra trailhead.  I had been intrigued by the Cienega highlands area and had always wished to go there but had been wary of doing the trip by myself, so I was glad to get the opportunity to go with others.  It was decided that there was no need to subject both our vehicles to the vicissitudes of the road, so I climbed into Dr. Roy's vehicle, and the three of us began the trip to Cienega Mountain.

The park classifies this road as unmaintained four-wheel drive high-clearance, and it deserves this designation.  There are several rough patches and drops into gullies that can cause issues.  In our case, the recent rains had left the soil still moist and soft in places, and we got stuck in the first gully we went into, digging the right rear tire almost a foot into the sand.  It was then that Dr. Roy realized he'd forgotten to engage the four-wheel drive on the vehicle.  With that done, along with a slight turn of the steering wheel and Ranger Roy and I pushing on the back, we got the vehicle out in short order and had no more problems the rest of the day.

After about two miles we reached Alamito Creek.  This was going to be a bit problematic; although Dr. Roy had driven this way before, it had been about 1.5 years ago, and the recent rains had caused so much grass to grow that Dr. Roy wasn't quite sure where the road was.  We spent the next half-hour or so walking along the creek bed until we finally agreed on the best place to cross.  At that place we tossed some cobbles into the creek so as to provide better traction, walked back to the vehicle, drove down the creek bed, and crossed at the determined place with no problem.  Once on the other side, Dr. Roy was able to pick up the road, overgrown with grass as it was, and we passed the Lower Alamito campsite and headed north.

It was here that my geological background was of some use.  One of the reasons Dr. Roy had decided to go this way was that just north of Lower Alamito campsite he had found some cacti species that he wasn't expecting to see.  These were species that only grow in carbonate soils, something one would expect in a limestone area, and according to the geologic map of the park the area was covered in Teneros Creek Rhyolite, a volcanic rock.  I looked around the area a little bit, and there were a few exposures present that looked like boulders cemented with carbonate cement, if not limestone itself.  Ranger Roy even pointed out to me a couple of small pits that looked like collapse structures, where an underground cavity formed by water dissolving limestone could have caved in leaving a hole in the ground.  That's something that one could find in areas of limestone deposits.  On the geologic map there were a few outcrops of Santa Elena Limestone in the area (the same rock that makes up the walls of Santa Elena Canyon in BBNP), but it's hard to see on that map where the roads are, so I couldn't be sure whether this particular outcrop was mapped or not.  As we continued driving north Dr. Roy pointed out that those cacti had now disappeared, and I could see the lithology change to the volcanic debris one expected.  Mapped or not, it seems we had indeed passed through an area of carbonate rock, and Dr. Roy's mystery was solved.

The road north of Lower Alamito campsite was considerably better than south of it, and for the next hour we proceeded until we hit the junction with the road between Chupadera and Cat Springs.  We were now about two miles south of the peak of Cienega Mountain.  Getting relatively close to the mountain was Dr. Roy's other goal on this trip.  The park boundary is just south of the peak, but the parts of the mountain that are within the park boundary are still among the highest elevations in the park.  There are certain cacti which tend to flourish at elevations greater than 5000 feet, and because this area was one of the few in the park around that elevation, Dr. Roy was planning in the future to climb the slopes of the mountain and look for them.  Right now, he just wanted to reconnoiter the general area to see where the most accessible parts of the mountain are.  Given the time (now well past 1 P.M.), it was decided that we'd go by Chupadera and Cat Springs, in that order.

The road to Chupadera Spring is short but steep, but with careful driving we made it there fine.  The spring itself is diverted into a small cistern, so there's actually little running water on the surface, and as a consequence there wasn't much wildlife about.

A cottonwood tree growing near the spring.  Dr. Roy believes this is the largest standing cottonwood that he's seen in the park:

13A17004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The main interest in the area is the structures left behind by early ranchers:

13A17005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

We turned the vehicle around and drove in the opposite direction toward Cat Spring, but we couldn't quite make it.  Unlike Chupadera Spring, Cat Spring is still free-flowing, but the gully formed by the flowing water has almost completely washed out the road at the spring, so Dr. Roy backed the vehicle up the hill overlooking the spring and parked there, and we walked the remainder of the way.  With the spring flowing freely, there was more variety of plant and animal life than at Chupadera Spring, and we spent some time wandering the area and observing.

A detailed view of Cat Spring:

13A17007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

A synoptic view of Cat Spring:.  You can see the east flank of Cienega Mountain on the left side of the image:

13A17010 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Cienega Mountain in its entirety:

13A17011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

In addition, there were some excellent examples of alluvial and conglomerate deposits along the gully:

13A17008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

By this time it was past mid-afternoon, and we had to head back so that I could depart and the two Roys could make it back to Sauceda before nightfall.  We retraced our path down the road, over Alamito Creek, and back to the trailhead where my vehicle was parked, arriving around 4:45 P.M..  We said our farewells, and I turned on the road toward Marfa, and eventually Van Horn and El Paso.  It was definitely the best day of my stay - I got to see a part of the park that I hadn't seen before, and in fact few people ever see close up, and with convivial company as well.

The next few days were filled with hikes in Franklin Mountains State Park, Hueco Tanks State Historical Area, and the Organ Mountains, as well as viewing Rice's 45-19 victory over New Mexico State.  After that, the second part of my trip came, as to be described in another thread.

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Offline dprather

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2014, 02:32:28 PM »
GreatGreatGreatGrea t!!!!

It appears that we are being seduced into BBRSP.
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline Andreas

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2014, 02:42:27 PM »
another gem of a trip report, thank you for sharing! I am looking forward to the sequel....

PS: GO OWLS! (I have attended Rice Univ. as an exchange student from Germany for 2 semesters (Aug. 1987 - May 1988), watched all the home games in the student section - still remember the great band at halftime, I think they were called the MOB. Had a chance to follow them this season as well via the internet, what a great season (except for the Bowl Game vs. Miss. St.). Still, very very proud of their achievement in the past season.
"Any time you're throwin dirt you're losin ground."

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

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Offline Ranger Tim

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #4 on: January 19, 2014, 03:58:27 PM »
The Big Bend panhandle is truly on of the most unexplored part of BBRSP. The roads are unpredictable and often difficult to follow. The best strategy is to take two vehicles in the likelihood that one gets stuck. Given the low volume of people that go out there (basically just CBP), coupled with vegetative growth and erosion from last summer's rains, some of the roads (such as the Black Hills Trail) should probably not be attempted at all. The areas around Alamito Creek should probably also be avoided during the monsoons given the likelihood of flashfloods and road collapse. With that said, the areas West of Chupadero Spring around the Cienega Gorge offer breathtaking views of the Cienega and Chinati Mountains. Personally, I have met maybe a dozen folks who have ever made it out that far.

Another note is that FM 169 (Casa Piedra) is actually a pretty excellent drive and a much faster route to Marfa provided you don't mind the 60+ miles of dirt. It follows the Old Chihuahua Trail for much of its route and only requires 4WD during wet periods or during very dry periods when the sand piles up near the community of Casa Piedra. The signage can be confusing, so do use a map and/or GPS receiver.

Great trip report, and come out for some more adventure soon!!
"The greatest happiness possible to man ... is to become civilized, to know the pageant of the past, to love the beautiful,... and then, retaining animal instincts and appetites, to live in the wilderness"
- J. Frank Dobie

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Offline kevint

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #5 on: January 20, 2014, 03:01:03 PM »
Another note is that FM 169 (Casa Piedra) is actually a pretty excellent drive and a much faster route to Marfa provided you don't mind the 60+ miles of dirt. It follows the Old Chihuahua Trail for much of its route and only requires 4WD during wet periods or during very dry periods when the sand piles up near the community of Casa Piedra. The signage can be confusing, so do use a map and/or GPS receiver.
Sounds great.  No doubt the signage is confusing.  According to Google Maps
 

 
petty much every road in the area is labeled 169.
 
Now I need to read up on the Chihuahua trail.
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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #6 on: January 27, 2014, 01:27:14 AM »
another gem of a trip report, thank you for sharing! I am looking forward to the sequel....

PS: GO OWLS! (I have attended Rice Univ. as an exchange student from Germany for 2 semesters (Aug. 1987 - May 1988), watched all the home games in the student section - still remember the great band at halftime, I think they were called the MOB. Had a chance to follow them this season as well via the internet, what a great season (except for the Bowl Game vs. Miss. St.). Still, very very proud of their achievement in the past season.

I was in The MOB during my undergraduate years (1980-1984), and regularly take part in its alumni functions.  I went to the Liberty Bowl with them and thoroughly enjoyed it (except for the last three quarters of the game...).

The Big Bend panhandle is truly on of the most unexplored part of BBRSP. The roads are unpredictable and often difficult to follow. The best strategy is to take two vehicles in the likelihood that one gets stuck. Given the low volume of people that go out there (basically just CBP), coupled with vegetative growth and erosion from last summer's rains, some of the roads (such as the Black Hills Trail) should probably not be attempted at all. The areas around Alamito Creek should probably also be avoided during the monsoons given the likelihood of flashfloods and road collapse. With that said, the areas West of Chupadero Spring around the Cienega Gorge offer breathtaking views of the Cienega and Chinati Mountains. Personally, I have met maybe a dozen folks who have ever made it out that far.

Another note is that FM 169 (Casa Piedra) is actually a pretty excellent drive and a much faster route to Marfa provided you don't mind the 60+ miles of dirt. It follows the Old Chihuahua Trail for much of its route and only requires 4WD during wet periods or during very dry periods when the sand piles up near the community of Casa Piedra. The signage can be confusing, so do use a map and/or GPS receiver.

Great trip report, and come out for some more adventure soon!!

Indeed - one of the things that finally got me to post this trip report was that I'm planning on going out there again January 30 to February 4, and I thought it would be bad form to go someplace again before posting a trip report of the previous visit....

Now that I've been out to the Cienega Mountain area, I could probably drive it on my own; however, it'd be white-knuckle, pulse-pounding driving all the way, especially from FM 169 to Alamito Creek, and it probably is best to go in a group.  The three of us debated whether we should go by Cienega Gorge but decided that we didn't have enough time.  As bonus coverage, here's an image of the gorge taken from a couple of  miles away as we drove back from Chupadera and Cat Springs.

Cienega Gorge:

13A17013 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As best as I can tell, the peaks you can see behind the gorge in the distance are Tres Hermanas, Cerro Gato, and Cerro Corazón, the peaks just east of Shafter, about 10 miles away.  The mountains to the left further in the distance are the Chinatis, the tallest of which is Chinati Peak, about 23 miles distant.

FM 169 is a very nice road, among the best unpaved roads I've been on.  It's great for going out of the park to Marfa, but I'd still prefer coming into the park from Presidio, because it's the closest place to the park entrance where one can get gasoline for your vehicle and so you can be assured of having the most gasoline possible when you go into the park.

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Offline dillomaster

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #7 on: January 27, 2014, 10:55:46 PM »
Great trip report. Been to the park many times, but have never ventured to the Northern portions.  Now I must go! Thank you!

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Offline UglyJerry

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #8 on: January 28, 2014, 08:00:08 AM »
Great trip report! I haven't spent much time exploring BBRSP before but now I'll have to get a few days in next time I visit the area.

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Offline Ranger Tim

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #9 on: January 29, 2014, 11:13:47 AM »
Thanks again for the trip report and I wish you the best of luck on your next foray into the panhandle. Please do not forget to check in and get permitted at either Barton Warcon or Fort Leaton. It really is less about the money and more about knowing that someone is out there and for how long in case something does go wrong.  Those roads in the panhandle are a maze of narrow rutted jeep trails and "barely" roads that sometime just seem to disappear.  It is a great place to get lost, or stuck, or roll a truck. Letting us know that you are out there is not just the right thing to do,... it may also increase your odds of making it out alive! Okay drama-time over and out. Have fun and be safe!

BTW let us know what the cell-service is like out there if you get the chance. I keep meaning to check but I never seem to bring anything but a satellite phone when I am out there. Given your proximity to Presidio you should get some kind of signal through some carrier.
"The greatest happiness possible to man ... is to become civilized, to know the pageant of the past, to love the beautiful,... and then, retaining animal instincts and appetites, to live in the wilderness"
- J. Frank Dobie

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Offline RichardM

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Re: Big Bend Ranch State Park trip October 13-17, 2013
« Reply #10 on: January 29, 2014, 12:46:28 PM »
BTW let us know what the cell-service is like out there if you get the chance. I keep meaning to check but I never seem to bring anything but a satellite phone when I am out there. Given your proximity to Presidio you should get some kind of signal through some carrier.

Not that I'd ever trust AT&T's map, but here's what they have to say about coverage in the area:

 


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