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Westward, who?

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Jun 23rd, 2011, 05:33 PM
  #1
Amy
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Westward, who?

For a long time now, I've wanted to visit the American West: mountains, bison, the big sky...but I don't drive and I'm not too keen on the whole big bus thing. Finally, after 26 years of wandering the rest of the world, I got further West than Pittsburgh in the US: a trip to Salt Lake City, a bit of Idaho, Yellowstone and other parts of Wyoming, and the big guys and Badlands in South Dakota.

The trip was with Travel Dream West (www.traveldreamwest.com) and there were five of us tourists (three German, two American) in the comfortable van superbly driven by the husband half of our guide team--also German, as was the wife, our official guide. America's National Parks seem to be a bit of a German travel obsession, in fact; there are three forums at least in German just for US parks travel.

I'll do a day-by-day with some hotel mentions and such, but I wanted to start with a bit of an overall review and (most likely) some superfluous meanderings; don't say I didn't warn you. Although the trip wasn't exactly what I would have done on my own, I had a great time and would definitely recommend it to any people with my particular "handicap" when it comes to exploring that part of the world: I don't drive. To be honest, I'm not all that keen on riding, either, but even though some days had rather long times spent in the van, there was a fair amount of stopping, picnicking, and hiking to avoid saddle sores--and of course the view from the windows was often magnificent. (Although a bit repetitive as we got further east...)
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Jun 23rd, 2011, 05:52 PM
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Glad you made it. Keep it coming!!
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Jun 23rd, 2011, 07:50 PM
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My journey started in Salt Lake City, a day before I met my fellow travelers. I'd come early to hear the morning concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, still held on that June Sunday in the Tabernacle itself, with its stunning acoustics and pink-lighted pipes. It's an all-volunteer choir, and quite ethereal and lovely. The Drakensburg (South Africa) Boys' Choir joined them for the "Music and the Spoken Word" program which is broadcast every Sunday. I got there shortly after 9 for the 9:30 program and ended seated behind a pillar; in summer, the concert is changed to the 21,000 seat Conference Center.

There's a garden tour of the Temple Square that's offered after the concert; there's not a lot to do, it seems, in SLC on a Sunday, so I happily joined the tour at the East Gate and ogled the lovely flower beds. There are definite ties to the Israeli notion of "making the desert bloom like a rose." The place I was most reminded of, though, was Switzerland, due both to the alpine weather and the scarily efficient methods.

Lunch (and, as it happens, dinner with the group) was at Caffe Molise, quite a nice little Italian place with outside seating; it's across from the (uber green) Convention Center...and opened on Sundays. Later I toured the Conference Center, as I really wanted to see the gardens on the top of the huge building; they're prairie gardens, as opposed to the more formal flower beds of the Temple Square.

Hotel Carlton is the hotel that we stayed at for two nights in Salt Lake City; it's super friendly (and let me check in at 8:30AM) and the rooms are decent size; mine smelt a bit like someone had perhaps smoked in it at some point, though. It's very easy to walk to Temple Square or to the trams from there, and I even (sorta) had the street grid system figured out by the time I left. (It's not that difficult, just unique: the Carlton, for example, is at 140 East South Temple.) They've got cooked to order breakfast included in the rate, but it's of that foundation building variety of big and heavy.

Monday morning our little group headed out to the Capitol building, walking right in to view the rotunda and chambers. This was followed by a trip to the Red Butte Gardens (of the Univeristy of Utah) which is a rolling expanse of visual and sensory treats. I especially liked the fragrance garden section, the drink herbs, and the children's garden, where toddlers in swimmies splashed gleefully in the rattlesnake fountain.

We stopped at a Smith's for picnic supplies on the long trip out to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake; at this point our beautiful weather turned sulky, with rainclouds forming and the wind kicking up quite a bit. But on Antelope Island we saw our first bison! (So, okay, we saw a LOT of bison on this trip. But there is something magical about the first one.) The gulls were being their usual cocky selves as we had our picnic on the island, and then we started to climb Buffalo Point, but had to come down after just a bit due to enormous winds and hail.

Dinner was at Tucano's, one of those Brazilian meat places with a huge salad bar. It was okay, but quite noisy. My Brazilian "lemonade", though, was a highlight. It's got limes and, the secret ingredient--condensed milk. Sounds awful, tastes wonderful.

In Tuesday's glorious sunshine we left the Carlton and went to Park City, where we visited the Ski Museum and watched the ski-jumpers practice on slides that ended in a pool! Amazing to see, but didn't inspire me, oddly enough, to be a ski jumper. That was our last stop in Utah, and it was on to Wyoming.
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Jun 24th, 2011, 05:19 AM
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Following this with interest as I'll be going on my 2nd road trip to that part of the country at the end of August!
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Jun 24th, 2011, 05:55 AM
  #5
Amy
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My first impression of Wyoming was of its muchness of nothing much: rumply land, sagebrush, and big portentous clouds. Fossil Butte National Monument was pretty cool, though; we hiked up to the base of the butte amid tiny alpine wildflowers and ridiculously gorgeous views. Fossil Butte is so named due to its incredible richness of fossils (duh!), mostly fish. You can do fossil excavation yourself; there are guided tours. We just checked out some of the fossils in Ulrich's Fossil Fish Gallery and went into Kemmerer for the evening, staying at the Best Western Fossil. It's a fine one, with nice friendly staff and chocolate chip cookies in the lobby.

In general, actually, the people we met tended to be more voluble and gregarious than their equivalents on the East Coast; I need to look further into the dialectical source roots of the Western twang, but there's definitely a lot of Palinesque inflection going on, too.

We detoured into Idaho on Wednesday (8 June) for a visit to Soda Springs and the Lava Hot Springs mineral bath. (Aaaaahhhh.) Soda Springs is a cute little town with a timed geyser that spouts up about 100 feet every hour; it's the only "captive" geyser in the world, formed by carbon dioxide gas mixing with the water in an underground chamber. After the geyser and a bit of town walking, we drove on and stopped for our (tour company provided) barbecue in one of the many little parks along the highway. Replete with t-bones and sausages, we went on to the warm soothing waters of the Lava Hot Springs. I was having visions of pioneers coming across them and joyfully soaking away; it hadn't taken me nearly as long to come that far, but I really enjoyed the relaxing effect of the 112 degree naturally heated water. About 45 minutes was enough for me, though, and we moved on to our residence for the night after a brief stop at Gray's Lake for bird watching. One of the places near Gray's Lake that I found rather--interesting--was a long light green building with a sign outside: "World's Greatest Firearms."

Flying Saddle Resort in Alpine was my favorite hotel of the trip: it looks like it could go to tacky at the outside entrance, but the lobby with its fireplace and gorgeous photos is warm and welcoming, the rooms are immaculate and large, and the restaurant is very good. (Most of us ranked this as our favorite, and it happened to be the lowest price--I'm assuming due to location/season--of all the places we stayed.) The seafood omelet for breakfast was something I'll be craving now and then.
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Jun 24th, 2011, 07:11 AM
  #6
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It was snowing in Jackson, WY, in the morning. I walked around and peeked into the art galleries and ice cream stores, peered at the antler arches in the square, and caught a glimpse of the Wells Fargo wagon. (All of which, of course, means that my personal soundtrack for the day kept veering from Johnny and June to Let it Snow to the Music Man, but that's another story.)

Due to the snow and rain, not much was visible on the road to Grand Teton National Park, and, as it was still raining when we got there, we went straight to the Visitors' Center. Traveling with the Germans gave me more of an awareness of some things--of course, the usual "Serving sizes are too big" "Bad SUV's" etc.--but also the positives: the US really does do movies well, and the Park Service introductory films, usually 20 minutes or so, are no exception. They're usually a very good preparation for what you need to know.

The sun came out after a bit, so we stopped for lunch in the park beside a little creek. One of the group members went down to the creek, and came back with news: a mama and baby moose! The baby was adorably cavorting all over, the mama looking patiently after him and wandering slowly behind. (Okay, I think I need to put a photo link here: http://travel.webshots.com/photo/272...53546425CQZucs There's no way I can tell you how cute that baby was.)

Due to the torrential rains earlier, the trails around Jenny Lake were closed, so we walked a bit of the edge and watched the sun burn off the clouds that had been hiding the stunningly gorgeous Tetons, which rise so dramatically, straight up from the ground with no foothills. I definitely want to return to Grand Teton, as we moved on to Yellowstone after just a few hours.
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Jun 24th, 2011, 08:50 AM
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Keep it coming, Amy. I'm doing this same trip on my own (and in the opposite direction) in 14 days (but who's counting!) Thanks for posting!

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Jun 24th, 2011, 09:01 AM
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Amy, you are so entertaining. I am enjoying your report immensely.
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Jun 24th, 2011, 09:29 AM
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Great trip report; I can't wait to read more!
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Jun 24th, 2011, 11:07 AM
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Amy
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Thanks, y'all! I noticed that this is getting a bit wordy, but I'll ramble on; I figure Yellowstone deserves its own section.

On the way into (and through) Yellowstone we saw pelicans, bison herds, and elk; Yellowstone is a place of mind-boggle-liness. It's incredibly beautiful and diverse, with huge craggy crevasses and steaming ground and glowing colors and a ton o' snow (neatly plowed) in the upper elevations, even in June. That evening we just drove through, making a few photo pit stops, and exited at the North Gate into Gardiner, Mt, where we stayed for two nights in the Yellowstone River Motel. The river ran right in back of my room, and there was a nice little spot for eating out. Dinner that night was at Rosie's--the "upscale" place thatt was clattery, noisy and none too refined (everything is relative) and very tasty; I took my leftovers home and put them in the little fridge for dinner the next night. That's another thing about US travel, of course: very likely to have a frig and a microwave in one's room. I can't wait until they start putting a washer/dryer combo in, too.

Before starting on Friday, 10 June, I need to insert a bit of explanation: One of the reasons that I was eager to visit the upper Yellowstone is the presence of Fort Yellowstone, now used as housing for park workers and as the park headquarters. Back in 1910 my immigrant grandpop (still not a citizen at that point) served in the cavalry in Yellowstone; the park had invited the army in due to the depredations of hunters and such when Yellowstone became a park, back in 1872. I have no idea how Grandpop ended up in the cavalry--or in Yellowstone, for that matter--but I extrapolate that his winter there might have had something to do with his penchant for visiting Florida in his later years! Anyway, I wanted to see the fort, which we did first thing in the morning. There's a bit of a museum and you can do a walking tour showing where the barracks and such were; the buildings are now private.
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Jun 24th, 2011, 07:47 PM
  #11
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Mammoth Hot Springs was the next stop. At this point there aren't too many springs still springing, but the walk around is still fascinating for the formations and the places where water still does create the colors and changes.

The Canyon, with its slashed yellow stone (hmmm, you think...?) walls, has enormous grandeur and a switchback trail to the heroic plash of the Lower Falls. It's easier traveling down than up, I have to say. We did some more hiking on the North Rim, and rode to a few more observation points. Taking the North Road of the Upper Loop back to Gardiner, we came across more elk and a bison family....Baby Bisons!!! Awwwwww. The North Gate/Roosevelt Arch is in Gardiner, so I took some pictures there tonight after a quick email check in the Internet cafe; it's got two computers and some bodacious ice cream.

The Lower Loop was the next day, with Norris Basin Geysers and their bacteria-induced colors; Old Faithful with its crowd of bystanders; the hike up to Morning Glory Pool with its deep blue center; and a peek into Old Faithful Inn with its fanciful lobby. On the hike up to Morning Glory Pool there are many fascinating formations like Grotto Geyser, and also a crowd waiting patiently at Grand Geyser for its "sometime in these six hours" eruption. I'm not quite that patient, but had the great fortune to be coming back from Morning Glory when the Grand decided to erupt! It seemed taller and definitely lasted longer than Old Faithful, but Old Faithful is, of course, more iconic. It's amazing how one can anthropomorphize hot water shooting out of the earth.

After a few more stops, including the mostly frozen Yellowstone Lake, we came to Pahaska Teepee, our lodging for the night. It was Buffalo Bill's hunting lodge, and the cozy "teepee" cabins (okay, stuffy might be the word, actually) are grouped around the old lodge, now a restaurant. It's a bit disconcerting to have bison grazing on the lawn and looking in on you with a somewhat jaundiced eye whilst you are eating a, um, buffalo taco salad.

I would love to have had more time in Yellowstone, and to have time to visit the Research Center and Library in Gardiner, but I did get a good glimpse, at least, of the beauty that is Yellowstone National Park.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 06:14 AM
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The 50+ mile drive from Pahaska to the town of Cody is gorgeously scenic, with formations like "The Holy City" and "The Great Wall" to enliven your ride. We stopped at the Buffalo Bill Dam and Visitors' Center--you will be noting the omnipresence of Mr. Cody, I think--and viewed the Shosone Canyon.

Since we were unable to check into our hotel until 3, we visited the beautiful but slightly overwhelming Buffalo Bill Wild West Museum. There are five sections to the museum, each quite separate from the other: a superlative, voice-overhead, sunset-stage Plains Indian one; a costume, relics, wagons, and posters intensive Buffalo Bill Cody one; a Yellowstone ecosystem one that is very learning intensive; a gallery of Western art; and...a firearms museum that is both amazing and, well, a tad disturbing. (By the way, if they're serving the red pepper and gouda soup in the restaurant, get it.) Buffalo Bill's birthplace home and a lot of sculpture are also there, in the gardens; we easily spent two hours there, and you could certainly spend even more time. (Your ticket is good for two days.)

Hotel Irma was our home for the night. It's an historical property, owned by guess-who and named for his daughter. It's got that old-fashioned semi-Victorian feel, for sure, and my room was big and comfy, but the noises are, well, not unnoticeable. It's like living in the middle of an on-going family drama. Even though the staged shoot-out wasn't on that night (Sunday), there were enough comings and goings and crying babies and loud conversations that I was wishing for some nice modern acoustic engineering.

Dinner was at the Proud Cut: lots o' animal heads on walls, photos everywhere, sirloin the size of an ostrich egg, and really good bleu cheese dressing. Not for the vegetarians amongst us.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 07:02 AM
  #13
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At this point in the saga, I think it's time for a photo break:
http://travel.webshots.com/album/580367197StwxSN

(It's the whole album; I notice it tends to be a bit repetitive on clouds, flowers, and roads, but there is a baby bison.)
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Jun 25th, 2011, 07:53 AM
  #14
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The hunt for wild mustangs on the prairie outside of Cody wasn't terribly successful; we did finally see three of them, from quite a distance away, but, of course, as with any wild animals, there are no guarantees. This was a day of a lot of riding, including some glorious views at Powder River Pass, and ended up at Mill Inn in Sheridan. This is another historic hotel, and quite nice it is, too: clean, comfy, and a little bit eclectic.

Our first stop the next day was Fort Phil Kearny; Phil Kearny, by the way, was never there, but a lot of drama was: this was on the Bozeman Trail, and what's left of the fort and its environs are a microcosm of the Westward drama. In short, it's a rather sad tale of lumber dependence, conflicts with Native Americans, and the sheer drudgery of juxtaposing Eastern standards with survival in a new land. It's easy to look back and see how horrifying the treatment of the Indians was, and how the newcomers could have made their lives much simpler through greater adaptation, but, well, history will undoubtedly look back on certain elements of our times with the same shock.

Devil's Tower National Monument was the next stop, across Wyoming almost to the South Dakota border. Wyoming has both the first National Park (Yellowstone) and the first National Monument. It's quite a dramatic igneous intrusion, and the legends about it are many. Generally, the most popular story is that seven little girls were playing, got chased by a bear, prayed, and the earth lifted them up; the scratches on the sides of the tower are the bear claws, and the little girls were lifted so high that they became the Pleiades. Be that as it may, the hike around the tower base is a pleasant one and it's quite a popular spot. It's reasonably close to Sturgis, and we saw a lot of folks on motorcycles. (On a side note, is there ANYBODY under 50 riding motorcycles any more?) At the base of the tower there's a prairie dog colony.
For plague-ridden little varmints, those little guys sure are cute.

Traveling by way of the pristinely lovely Spearfish Canyon, we arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota. There's a lot of tacky going on in Deadwood.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 08:49 AM
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Amy, I loved the pictures. I'm so glad you did this trip, it sounds like a great time. And NO anyone under 50 probably can't afford the motorcycles those folks in Sturgis drive.

Thanks for posting.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 09:38 AM
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Yay! I was waiting for your trip report, Amy! It was worth the wait - your descriptions and level of detail really paint a mental image. Speaking of which, nice pictures and great job on putting titles on them.

We went on vacation in Yellowstone/Tetons in 2008 and 2009 but didn't visit some of the spots you did. Wondered about them (as many of us have on Fodors), so this is great info for our next trip there.

Keep it coming.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 02:33 PM
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Penny Motel in Deadwood was our home base for the next two nights; it's a quaint motel throw-back type place, and I loved the sign outside. We were in the across-the-street annex; very big rooms there--mine had a rather startling large stuffed leopard on the bed. (But just a side note: snarky responses to less than 5 star reviews on a certain site? Not cool. My "sensibilities" are such that I've been comfortable in $5 a night guesthouses in the Indian Himalayas, so trust me that I do know a bit about less than expensive accommodations. Check your window ledges.)

The main street of Deadwood is a casino strip; I'm not the best judge of casino towns, as I always have the compulsion to pull out my soapbox and start talking about how the house always wins--how else could they afford all that immensely expensive and monumentally ugly decor?

Kevin Costner has a restaurant/casino there; seems his parents have retired nearby. We ate at the sports bar on the second floor as Jake's Fine Dining on the top floor was closed. Reasonable food, long wait. (The next night's wait at Deadwood Social Club was about twice as long, though; they'd suddenly filled up and were having some issues, but the {eventual} food was quite tasty.)

All in all, we didn't spend much time in Deadwood itself, as we had a full day of exploring the region round about the next day.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 04:12 PM
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The Black Hills region, from what I'm given to understand, tends to have rain...a lot. Well, we got one of those pristinely beautiful clear blue sky days that make one want to settle into a place immediately, and Bear Butte was the place.

First we wended our way (very winding, very wending) to the Wonderland Cave. It's, well, a cave; it's 246 feet underground; you get to walk around and then climb steps up--a lot of them. It's pretty nifty if you're into caves, but there aren't even any bats. Hmmmpph. Let's just say it wouldn't be on my top 10 list for things to do in South Dakota, but it's a pleasant enough interval.

Next came the Petrified Forest of the Black Hills: it's another low-key attraction and privately run (like the cave) but I really enjoyed the quirkiness of it. There's a movie/museum first, and then a good clear map that explains each spot and what you need to look for as you meander through the pine forest. Let's face it, petrified wood looks a lot like other wood, so you do need to know what to look for when there are trees all around! They have an "xylophone" set up, and it's pretty neat to hear the chime of stone on stone when it looks like someone is hitting a block of wood.

Bear Butte was our final stop. It's a spiritual spot for the Lakota, and there are prayer cloths on the trees as you ascend the butte. It was immensely peaceful under the sun, and, even though I did hear my first rattlesnake ever, quite calming. There was also a meadowlark singing its little heart out from the top of a pine tree, a pink prairie rose blooming across the steps, and a solitary dignified biker paying his respects to the statue of Fools Crows. I could have stayed there a long time; there's a certain timelessness to places like these.
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Jun 25th, 2011, 04:35 PM
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I'm enjoying this a lot. Even as a life-long (if you don't count a few years in the air force) westerner, you are dexscribing some places I've never seen and finding new facets of places I have. Keep up the good work.
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Jun 26th, 2011, 01:46 PM
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(I appreciate all the comments!)

Crazy Horse Memorial and Mt. Rushmore are 17 miles apart, both creations of sons of immigrants, both mammoth memorials in stone, both carrying the weight of profundity and the glare of publicity.

But while Gutzon Borglun's four faces have long been completed, Korczak Ziolkowski's family still works on the much larger Crazy Horse, with little change evident from year to year. Mt. Rushmore has a dignified and somber plaza and museum of gray stone (what IS with the fascist architecture?) while Crazy Horse has a carnival of buildings and an overall feel of action. Rushmore is a government facility, Crazy Horse won't accept government funding. The depth of detail shading the presidential faces makes the monument more poignant than I would have thought possible, yet there's no denying it is a screaming statement of Manifest Destiny and the nativism that was such a strong influence in Borglun's life. Crazy Horse is a grand dedication to an idealized view of Indian reparations, including a proposed medical school, yet there's something overwhelmingly European-American in the whole concept.

Do you think these two astounding works leave me feeling ambivalent? Good call.

Perhaps E.B. Browning expressed it best in "A Musical Instrument":

"...The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river."
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