Measuring The Final Miles

LastMilesMap

[Divider antique tool provided by D’Arcy Havill. Used with permission}

“Why”  That seems to be the operative word rolling around in my mind as I sit and write this post, this nearly final post of our Epic Trip of 2015-1016.

We’re at our friend’s house in Camp Dennison, Ohio.  I’ve written of D’Arcy and Judy on several occasions.  They have a summer-house on our road at Rainbow Lake.  We stopped here in the last days of our first trip to Orting, WA., in 2013.  If you’ve been following me, faithfully following my blogs, this is the place where I helped to win an election and the place where a yellow house (across the street and apparently still haunted) is where we park our RV.  Their house has big rooms and wide driveways–unlike all the other places we’ve stayed since mid-October of 2015.  We’re more than grateful for their friendship and hospitality on both trips.

This afternoon I stood in the showroom of Road Rivers and Trails, an outdoor/gear/clothing shop in nearby Milford.  I was drawn to a wall mural map (by the National Geographic Society) of the U.S.A.  My eye drifted to the NYC area and, naturally, began, on its own, to trace our six month road trip.

Why?  What would prompt me to undergo such a major undertaking, at our age, in an r-pod that was too small for two…for that long?  What was I thinking?

A distant memory came to mind.  The more I gave the recollection some mental fertilizer, my desire to be on the road and discover new places…the more the memory became clear.

It was September of 1960.  I was  beginning my eighth and final year at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, New York.  But our classroom had one empty seat that fall.  It belonged to my childhood friend, Peter.  He wasn’t present for the first attendance call.  And there was a very good reason.

His father was, probably one of the last, I might add, of the generation of family doctors who actually made house calls.  Dr. G., (we eighth graders were told) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He chose to close his practice and take his rather large family on a cross-country road trip–to see America–to show his children the Grand Canyon and all the sights that Americans should see in this unbelievable country of ours.

So, was that why I was on the road?  I think that a little bit of that memory of Peter and his family, drove me to make a grand loop through the amazing landscapes.  For sure, I wanted to see these places for myself, and to share the experiences with my wife, Mariam, but Peter’s childhood adventure–with its sad ending–was deeply buried in my psyche all the time.

We’re sitting on the Havell’s patio.  D’Arcy is burning brush and a rotting Adirondack Chair (here in Ohio…Ironic?).  I’m reclining on a chaise ( I had to blow away the ashes that had drifted down from the small bonfire).  I dozed.  It was warm.  I had unzipped my fleece vest and I dozed.  The last things I heard were the cardinals, taking the seeds at the feeder.

I dozed and began to see maps in my dreamy visions–maps–I had maps, more maps than the law allows.  I had studied the details of the maps for months…I had maps that had imbedded their images into my brain like the word food embeds into a dog’s brain.

I began to see routes, roads, byways, highways, scenic byways and unscenic thruways.  I began to recall the towns, the cities, the rest stops and the tourist traps I had seen and stopped at along the way…

There was the beginning:

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The two months in Floridia, where I learned to sail and Mariam lost ten pounds from sweating in the heat and humidity in the first two months:

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And, the points west, first in Natchez, Mississippi, where we attended a Baptist service on a Sunday morning and still get mailings from the members of the congregation.  Then, Vicksburg, where I met the wonderful Malory, at the Tomato Place…and toured the Battlefield, wondering why the deaths in those clay hills had to happen–onto Monroe, Louisiana, where I laid a flower on the grave of my very good friend–who died too young and too close to me:

MonroeMap

Then driving west and south to Dallas, Austin–where we spent time with Madeline and William and where I bought a pair of cowboy boots just to take lessons in the Texas 2-Step:

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Then to El Paso, and further west:

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And, further into the Great Desert:

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Then, the turn-around–eastward:

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CincinnatiMap

Finally, the last leg–the ending of an adventure that I may never have the chance to do again.  Oh, the places I’ve seen! Oh, the places where I could call home…

I regret missing the Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, hiking the Vermillion Cliffs, getting lost in the Superstition Mountains and finding destinations I haven’t even seen on the map yet.  Do I have time left to do all these things?

I know the country was there for Peter and his family to explore in 1960.  Fifty-six years later, it’s still there…but so many grey-haired guys like me are there too.  Where is the solitude?  Where is the real wilderness?

It’s all there, it’s all still there.  It’s just harder to find.  It’s so much much harder to find the kind of desolation and isolation I crave at this time in my life.  The quiet and unpeopled places are out there.  One just has to hike that four miles beyond the last signpost…that place beyond the last ATV track…that place where the old grey-haired guys like me are still looking for.

This post is loaded with maps and I hope you enjoyed them.  But, even as I say I love maps, I understand they are of limited use.  They show me where the roads are and where the paths end…but they don’t show where my own trail leads and where it will end.  Sometimes there are no maps where you need to be…where you should be and where you want to be.

I just hope I have the time and quality of life to go and discover.

[Map photos are taken from the National Geographic Mural Map of the U.S.A.]

 

The Warm Moon, Our Sixth Moon…The Hidden Moon

image

I waited until after midnight to go out of our r-pod to look up at the sixth full moon of our trip.  My weather app was correct, there would be a thick cloud cover tonight.

And there was.  For me, this was a first.  Since October, we had been favored by a clear sky.  The western sky is usually cloudless.

Last nights moon is known as the “warm moon.”  We just welcomed spring a few days ago.  There is warmth in the air but, for me, a certain sadness covers my thoughts.  Soon, we will be unpacking the RV and most likely prepare it for sale.  Our life, our days that have been unfolding with a new landscape with each new highway and each new town will now be as predictable as…the rising of the next full moon.

That will be on April 22.

We’ll be home and I will be watching, waiting for the Pink Moon.

Where will you be?

Has Enough Been Said About Burlap?

BurlapPurse

I would like to think that burlap is the next nylon.  True, no woman will get “oo la la’s” from sporting burlap, but let’s face it…nylon is so ’40’s!

I will also admit that burlap was never part of the black market trade during two World Wars, at least not in the books I’ve read.

But, one can do so much more with burlap than nylon.  And, I for one, think it’s time that this humble fabric got its just desserts.  You can haul around a sack of potatoes, or ears of corn in a burlap sack.  Try that with hosiery.  I, myself, have seen fifty pound bags (burlap) of peanuts in a little vegetable stand in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It was quite impressive.

A little background: Burlap is made of the skin of the jute plant.  Sometimes, its origin is sisal fibers.  Someday, I’ll look up the difference.  Another name for burlap is Hessian.  If you’re think of soldiers right now, your right on point.  It seems to have been used in the uniforms of the army of Landgraviate of Hesse.  (Germany, I would suppose).

Often its been described, rather crudely I may say, as a “coarse piece of cloth”.  Perhaps, but there’s so much more.  It’s very simplicity is the root of its attractiveness.

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And, its uses?  They are legion.  As I’ve said, large quantities of things can be carried around in burlap sacks.  If a flood has been predicted, its burlap sacks of sand that are used to stem the overflowing rivers.  Coffee?  Take a look around at the wall paper in the next Starbuck’s you sit in.

I found an indie coffee shop in Dodge City, Kansas recently.  (This is where I got the idea for writing about burlap, just in case you wonder where I get my inspirations).

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Burlap4

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Which bring me to Durango, Colorado.  I was searching for a real coffee shop (one that had burlap sacks stacked in the corners) when I chanced upon a touristy tee-shirt shop.  One hoodie that had “Purgatory, CO.” on the back simply had to be mine.  Now, being raised as a Catholic, I was taught by the nuns that everyone except saints, had to spend time in Purgatory for a final cleansing of our soiled soul. (I’ve been letting cars go first and slowed for pedestrians many times, hoping for a little time to be shaved off my bazillion year sentence).  I even thought of wearing a hair-shirt, a coarse garment, a sack-cloth…something made from…you guessed it.  Burlap!

There you have it.  In addition to a penitents outer wear, you can use burlap for wall coverings, table cloths, place mats, napkins and even shoulder bags.

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What else can one say about burlap?

You can order some on Amazon, I’m sure.

Shot Out Of A Cannon/Driving Until The Wheels Fall Off And Burn

Cottonwoodflowers

[The first day of Spring]

Lately, I’ve felt like I, the r-pod, the red Ford, Mariam and life in general have been shot out of a cannon.  Our departure from the desert southwest happened so fast, I somehow missed the line that I could point out, photograph, and say: “Well, there goes the desert…we’re in the midwest now.”

Indeed, the world of this:

MojaveHighway

…changed into this before I could think of something to say:

Clovers

Yes, I missed that line that separates the two geographic anchors of my life.  My home in the North Country of New York State–and the engaging, terrifying and empty beauty of the arid lands.  I’ve said it before–The Empty Quarter.

So, I’m sitting in the r-pod, on the first day of Spring.  In two nights, I will see the fifth full moon rise–the fifth time I’ve looked eastward and waited for the big orange orb ascend.  I don’t think I’ll have time to write a killer blog on this fifth moon (we will be on the road) so I’ll just say that it was close to full the other night I took this:

NearFullMoon

In this way, with the setting sun at our backs, we crossed the Missouri River just after leaving Kansas City.  After a night in Columbia, Missouri, we finally caught sight of the Arch of St. Louis.  The Arch represents the Gateway to the West, but we were coming out of the west.  So, for us, it’s the Gateway to More Familiar Terrains–home.

We visited Union Station, once the largest train station in America.  When I was there in 1989, the interior was a bustling and crowded shopping mall.  Now, the stores were empty and yellow tape blocked the escalators and hallways.  I asked someone about what happened and was told that it was going through a renovation.  I hope so.  The interior is stunning.  There is a Doubletree Hotel located in the front portion of the terminal.  The grand hallway, that now serves as a spacious lounge and bar, was jaw-dropping in its beauty.  I saw stained glass:

StainedGlass

…a ceiling that had a fabulous light show every hour…

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I looked up at two statues, females that held lamps, high and proud…

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I wondered if her bronze arms ever tired of holding the lamps so majestically…

I wondered if my arms will cease feeling the grip of the steering wheel.  I wondered if I will sit on my back deck in a few weeks and be thankful for where I am and for what I’ve seen…or will I yearn for the Yucca and the Joshua tree?  Will the Adirondack trees push in on me?  Will I wonder what the heat of Death Valley will be like in June?  Will I swat the infamous Black Fly and wish for a scorpion instead?

Will I ever be satisfied standing still?

Part of me wants to turn around and drive back into the desert, face my worries, think my thoughts and sing:

“Tumbling Tumbleweeds…..”

 

The Forever Road Turns East

KansasTreeRutsTripLarned

[Near Fort Lenard, Kansas]

I didn’t write the following paragraph, but I wish to the eternal sky that I did…

Look out from the mountains edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert’s face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and the mountain-ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights, Warm drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery–that haunting sense of the unknown–is all that remains. It is time we should say good-night–perhaps a long good-night–to the desert.

These are the words of John C. Van Dyke in his 1901 book, The Desert.  It is part of an anthology that I am reading, The New Desert Reader, edited by Peter Wild.  An excellent collections of historical and recent reflections on the mystique aura that is the Great American Desert.  I read this while I am tucked snugly into the R-pod, after several hundred miles of driving on the endless road…the Forever Road.

VermillionCliffs

[The Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona]

As the trip odometer on the Ford clicked over another tenth of a mile at 44.4 miles from Dodge City, Kansas, I pulled the last of the iced coffee through the straw.  The morning sun had been glaring down on and warming up my icy brew for about thirty minutes.  The sun is strong here in the Great Plains–the prairie–now that spring is approaching and even my Starbucks thermal mug, decorated with a few stickers (I had removed the “Don’t Mess With Texas” label…too big!) couldn’t keep ice being ice for very long.

I stared at the road ahead of me.  We’ve been traveling since mid-October.  The road seems endless.  The road seems to go on forever.  The road is infinite for those who choose to drive it–like the surface of a basketball is infinite to an ant crawling on its surface.  One could go on until The Rapture (expected by some to occur some Thursday afternoon in a few months).

In a few days we will be crossing the Mississippi River.  “Big Muddy” separates the west from the east.  Behind us–can I still see them in the rear-view mirror?–are the waterless gulches and salt flats of Death Valley, the Full Moon of Joshua Tree National Park, the Buttes of Monument Valley, the shockingly painted Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona, the terrifying beauty of the canyon of the Virgin River in Zion National Park and the vast and forbidding mother of deserts, the Mojave.

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[The road into the Mojave from Twenty-nine Palms, CA]

HurricaneUtahButte

[Near Hurricane, Utah]

MonumentValley

[Monument Valley, Utah]

4Corners

[Mariam and me at Four Corners]

It’s all behind us now.  And, I am sad at the thought that it may be a few years before I return, return to try to comprehend the comfort I took in those emptiest of places.  Collectively, the locations we visited in the southwest, attract me like a colossal lodestone.

As one who was born and raised in the northeast part of America, I was used to green in the summer, scarlet leaves in the fall and the white of snow during the shortest days of the year.  It shocked me to realize that there was more grass in my backyard in Owego, New York, than in 10,000 acres of the Nevada desert.

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[Hiking the Watchman Trail, Zion National Park, Utah]

At night, the sky was visible from horizon to horizon–half my field of vision–and filled with more stars than I have ever seen (with a few exceptions).

I spent this day trying to find something to fix my eye on.  Is it an exaggeration to say that the Kansas prairie stretches so far that you can discern the curvature of the earth?  Maybe.  Yes, I tried to find something to focus on except the endless road, the white or yellow lines, and the sky.

I drove through the Wolf Creek Pass and paused at the Continental Divide at approximately 10,000 feet.  Out here, the tallest structures I can see–and I can see them twenty miles before I speed past them–are grain silos.

There were times, in the last few weeks, I felt that I could have been walking on the surface of Mars–the red desert–or sitting on a lunar landscape.  Now, with each passing mile, the backyards, malls, fast-food outlets and football fields are beginning to look more and more familiar.

The prairie is quite fascinating in itself, but the deserts of California and Nevada and Arizona have the bonus of being ringed by mountains.  I’ve read that when the Plains Indians were forced to move to reservations in Arkansas and Nebraska, they nearly went mad from the monotony of a featureless landscape.  It’s been said that these once noble masters of the deserts took to climbing trees to see–just see–as far as their eye could allow.  But, no mountains were in view.

I’m going home.  One of the first things I intend to do is watch the 1936 film, The Garden of Allah, with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich.  In it, the Boyer character, suffering a crisis of faith, goes to the Sahara to search his soul for truth and meaning.  There he finds Dietrich, but that’s another story.  It’s what Count Anteoni, says to Boyer that sticks in my mind:

“A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert.”

I’m going home.  It’s time to say good-bye to the barren and arid earth of the Great Empty.  But, to me, those places seem as interesting and limitless in their beauty as any Garden of Eden or Garden of Allah.

I like a place where a man can swing his arms…

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[Sunset in Arizona]

A Short Walk Up Boot Hill

 

SoiledDove1

[An unknown prostitute of Dodge City]

My reason for being on the road for so long has a great deal to do with my growing dislike of the winters of the North Country.  It also enables me to wander and explore my interests.  I love history, I am attracted to stories of the pioneer days, the cattle drives, the lives of the Native Americans and white settlers on the prairie, the exploration, the hardships and the state of life, love and death in the Old West.

I’m also fascinated with the human stories of individuals that never made the popular history books…those who came into this country with hopes and dreams and expectations.  The lives of people who live on the edges of society are compelling to me because they are so human, and therefore, so flawed and full of missteps and errors and simple bad luck.  Clearly, the life of a woman in these cattle towns is the stuff of myths and stories, real and fictional, romanticized and ugly, and sad.

Those interests brought me to Dodge City, Kansas, a legendary city that sits on the famous Santa Fe Trail.  The 1870’s were a time of cattle drives, lawlessness and violence.  The law was not a strong presence in the dirt streets or along the boardwalks.  This is the time of the development of the myths about Dodge as we know them today through films and TV shows.

That’s what took me to the Boot Hill Museum on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.  I paid my $9.00 entrance fee and found the path to the “real” Boot Hill cemetery.

I had done my homework.  I knew who I was looking for.  I wanted to lay a single flower on the graves of the three “soiled doves” who were reputed to be buried among the gamblers, killers, buffalo hunters and gamblers.

I felt like a dusty cowboy striding into the Long Branch and asking for the affections of one of the “girls upstairs”.  Instead, I was climbing a small rise, a block from the Boulevard, to find myself inside a sparse burying-ground, fenced in to hide the view from the traffic on the street.

It took a little searching.  Few of the original markers remained.

I was looking for Dora Hand.  She was the lover of the mayor of Dodge.  She was also the woman who was fancied by one “Spike” Kenedy, a cowboy.  To teach the mayor a lesson (and to ‘free’ Dora from the clutches of the old guy), this fellow rode by the house of the mayor and fired a bullet.  The slug went through the mattress of a friend of Dora who was spending the night.  The lead continued into the next room and killed poor Dora instantly.  The mayor was visiting Fort Dodge…he wasn’t even home.  She was the victim of a ride-by shooting…perhaps the first.  She died on October 4, 1878.

I was looking for Alice Chambers.  The cause of death?  I never learned that.  I don’t know what brought her to her death-bed where she uttered her last words: “Circumstances led me to this end” on May 5, 1878.

I was looking for Lizzie Palmer.  To me, hers is the saddest tale.  Apparently she loved Bat Masterson.  So did another dance hall girl.  There was a bar-room brawl.  Lizzie died a few days later from an infection that set in after she was cut on the head.  Her death date is unknown.  What is known is that Reverend Ormond Wright spoke the blessed words at her burial.  He was a second choice.  The first preacher who was approached, refused to offer his prayers for her soul.

So much for the mercy of the good Christian man of the cloth.

I bent over and placed a small wildflower at each of the graves.  At Lizzie’s marker, I ran my finger over my shoes and was amazed at the amount of dust that had collected on the tan leather.

But, it got me to reflecting on dust.  These unfortunate women, in this profession by reasons unknown to me, were by now, dust.

Maybe the dry earth and the shallow grave still holds the thin and fragile bones of these three “tainted ladies”, these “soiled doves”, these lost and lonely souls.

SoiledDove2

[Another unknown Dodge City prostitute]

[Images are mine.  I took the photos of posters on the wall in the Boot Hill Museum]

 

A Rock, A Pumpkin And The Grateful Dead

“May I top you up?”

                      –Anonymous bartender.

“You can’t top that!”

     –Patrick Egan

People like to put things on top of things.  Nature likes to just leave things where they were put originally.

I remember one afternoon, in mid-October, 1997, (if you need something more precise).  Mariam and I were visiting my brother, Dan, at his newish house on a hill just south of Ithaca, NY.  He asked:

“Did you hear about the pumpkin?”

The pumpkin?  Is there a special pumpkin?”

“Yes, the one on top of the McGraw Tower Spire, on the campus of Cornell University.  Someone managed to get a hallowed out pumpkin on the very top of the spire.  No one knows how it was done, and no one has taken credit for doing it.  Right now, the main suspects are Engineering majors.  Want to see it?”

He reached for his TV remote and clicked on a community access channel set up by someone in the technology department.  It’s called a “webcam”.  The camera is fixed on the top of the spire so people can see the pumpkin.”

There it was, a pumpkin (later estimated to weigh about sixty pounds) sitting on the tip of one of the main spires on Cornell’s beautiful campus.

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[Source: Google search]

This coming October, the prank will celebrating its 19th anniversary.  It’s listed as one of the top five college pranks in history, according to a Web search.  To this day, no one has claimed to be responsible.  And, how it was done remains a mystery.

I’ll have to admit, it looked pretty cool up there, a giant orange sphere, crowning a majestic tower.  But, like I said, how it was done is still a mystery.  The slate roof is very steep, there were no sounds of helicopters.  It made the Networks and enjoyed six months of fame before it came crashing down during an attempt to remove it.

A small piece of it sits in an office of a Professor of Psychology…that is the last word I could find on it.

I remember, when I was a child playing with blocks, I tried to see how high I could stack the assorted shapes until they fell.  I think my record was about 3 1/2 feet!  Not bad for an 8-year old.

But, the pumpkin was quite a feat.  Unequalled in its originality.

A few days ago, we were driving through southern Utah.  We had spent the night in Monument Valley and we were passing through a cool little village named Mexican Hat.

“Interesting name,” said Mariam.

A few minutes later, as we made our way to western Colorado, we passed a spectacular rock formation.  It was a “balancing rock” and it resembled a sombrero.

“So much for the strange name for that town,” I said.

I took a few photos.  I stared at it and it seemed to me like it was moments away from falling.  Would I witness such a thing?  I walked gently back to the car…I didn’t want my foot steps to move the cap rock and destroy this awesome natural rock formation.

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[Further away than it looks]

It didn’t look real in a way.  How could nature alone keep that rock balanced there?  I knew the general geological idea; a more erosion resistant rock sat on a column of more easily eroded sedimentary rock.

The beauty of this rock was in its color, its location among the stratified rocks, and its delicacy.  It’s very existence was precarious.  A small earthquake and its gone forever.

I thought about the pumpkin atop the spire at Cornell.  Some very bright individuals found a way to accomplish that feat.  But, here, in the barren landscape of Utah, was something that just sat in one place for tens of thousands of years while the wind and water took away its sandstone base.  Nature does that.  It has a breathless way of creating scenery that could never be painted, piled, constructed, engineered or sculpted by the hand of a human.

Nature exists without us and resists our attempts to make it more spectacular.  We are modern beings who are mere observers.  We drive through a place or walk a path and see what the earth has done…by doing nothing, simply being.

We’re strangers here, even though we came from these very elements that make up the ground we leave our tracks on.  Our natural states have left most of us.  From what I’ve seen on my travels, there are only a handful of individuals who truly make an attempt to blend into the environment…I’ve yet to actually meet these rare individuals…but I’m sure they’re out there.  People who have taken the time and made the effort to leave the car behind and walk into places off the paved byways.

I’m convinced that the Native Americans were quite well attuned to the natural world as they saw and experienced it.  For some reason, I thought about a few lines in the Grateful Dead song, Ripple.  The words are by Robert Hunter.  The music is by Jerry Garcia:

“Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow…

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go, no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone…”

 A pumpkin on top of a Cornell spire.  A majestic rock, balanced on a sandstone column in Utah.  A child’s stack of wooden blocks.  A Grateful Dead song about one’s journey through life and seeing ripples in a pond…ripples began by nothing.  It all comes together in a strange way.  At least I think so.

Nothing, of course, is not really the proper word.  The natural world contains more unbelievable phenomena than you could possibly see in a thousands lifetimes.

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[A closer look]