Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

Hidden Treasures: Long Beach Harbor

P1020543docLong Beach Harbor is a treasure hiding in plain site.  I had done business in Long Beach, gone to its convention center, been through its airport and seen its container shipping port from above.  But who knew that beyond the commercial façade is a redeveloped harborside rivalling Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with a miles-long bike/pedestrian path rivalling that of Venice Beach?

We stayed at the harbor by accident.  We were on our way to Catalina and stopped over in Long Beach the night before.  My Personal Travel Agent had done his usual excellent research, and we ended up at the Hotel Maya (part of the xxx chain, but don’t let that put you off.)  The Maya is an unusual collection of buildings, creatively architected so as to faintly evoke Mayan pyramids, while offering each room a view of the harbor from its balcony.  It is a bit of a maze to negotiate, but the views are great.  If you don’t like your balcony, you can take your evening glass of wine down to the beach, where a staff member is charged with lighting the fire pits in the evening.

20150322_064723webThe restaurant at the Maya exceeds all expectations, with an outdoor deck looking out at that harbor view, and some of the best scallops we ate in a decadent week of eating scallops. P1020548web

A stroll along the beach front promenade gave us a good view of the parties going on – a wedding where the bride and her maids were flaunting shapely gams through slit skirts, a black and white ball where the person we mistook for the bride was most likely neither getting married nor even female, as  the ball was sponsored by the LBTG alliance.P1020550web

The next morning we ate a leisurely breakfast and headed over to take a look at the Queen Mary docked just down the beach.  This proud lady of the seas is now reduced to being a tourist museum featuring Princess Diana, but she still looks a lot more elegant with her rakishly slanted smokestacks than the clunky Carnival cruiser parked next to her, a floating hotel complete with water slide.20150322_101952_1cropweb

Our last look at Long Beach Harbor took us to the ferry boat dock past a shopping arcade arfully crafted to evoke an old-style Playland-at-the-Beach.  The ferris wheel was real, the roller coaster was really a pedestrian bridge leading into the arcade. Sadly, our ferry beckoned.  I can hardly wait to go back to Long Beach to find out what is at the other end of that roller coaster bridge.

Hidden Treasures: Car-free carefree Catalina

 

20150324_092816docBefore William Randolph Hearst transformed a remote family campsite into a private Gothic Dreamcastle, before Walt Disney transformed an orange plantation into a fairy-tale theme park, there was Santa Catalina Island.  In the 1920’s it was mostly scrub, used occasionally as the setting for Western movies. (Leftover bison still roam the interior).  Then William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate had a vision. He bought Catalina Island and created an art-deco enclave , added the west’s first professional baseball team as an attraction, (the Wrigley – owned Chicago Cubs came across the country for their spring training), and invited the public to come. . The island is open to anyone who can get there, by ferry, by private boat, by plane, or you can, as the Four Preps famously sung, “swim with just some water wings and my guitar.”20150323_092507web

Wrigley wasn’t the first to build a resort on Santa Catalina Island, but he had the money to buy out his predecessor after a fire leveled half of the main town of Shatto (named for the previous owner). He renamed and recreated the town as Avalon, started up a ceramic factory with produced the  omni-present tiles and ceramics which set the theme of the town, and crowned the effort by building the Casino (“gathering place” in Italian). The Casino includes a theatre whose decor was designed by the same artist who created Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It also includes a ballroom with the largest hardwood dance floor in the US. THe whole thing is circular in shape and topped with a tiny little cupola which formerly housed a beacon guiding boats into the harbor. I’ve never seen another building remotely like it.

20150322_115128web In the 20’s and 30’s Santa Catalina was a getaway haven for Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Humbphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Wayne. Winston Churchill came here to fish for marlin. During the war Errol Flynn sailed here and was arrested for indecent behavior. Norma Jean Dougherty lived here with her merchant marine husband Jim, years before she became Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood drowned here. The little Catalina Island museum is full of cinema history,

Access to Wrigley’s island is by ferry, helicopter, or private plane. There are almost no cars on the island. Transportation is mainly by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. The resort area included a lot of what you might see in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba diving, although the beaches are skimpy and the water is chilly.   Outside of the resort area of Avalon, the island is a nature preserve, harboring kit foxes, bald eagles, and the afore-mentioned buffalo. Hiking, camping and biking in the back country is by permit. Jeep tours are available, but pricey ($72/person for a 6 hour tour.) 20150323_120629web

So, you ‘d like to visit Tuscany but you hate long plane flights? You can experience the picturesque village of Avalon clinging to the steep hillsides of Catalina. You love the desert atmosphere and beach vibe of Cabo San Lucas but your passport has expired?  Hike the back country of Catalina and take in the 360 degree views of ocean and harbor from the heights of the island.  You just want to get away, bask in the sun, and eat great food?  Avalon has lots of sunshine and chaise lounges for basking, plus excellent food from fish tacos on the pier to high-end California Fusion at the Avalon Grill.

What are you waiting for?

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Hidden Treasures: A Redwood Forest without the Crowds

20150303_143851docYou remember your last trip to Muir Woods in Northern California.  You remember the stately redwoods soaring into the blue sky – or the fog, depending on the season.  You remember walking on the boardwalk between the trees feeling as though you were at the feet of giants. It was awesome in the old-fashioned sense.

But you probably also remember the twisty 2-lane road to Muir Woods, following behind a diesel-powered tour bus, with maybe a couple of kids in the back whimpering “Mommy, Daddy, I don’t feel so good.  And you remember the fruitless search for a parking place in the cramped lot, and finally finding a place along the narrow road nearly a mile from the entrance, and the long walk (maybe with a couple of kids) to the park and then the somehow longer walk (maybe with tired kids) back to the car, and that twisty road.  And you remember the other people crowding the boardwalk, waiting in line to take a picture of the kids next to the tallest tree, waiting in line for the restrooms, waiting in line to buy a postcard. Muir Woods is up to 6000 visitors a day.

But wait!  There are other redwoods in the San Francisco area.  And many of them are easier to get to, have larger parking lots, and no lines.  I’m not talking about Hendy Woods State Park (road even twistier, and too far from the Bay Area.)  I’m not even talking about Big Basin (still a two hour drive from anywhere, and mosquitoes!)

20150303_142948webI’m talking about Henry Cowell Redwoods near Felton in Santa Cruz County, just over the Coast Range from Silicon Valley via four-lane freeway for most of the way. Henry Cowell has the spectacular trees, has the shaded paths between behemoths, has the fog and the ferns depending on the season.  But look at this picture of the parking lot.  Empty parking spaces!  And no tour buses!20150303_144032web

On  a recent visit the sun filtered greenly down between the cathedral-high branches of the redwoods.  The light reflected even more green from the wood sorrel and fern carpeting the ground by the path.  The moss-covered logs and bay trees almost glowed with a green so intense that I felt as though I was walking under water.  The quiet was so deep that I could  hear the fall of a leaf.  Along another section of the path the San Lorenzo River burbled  between sandy banks. A dozen narrow footpaths showed where children and their parents had given in to the temptation to test the water during the summer.  On this spring weekday afternoon I was the only person in sight.

On a weekend the park is a bit more bustling, partly because of the activity just next door (literally a fence-hop away) at Felton’s Roaring Camp Railroad.  If those kids need corralling after rambling through the redwoods, a ride on a steam train up to a second redwood grove might be just the thing.  And if you are lucky they will sleep all the way home.

 

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Hidden Treasures: A Park Discovery in a Place I Thought I Knew

spring wadersI have lived in the same town for most of my life.  I brought up my children in this town, and thought I knew every corner of the place that might amuse them on a slow weekend.  Yet only a few days ago I explored a hidden cranny that I had never known about.  Maybe it wasn’t there when I was growing up.  Maybe the trail and boardwalk and odd artwork were part of some recent urban development windfall project. There was no memorial plaque or park information pamphlet to tell me the history of Redwood Grove and its abandoned Nature Center.

My husband and I wanted to stretch our legs, so we went to the nearest city park,  tiny oasis in a dell off one of the town’s oldest streets,  named for our town’s founder.  Shoup Park has a little playground for tots,  a  climbing structure for older kids, and a corny and badly executed war memorial showing a soldier holding a baby in a way that no baby could ever be held securely unless it was already in a state of rigor mortis. It also has a 50’s era building used for meetings, misnamed “Garden House” as there is no garden visible anywhere. , with inadequate parking .  It has a large main room, a stage and a kitchen,  poor insulation, an antique furnace, and inadequate parking.    On the far side of the Garden House is a group picnic area with a 50’s era concrete barbecue and picnic tables.

It’s a pretty boring park, but there is a creek that after a good rain burbles nicely, inviting children to get wet.  On this day there had been a rain, so we went behind the group picnic area to check out the creek.  We saw a gap in the fence we had never noticed before.20150220_162304web

Through the gap and another world opened up.  We were  in a dell below the level of neighboring fence-in back yards.  We passed an eccentric ceramic sculpture adorning what looked like a sewer access.  No name, no plaque, no explanation – it was just there.

The creek meandered through second-growth redwoods between banks carpeted with ivy and ferns.  Sunlight filtered through the trees. The path became a boardwalk which wandered randomly beside or over the creek Along one meandering curve an erosion restraint had been built out of woven willow branches – true functional art.

Functional art We came to a clearing in the grove of trees, set back from the creek.  There was an abandoned house, with boarded up windows.  A sign said “Redwood Grove Nature Center”, but access had long since been denied.  We heard giggles, then some thumping.  A back-pack sailed over the fence which sealed off access to the back courtyard of the center.  The backpack was followed by four agile teen-agers who had obviously been unable to resist exploring the hidden whatever behind the fence. The quartet split up;  we followed the girls who disdained the boardwark and path, preferring to wade in the creek on a balmy February day.

I thought wistfully of my kids, now grown up and responsible.  They would have loved to hop that fence and wade in that creek. I hope it is still there for my grandchildren to discover one day.20150220_162136web

Aliens Among Us (LATC February 4, 2015

Adolphin4 friend invited me  to go whale-watching outside Monterey Bay during the migration of the gray whales along the “Whale Highway”  which stretches along the California coast from Alaska to Cabo San Lucas.whalemigration

graywhaletailShortly after leaving the shelter of the bay, we spotted plumes of vapor not far off – at least a dozen whales, a “mega-pod”, were swimming together, blowing off vapor, and diving in rough synchronization.  As we approached, we could see the backs of the whales, scarred by barnacles, but glistening silver-gray in the sun.  The whales exhaled, one after another, or two at a time,  sending  fountains of white spray into the clear air. Then they dived, one by one slithering their huge bulk in an arc as they bent toward the bottom of the sea, than at the end flipping their heart-shaped flukes up into the air as if waving farewell.  It was like a dance.  We waited and watched – where would they come up next? A shout – “6 o’clock! Behind us” and the performance was repeated. “”10 o’clock! On our left!” and again the aquatic dance.  Why was this group of whales gathered together? The on-board naturalist had no clue. “It’s not usual to find so many in one group.”  We watched and wondered.whalespout

Finally the boat went on – there was more to see. “There’s a big school of dolphins up ahead – maybe they’ll come to play with the boat.”  In a moment we were surrounded by hundreds of hurtling gray shapes – needle-nosed dolphins barreling through the water next to the boat, dodging in and out of the bow wave, surfing in the wake, racing alongside the boat in huge leaps which sent them flying out of the water.  “If the water were rougher they’d ignore us,” said the guide, “but when it’s calm like today they get bored, and the boat is like a big toy to them.”  Could this be true? Or was he just ascribing human-like motives to these gray bullets? Why were there hundreds of dolphins in this one small space of ocean?  He had no clue.

rissos-dolphin1As we headed back toward the bay, the boat detoured to observe some Rossi’s dolphins, a very different sort.  These are stately silver swimmers, with a vertical dorsal fin and a rounded bullet head. The Rossi’s dolphins don’t leap from the water, don’t race each other, but swim smoothly along at a steady pace, paying no attention to our boat. “They mind their own business and want us to keep our distance,” said the naturalist.  But what is their business?  And why are they so unafraid, yet so aloof?

I read with bemusement about our astronomers’ search for alien life on other planets.  Most marine scientists seem to believe that dolphins and whales have enough brain tissue to have evolved what we would call reasoning, and that they communicate with each other through complex sonar systems.  How can we hope to recognize and interact with intelligent aliens on other planets when we understand so little about the intelligent aliens on our own?

Things to do now that Football is Finally Finished

20150130_161859webFootball season is over!  No more sitting in a cave watching pixels flash on a TV monitor while the sun is shining outside and all your vertebrae beg to be un-squished from that armchair!  What will you do with all this free time? Here are some ideas to get you started.  (Full disclosure:  we are not football addicts so we had a head start on alternatives!)20150125_115440web

 

Why not? Take public transportation to the city. Feel the freedom of not having that 2000 lb anchor dragging you into dark dank parking garages too far from where you really want to be. And there are great possibilities for people – watching.  (Can you see the little blond girl in pink sitting on her mother’s lap beyond the bicycle?  I missed the shot of her flopped upside down, hair streaming almost to the floor, as she solemnly regarded the world from a different point of view, but the memory gives me a smile every time.)

 

The Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, San Francisco

 

Why not? Eat at a restaurant you have never tried before. This is the Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, whose décor oddly evokes a ski lodge.  I wish I had stopped to take a picture of the delectable poached eggs on avocado toast which I was served here, but I was hungry and devoured them before I thought.  (They serve the breakfast menu all day.)

20150125_124259webWhy not? Check out a small specialized museum’s feature exhibit. This is the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco.  The excellent exhibit on Yosemite is closed now, but their next exhibit will feature the Pan-Pacific Exhibition of 1915 which gave us the Palace of Fine Arts and Treasure Island.  I think it’s a don’t miss! The exhibit hall also features a graceful staircase to the inaccessible second floor.  A plaque informs us that this is the Nancy Pelosi Staircase, as she first announced her candidacy for the US House of Representatives from this stairway. History is everywhere!

20150201_143932web Why not? Go for a walk in the woods. These twisted trees seem almost to be dancing in the sun next to the Crystal Springs trail in Huddart County Park on the Peninsula.

 

 

Why Not? Check out some public art.  The two figures are emerging from the walls of the Millbrae BART station.  The non-representational structure above graces a lawn at Stanford University.

Celebrate!

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January 8 – To Celebrate Today

One of my informal resolutions for the year is to try to find something, however small, to celebrate each day.  Thursday was a day particularly rich in small beauties and achievements – here is the list I jotted down that evening:

Jogging around the neighborhood this AM – squads of people driving to work, moms and dads shepherding their kids to school, some kids non-escorted walking seriously eyes averted from “stranger danger.”

Helped Mom figure out how to print an envelope on her printer (Where IS the upper cassette?)

Lunch at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero – warming fish chowder and an excellent spinach salad. Checked out the quaint general store and deli and the vintage stuff for sale in the coffee shop (Ancient LP:The Beatles – England’s #1 musical sensation!)Pescaderosurfer

Then to Pescadero State Beach, watched a surfer catch a perfectly cylindrical wave and ride it at least a hundred yards up the beach.

On the way home, a flock of wild turkeys grazing the pasture at Filoli, a small herd of deer in Arastradero Preserve.

wild turkey

Chinese class, with technology and FaceTime bridging the gap between California and Colorado, where my teacher is having a month of skiing in between keeping our lessons going.

A very lovely dinner at Mom’s, cooked by her caregivers, but under her supervision, followed by good conversation about ideas, things we had been reading. A bravura performance for my mother at 93!

Home to a warm fire and making plans to go to San Francisco for lunch and some museums. Settled down with an unexpectedly good book of essays by Ann Patchett (The Story of a Happy Marriage – many essays on writing – my sweet spot!) with Smetana’s “The Moldau” burbling in the background .

Celebrate!

 

You May Have Already Won! (LATC September 2014)

 

EsteroBondThere is something irresistible in the idea of buried treasure brought to light. We love to hear about the dusty picture in the attic that turns out to be a genuine Rembrandt, the stock certificate in the bottom of the neglected safe deposit box that has been accumulating stock splits and dividends for decades, the costume jewelry purchased at a garage sale that turns out to be genuine diamonds. We all want to star on ”Antiques Roadshow.”

I was excited when I visited my mother’s safety deposit box with her in February, and found buried in the bottom a copy of an elaborately engraved coupon bond issued by the Estero Municipal Improvement District with a face value of $1000, a due date of July 1, 1999, and 4 unredeemed coupons still attached.

With visions of compounding interest dancing in my head like sugarplums, I contacted the City of Foster City, which had issued the bond. After numerous letters and phone calls (the bond redemption had been managed by a bank which had merged with another bank which had sold the business to a third bank which had escheated the bond as unclaimed property to the state of California which had lost the record in their data base) my mother finally got her check for the exact face value of the bond and unredeemed coupons. (No sugarplums!) I figured I earned just below the minimum wage for my effort.

Sadder but wiser, I was skeptical when my brother sent me a link to a website listing unclaimed property by state. “ I read an article in the newspaper about this site, ran Dad’s name and came up with a list of unclaimed money. Check it out!”

Of course, I couldn’t resist. But all the listings were in Texas, and required proof that Dad had invested in the companies listed, plus copies of his and Mom’s social security cards and proof that at one time they legally resided at the address listed on the claim.  Since the total was only $38.18 for all 7 claims, I gave it up – no bonanza here for me. (The site is http://www.missingmoney.com )Let me know if you strike it rich!)

Hope springs eternal. When clearing out my late mother-in-law’s house I saved several Japanese woodblock prints that she had framed inexpensively and hung in her bedroom. When I got them home I checked the internet. They might be valuable originals! After all, she and her husband had spent some time in Japan in the early 60’s. But again, they might be calendar art. I missed the San Jose filming of “Antiques Roadshow” so the jury is still out.

It’s almost more fun not knowing for sure.

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The Roadside Diner – An American Classic (LATC August 2014)

20140620_KIngsChef2_webFrom what I saw on our recent back-roads trip across the country, the United States has NOT become one homogenized culture from East to West – it only looks that way from the Interstates. And though California has harvested much of the best of the East in creating the mix of cuisines, traditions, and cultures we call Californian, we did leave a few good things out. One of the missing pieces: the diner.

The classic diner was a castoff railroad diner cars, clad in aluminum outside, and featuring big windows so you could monitor the passers-by on the street, a tiny kitchen, red-vinyl upholstered booths and a red Formica counter trimmed in aluminum, with red-vinyl upholstered stools along the counter. To the joy of children everywhere, the stools could spin. Fortunately, the diner also had waitresses of a certain age, who might be named Edna or Mildred or Gertie, but who could be counted on to tell children (and their parents, too) to stop fooling around and eat their vegetables.

Avenue Diner, G,BurgWe had breakfast on the day of our East Coast departure at the Avenue Diner. We faced platefuls of eggs, potatoes, and bacon that would have daunted a lumberjack. As we leaned back midway, we noticed a buff gray-haired guy in a Marine Corps muscle shirt and steel-studded belt paying for his coffee just over the partition. It was Stephen Lang, the villainous Marine colonel from “Avatar”, in town to do a one-man dramatic show at the local Art Fest. We were star-struck, but the waitresses at the Avenue Diner didn’t miss a beat at having a celebrity stroll in for coffee.

As cast-off railway dining cars became scarce, the diner evolved. It moved next to the hotel downtown as an inexpensive alternative to the hotel restaurant. It called itself a Coffee Shop, or even a Café. On the second day of our trip we passed up the swank historically-preserved Bremerhasset Hotel dining room and opted for the Crystal Café just across the street.

At the Crystal Café, breakfast for two came to $13 including tip. The café was cheerful and clean, with lots of coffee mugs with regular patron’s names on them hanging on hooks behind the counter, and an honor library shelf circling the room with books in easy reach. The pretty young waitress was probably not named Mildred or Edna, but she was able to juggle orders, coffee cups, and questions from regulars and newbies with great aplomb.

In Colorado Springs we wanted an early start, so we stopped downtown at the King’s Chef Diner, touted locally as offering “the best breakfast in the state of Colorado.” The honor library here featured a lot of castoff comic books, and the clientele was an intriguing mix of military guys in buzz cuts and street people with day-glo hair and pierced body parts. The host and waitress treated us with great deference, as exotic creatures who had wandered far from our ecological niche. I ordered the featured breakfast burrito. “Are you sure you want the sauce?” the waitress asked me anxiously. “It’s pretty spicy.” I assured her I could handle it. For a brief second I thought she was going to over-rule me in true diner fashion, but she must have been only a trainee.King's Chef Diner  CO Sprngs

By the time the diner reached California it had mutated, adding sheltered parking, a drive-up window, and even putting the waitresses on roller skates. The drive-in’s did well for a while until the national chains muscled in. One by one they have disappeared, to my regret.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see me enjoying patio seating at the local coffee shops and patisseries. But I miss having  a take-charge waitress reminding me to eat my vegetables.

 

The Hollow Towns (LATC July 2014)

 
 
The Great WAll of Los Altos
 
My husband and I recently took a backroads trip across the country. We avoided the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible, choosing instead the old US highways which usually pass right down the main streets of whatever population centers are strung along their path.  Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go.  And the downtown businesses which comprised the community core then wither, and their buildings rot, and there is no there there.
 
Often, very often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem.  In the 50’s and 60’s it was imagined to be all about parking.  People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought.  So the city managers gutted the city center,tearing down the historic structures which gave it personality, and replaced those structures with parking lots. 
 
Hotel Blemerhasset, Parkersburg WVI’m talking about Parkersburg, West Virginia. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire (if it was a church) or a clock tower (if it was a civic building),  The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “… abandoned in the 50’s.” “…gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time.” “…razed unceremoniously in the 70’s despite citizen and local historian’s outraged protest.”  I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out.  Parking lots, all. And all empty.  Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
 
I’m talking about Sunnyvale, California. In the 1950’s Murphy Avenue was the main street of Sunnyvale, and boasted a department store and a number of other retail shops.  Adjacent to Murphy Avenue was a  Town and Country Village shopping center, with wide overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.  But in the 60’s competition from the new Stanford Mall was extreme.  So the city fathers decided to create the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so they cut off Murphy Avenue and converted it to a parking lot for the new mall.  Fifty years later the Town and Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Centre struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are almost impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages.  Against all odds, the three block vestige of Murphy Avenue is pulsing with lively restaurants and shops.  There is little else there.Murphy Avenue
 
I’m not talking about my own hometown of Los Altos… yet.  But when I approach Main Street on the expressway which replaced the railroad tracks along First Street,  I worry.  Formerly drivers on the expressway could glance over and look down Main Street and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920’s era buildings, they could take the next exit and follow their urge to explore.  But that’s not going to happen any more.  There is a four story Great Wall which barricades the town against any casual glance.  The Great Wall of Los Altos includes two huge new apartment complexes and “one of only two podium-style Safeway markets in the state.” (Podium – style means parking on the first floor, shopping  in a high-ceilinged market at the tope of an escalator, and storage on the floors above.)
 No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it.  If fewer people shop in Los Altos in the next months and years, it’s not because of the lack of parking.  It’s because they will have no way to know what is there.
The Great Wall - Section 2

 

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