Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Travel”

The Plight of the Trees

Dying redwoods in the median strip

Dying redwoods in the median strip

The combination of age and water conservation measures is taking its toll all around my neighborhood.  There are dead and dying trees on every street. Particularly sad are the landscape trees which were planted years ago when Los Altos was a new development, chosen for their rapid growth with no thought to their natural requirements, maintained for decades with irrigation, and now left to fend for themselves in an unnatural habitat.

Many of the redwood trees which tower along our major roads are slowly turning brown at the tips of their branches.  Growth rings on redwood trees show that they have survived drought periods as long as 200 years in duration, but not on the eastern side of the Coast Range.  Redwoods are adapted to get moisture from morning fog.  Deprived of their morning fog drink and  of  irrigation , they are struggling.

The Monterey pines are in even worse shape.   In native stands on the California central coast, a Monterey pine can live 100-150 years.  But “in captivity”, as a landscape tree, the life span shortens to as little as 20-30 years.  Monterey pines are adapted to live in crowded stands on thin soil underlain by bedrock.  As landscape trees, too much space, too much rich soil, and too much fertilizer all combine to put the Monterey pines in trouble..

Without sufficient water in the soil, the trees’ hydraulic system for transporting water to the limbs and leaf tips may fail, weakening the limbs and causing branches and trunks of well-established trees to split and fall.  My son’s car was totaled several months ago when a heavy branch split from the sycamore in his front yard.  Our flowering plum blocked our driveway when a third of its canopy fell.  Around my area old gnarled oaks and pepper trees have split down the middle. Seeing these trees go is like an old friend’s passing.  But when the branches fell from our plum tree we discovered a colony of wood boring grubs had ravaged the interior. It had to go. It felt like a mercy killing.

Gnarly almond hanging in there

Gnarly almond hanging in there

I felt differently about our almond tree.  One of a pair, its twin was sacrificed when my parents subdivided their lot so that we could build our house next door.  My father had worked tirelessly to protect the almonds from marauding squirrels, using his pellet gun to such great effect that for five years after his death the squirrels still avoided the area. The average life span of an almond tree is only twenty-five years and this one had struggled along for at least sixty.   Its bark had peeled off in large sections, leaving the bare wood to weather or rot where water collected in crevices, although it still bravely sported blossoms on its gnarled branches every spring.Almond - after

Finally, a few weeks ago, we ordered the almond tree and the plum tree cut down – too much of a hazard next to our driveway.  “This would make great firewood,” the arborist commented. “Don’t you want to keep the logs?”  But we converted our fireplace to gas years ago.  The logs were loaded into a truck for someone else’s hearth.

We planted a new little tree where the flowering plum had been.  It is a Chinese pistache, well known for its flaming fall foliage, recommended as a street tree by our city,  and reputedly very drought tolerant. It’s not going to bloom, but then it won’t be subject to fungus.  Despite drought conservation measures, we will be watering it every few days until the rains start.  Hurry up, El Nino!



Home 2008

Home – October 2008

Every year since we were first engaged, my husband and I have returned to his home town at least once.  Our visit a few weeks ago was the first time there was no family member to greet us and no family home to stay in.  Since my mother-in-law’s death last year and our final visit to her house to help clean out the accumulations of decades, the old home has been sold.  Instead of an upstairs bedroom with a shared bathroom in a home within walking distance from everything we might want to do and everyone we might want to see, we stayed in a tidy suite at a Wyndham just beyond the bypass that skirts the town.  We did a lot of driving instead of walking.


House October 2015

The young couple that had bought the old home invited us to come and see how they had updated it.  They had done wonders.  The narrow kitchen with its yellow formica counters and linoleum floor, where we had sat around the small table to dye eggs for many an Easter, was now a dining room and pantry.  The downstairs guest room, where I had slept chastely on visits to the home before our marriage, had been transformed into a master bathroom.  The dining room where three generations had gathered for Thankgiving and Christmas dinners was now a chef’s kitchen with gleaming stainless steel appliances and a granite island for informal eating. We ooh’ed and aah’ed and approved and told the new owner stories about how the house was built.  We had a fine time, but we won’t be going back.  It’s their home now.

We went for breakfast to Dunlap’s,  where we always had gone with my in-laws us because of the hearty portions and old-fashioned atmosphere.  We ordered eggs, wheat toast, home fries, coffee, and a fruit cup.  The eggs were perfectly fried.  The bread was only “wheat” in that it was a shade darker than “white”, but had none of the flavor or texture that we West Coast folks had come to expect.  The “home fries” were really hash browns, shredded, flavorless, and only browned in spots. The coffee was tasteless.  The fruit cup was dumped from a can of fruit cocktail.  We won’t be going back.

The next day for breakfast we tried Café St. Amand , a new French restaurant that advertised crepes and croissants.  I had a fresh-made crepe wrapped around fresh strawberries and blueberries and fresh whipped crème.  My husband had French toast made with brioche bread sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  It all tasted great including the French roast coffee, and it actually cost less than Dunlaps. .  It wasn’t small-town home cooking. We loved it, and went there again the next morning.

For dinner we went to the historic Dobbin House restaurant where we had celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. It had always been the best restaurant in town, despite the waitresses dressed in period costume and the pretentious menu  (e.g., describing the bread basket: A basket of afforted colonial breads paffed to your table fresh from our own bakery, served up with a galipot of butter.)

The food arrived: a plateful of salad, enough for a meal in itself.  Then the entrée – a large seriving of meat, heaps of vegetables, and a large baked potato with assorted trimmings to choose from.  I felt as though I was at an athlete’s training table. That’s not the way we eat anymore.

The next day we met a friend from the local college.  “You should try the new Gettysburg Baking Company,” he told us.  “They bake their own bread, even sourdough, and they have really good sandwiches.  It’s right on the square, where the Visitor’s Bureau used to be.  Too bad the new restaurant out at the Country Club is closed on Sunday. A guy from Philadelphia took over the clubhouse as a restaurant.  It’s really good – expensive, but they also serve tapas – small plates. You can make a meal of appetizers.”

We were amazed – a gourmet bakery and a tapas bar? Not the place my husband grew up in!

We did a lot of driving around the beautiful countryside.  The lawns were green, the trees were just beginning to turn red and golden.  We did some hiking on familiar paths.  But we returned to a hotel, and no one to share our adventures.

The town and house where you grow up are like molds that help form you into the person you become.  But there are reasons you can’t go home again.  You change. And so does the mold.


Hidden Treasures: the Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos


Maybe you have wanted to take your kids to the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Virginia or the San Diego Museum of Flight down in Balboa Park.  Maybe you have been daunted by the distance, or the cost.  You can give them a good taste of the experience by taking them to Northern California’s Hiller Aviation Museum, just off the Bayshore Freeway in San Carlos, California.

20150819_115401docI had driven past this museum many times, but given the name I had assumed it would be all about helicopters. But when my ex-helicopter pilot brother was visiting recently with his young son, we decided to give it a look.  There are indeed helicopters, but so much more, including full-size models of early flying machines, a giant unmanned glider whose wings span the length of the football-field-sized museum, the cockpit of a 737, a walk-in exhibit of the full front fuselage of one of the first 747s, hands-on flight simulators, a widescreen Google Earth projection from which you can zoom in from outer space to your own front yard, and, on Wednesdays in the summer, your choice of goodies from a half-dozen food trucks in the parking lot. 20150819_125934doc

In summer the museum also hosts a series of summer camps, so you might see a gaggle of ten-year-olds testing their experimental paper airplanes in the back patio, or a parade of backpack- toting sub-teens getting their introduction to flight simulation software in the Flight Lab.  As much fun to watch as to do!

20150819_115608docThe museum includes some special exhibits about early women aviators, Chinese-American aviation pioneer Feng Ru, and others you may not have heard of.

And of course there is a gift shop, stuffed with all sorts of magical flight related toys, model kits, and fluttering gizmos.  And the docents are enthusiastic volunteers with a lot of knowledge they are eager to share about the aircraft exhibits, some based on their own experiences of helping to build or fly the aircraft.

Admission is only $15 for adults, $10 for Youth and Seniors – you can get a coupon from their website for a $1 discount on Sundays.

Go ahead and indulge your inner daVinci, Wright, Lindberg, Earhart, or Yeager!




The Death Knell of Suburbia (Los Altos Town Crier, July 1, 2015)

Photo by C Birnbaum

Photo by C Birnbaum


The orchards are gone. The single-story ranch house is seen as a waste of valuable land and air space. An eight-lane freeway thunders past the bridle paths in Los Altos Hills. But nothing has signaled the death of surburbia more definitely than the announcement last month that Sunset, the “Magazine of Western Living” is abandoning its spacious, rambling, garden-focused headquarters in Menlo Park and relocating to an urban shopping/restaurant hub in Oakland.

When my family moved to Los Altos in the late 50’s, we knew nothing about suburban life. My parents had been raised in a city, relocated to a smallish county seat in the mid-South, living in a succession of small homes. Then we found ourselves in Los Altos, on nearly an acre of land which included sixteen assorted fruit trees, three assorted nut trees, plus a grapevine and a mint patch, a separate outbuilding (part garage, part workshop, part toolshed) and a creek in the back.

Sunset, May 1993

Sunset, May 1993

Sunset became my parents’ bible. My father learned about composting, about roto-tilling, and about hulling walnuts and protecting almonds from squirrels, and about grilling steaks and salmon and trout on an outdoor grill. My mother learned how to dry apricots, can peaches, make plum jam, and put together a block party or a kid’s Christmas craft workshop. For years my parents saved every issue, just in case they needed a recipe for fig chutney or how-to instructions for making a picnic table or a lawn chair. I even appeared in a sidebar about making party banners, back before you could buy banners for every occasion in the hardware store.

Sunset August 1976 -That's me at upper right!

Sunset August 1976 -That’s me at upper right!

Of course, when I brought my young family back to Los Altos in the 80’s, we immediately subscribed to Sunset. I noticed a change. There were fewer articles about how to make things, and more articles about where to buy things. The recipes used more exotic ingredients like fenugreek and sumac and grapeseed oil, and less of the things you might grow in your own yard. A wine section had been added. The travel section listed more resort hotels and fewer family camping spots.

According to the announcement of Sunset’s move to Oakland (San Jose Mercury News, June 3, 2015) “the new headquarters… underscores the shift in western lifestyles in recent years…. Rooted for decades in suburbia and the suburban lifestyle…, the magazine now is following the trend of young tech workers, empty nesters and others who increasingly seek larger cities for their homes.” Per Sunset editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop “ we are joining the trend that our readers have started.”

Sunset July 2015 - pay to play!

Sunset July 2015 – pay to play!

I didn’t go to the last Sunset Celebration, the annual food/wine/garden/home décor party that has been hosted for decades at the Menlo Park headquarters. I didn’t want to say good-bye to the showcase gardens, which had been one of the places we always used to take out-of-state visitors to convince them that we really were living in Paradise. The property “is deemed to be a prime spot for development of first-class office buildings.”

I wonder if they will install a tombstone, or at least a memorial plaque: “Suburbia – born in the Valley of Heart’s Delight, 1950; died in Silicon Valley, 2015. And so goes the dream.


Sunset June 1976 – Campfire Cooking

Sunset July 2015 - Almond Torte with grilled figs

Sunset July 2015 – Almond Torte with grilled figs

Freeway Free in New Mexico: the Turquoise Trail

turq-pics_056-995x269New Mexico Highway 14 – the Turquoise Trail – parallels  I-25, the main road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  I-25 despite boasting  three lanes of (light) traffic each way is not  a freeway, as it alternates creatively decorated overpasses with intermittent cross traffic.  If you want to travel a beautiful bypass full of surprises, choose the Turquoise Trail.

The name is  a marketing ploy to attract tourists.  There are no opportunities to mine for turquoise, and not very many of the Indian arts and silversmithing shops that are so ubiquitous around Santa Fe’s main plaza. “Turquoise” is mainly the color of the overpasses feeding toward the Interstate 10-15 miles west.

What you will find is beautiful rolling open country dotted with sage, pinon pine, and juniper, punctuated by red rock escarpments stretching off into the purple distance where mountains lump up against the horizon.

The_band-565x292And there is amazing and amusing roadside art, first in dribs and drabs, e.g.  lifesize mustangs cut out of sheet metal and painted bright colors, interspersed with mustang-sized sheet metal origami cranes.  Then cresting into a tsunami of eccentricity in the  artist colony of Madrid (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable – rhymes with Hagrid) – a rather dilapidated settlement of old buildings, bright paint, tie-dye and macramé warped out of the 1960’s into a colder, blander 21st century.

We had a deadline to meet in Albuquerque, so we did not stop even to take pictures.  But one day I want to trek the Turquoise Trail again, and maybe spend some serious time lolly-gagging in a weathered rocking chair behind the wind chimes and macramé plant holders on one of those slightly skewed porches looking out at the passing parade.

Freeway Free in Santa Fe


If you are in Santa Fe, stay at the La Fonda. Why not? It has all the historic charm of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, or the El Tovar at the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is not located in a national park, so it went through some hard times before being lovingly restored to splendid 1920’s level grandeur. And it is MUCH more affordable than the Ahwahnee with all the wonderful hand-hewn timber, eccentric architecture (there are at least three different ways to get to any given room), interesting restaurant menus and wonderful service.P1020698web


IMG_0471webOnce you are there on the square, take a city tour. Why not? It will give you an overview of what you can walk to or drive to, some historical background, some pretty corny jokes, and an interesting group of fellow tourist to exchange home town data with. It’s a pleasantly slow ramp-up to the day, and you can hop on a trolley right outside the La Fonda. It will take you through the art scene street (see above), some excellent outdoor sculpture, and leave you with lots of ideas on how to spend your NEXT trip to Santa Fe. (Museum Hill?  A whole day we didn’t have to spend this time!)


Once you have finished your city tour, you will want lunch. There you are on the plaza/. Try the Famous Plaza Cafe – lots of history on the plaza, pressed tin ceiling, friendly and fast service, and killer fish tacos.P1020721web


Now it’s time for the museums. The New Mexico History Museum  is a GEM according to AAA’s road guide, and rightfully so. With admission you also get to explore the Palace of the Governors, one of the few surviving real adobe buildings in Santa Fe (the others are brick coated with stucco in imitation) and probably one of the few single-story palaces in the world.  And if you have read Willa Cather’s “Death Comes to the Archbishop” (and I hope you have, as a prep for your Santa Fe visit) you will find portraits of ALL the main characters hanging in the Museum or the Palace – instantly recognizable.


P1020741webOn your way back to La Fonda, be sure to explore inside the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi which faces the square. Again, if you have read “DCttAB” you cannot fail to be moved by the statue of the austere Archbishop Lamy who reformed and re-energized the New Mexico church mission, and by the little wooden Madonna, regally gowned by the devout needlewomen of the Santa Fe diocese, who is the core of Catholic tradition in the area, paraded around the square in her finery once eacy year.


You’ve walked a lot. Time to relax at the pool in the La Fonda central courtyard. It’s shielded from wind and sun and kept at a perfect temperature.P1020734web


Once you are dry and dressed, present yourself at the Bell Tower Bar at the very top of the LaFonda, with a 360 degree view of the square,the town, the mountains, and the clouds. Everyone up here is in a good mood – what nicer place could there be to strike up a conversation with the folks around the firepit or cocktail table?

And if you have not filled yourself up on appetizers at the Bell Tower, finish off your Santa Fe day at La Plazuela, the restaurant in the former courtyard (now roofed with a skylight) around the fountain at the center of La Fonda. There are other restaurants in town which boast Michelin stars, but none that can boast more atmosphere or history. I recommend the pork tamales.


The evening is up to you.

Freeway Free in New Mexico: The Town that Wasn’t There

The view from the road to Nowhere

The view from the road to Nowhere

The road to Los Alamos is paved now, and there are comforting stone barriers separating the driver from the precipitous drops edging the switchbacks as you climb from the valley of the Santa Fe River.  There are even scenic viewpoints provided so that you can look out over the valley of the Rio Grande as it carves its way toward El Paso.  It’s a long way from those days in the early 1940’s when the town was as isolated and exotic as Narnia, its only entrance through an inconspicuous door of an old adobe on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

In those days the inhabitants of Los Alamos were divided, like Narnia, into two very different groups, but unlike Narnia, they were putatively on the same side.  The town had been created by the US Military, and its routine labor and its decidedly non-routine security were provided by the Army.  But its purpose was to probe areas of science that had never been explored – to create the weapon that would end World War II, killing hundred of thousands of people, but by doing so save a million other lives which would have been lost through hand-to-hand combat, disease, ritual suicide, and other causes in a drawn-out battle for Japan.


Dwarf meets Elf, with Man in the middle

Perhaps the uneasy alliance was more like that of Elves and Dwarves in the battle against the Dark Lord of Mordor. Certainly there was an elfin quality about Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the scientists, and a foursquare dwarvish solidity about his military counterpart, General Leslie Groves.   And there were ordinary people at Los Alamos, too; there were cleaning women and secretaries and nurses and teachers, who played their roles without ever quite knowing what was going on.

Now the town looks quite ordinary.  There is a struggling downtown area with some small shops and restaurants, and a new shopping mall.  There is an excellent sandwich shop, Daniel’s Café (sharing space with Mary’s Gelato) .  I recommend the Tuna Melt.

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

If you want room for gelato, split the sandwich!

There is a high school which had been originally funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and still gets 22% of its funding from the FEderal Government.  Since the principal employer in Los Alamos is still the Laboratory, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of physicists have gained national recognition for their school’s academic program.

And there is a wonderful museum, the Bradbury Science Museum, which tells the story of the Manhattan Project from the point of view of all three groups who worked there, as well as revealing as much as can be told about the lab’s current activities

For more about Los Alamos and the Mahattan Project, you can’t go wrong reading Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont, and then watching “The Day After Trinity”, a  fine documentary about Robert Oppenheimer.  And when you walk the sidewalks of  the Town that Wasn’t There, you’ll hear history echoing in your footsteps.

Freeway Free in New Mexico – Willa Cather Country



On our first day in New Mexico we arrived in Albuquerque and drove north to wherewe would rendezvous with friends.  I was grateful that I had prepared for our trip by re-reading Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.  She gave me the words to describe what I was seeing:  “In other places the sky is the roof of the world.  Here the earth is somply the floor of the sky.” As we drove through the austere landscape that sky stretched over and around us in an immense blue expanse, shrinking the distant mountains and mesas to the size of doll furniture.

The countryside was austere, but not barren.  There were pinon pines twisting along the ridges, cottonwood tries lining the dry washes where water had flowed and would flow again.  The six-lane highway was punctuated by over-crossings decorated with southwestern motifs: thunderbirds, stampeding mustangs, desert tortoises, road runners.  The roads themselves led off to a couple of barns, or a boarded up gas station, or a billboard advertising Native American Jewelry – 5 miles west.



We arrived at our hotel just the other side of nowhere (that is, fourteen miles north of Santa Fe), a comfortable and bland Homewood Suites just next to the Buffalo Thunder Resort Hotel and Casino, where we had dinner on the outside patio as the sun went down, the moon rose, and the artificial luminarias lit up the pseudo-adobe battlements.



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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