Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Freeway-Free in Spain: Assorted Basque Specialties

20190529_111016doc.jpgDid I mention that Bilbao is the unofficial capital of the Basque region of Spain?   I am a little bit familiar with Basque family-style dining due to the heritage of Basque shepherds which has been perpetuated in part of northern California.  But nothing had prepared me for the pintxos (appetizer plate) bars which are the pride of Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Above you see a typical spread (pardon me and my spouse for having partially blocked the view).

The idea is to browse from one pintxos bar to the next, sampling a glass of wine and a small plate delicacy in each.  As you might guess from the decor, many of the pintxos feature the local ham, a delicacy all by itself.

One evening we were fortunate to dine at Aspaldiko, a historic country estate featuring Basque cuisine.  This was our first exposure to Spanish formal dining, which involves aperitivos,  several flavors of wine, at least five courses, with coffee and cheeses and a digestif of local sherry or port following the dessert.   Be prepared.

Another long historic tradition of the Basque country is seafaring and shipbuilding.  If you have a chance, take a short boat ride from San Sebastian to visit the  Albaola Factory and Museum  , where you can watch experts on maritime heritage and boat building working on building a replica of a 16th century Basque whaling ship.  What I know about whaling is from reading Moby Dick, and I couldn’t help but imagine Ahab facing the leviathan in one of these carefully crafted boats.

The museum also partners with local cider makers, so don’t forget to make a donation to the museum by purchasing at least a glass of cider to sip while you watch. It blends wonderfully with the smells of fresh-sawn wood.

 

 

 

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Freeway Free in Colorado: The Headwaters Center in Winter Park – a GEM

20190821_101138webThe Headwaters Center in Winter Park, Colorado is a small delight, featuring creative audio, visuals, and interactive displays to immerse the visitor in the history and hazards of water and water management along the Continental Divide.  It opened in July 2019.

As you walk through the museum, you can use your finger along a time line to change the waterflow and scenery along the walls,  You can put yourself into a kayak or onto a mountain bike as you explore the recreation options around the river.  You can fly like an osprey over the Continental Divide, searching out the watersheds of the Fraser, the Colorado, and other major rivers. You can (if you are small) crawl inside a beaver dam and commune with a beaver.

The Center is full of “I never thought of that!” moments.  For example, I kinda knew that most of the rain along the Divide falls on the west side of the Rockies, while most of the people live on the east side.  So massive tunnels have been build to divert water flow from west to east.  (an interactive display allows you to turn a valve wheel to see the impact of this diversion on the ecology of the western slope). An unexplored consequence is that the water that would have run into the Pacific from the western watershed now eventually runs into the Atlantic.  Long-term effects? We’re not sure.

The Center itself is designed to be completely off the grid, with solar panels and a back-up generator providing clean power.  It is, of course, designed for advocacy.  From the souvenir shelf (no full-size gift shop yet) a visitor can buy eco-bricks to lessen the water flow in toilets, re-fillable water bottles to make bottled water unnecessary, and other water-conservation tools.20190821_113644doc

A take-away flyer suggests action items which a visitor can take to become more aware and informed about Western water usage.  The Center is a mind-changing, mind-expanding experiment in the power of information.  Don’t miss it.

Freeway Free in California: San Jose’s Japantown

20190713_144402docSan Jose’s Japantown, centered around the intersection of Jackson and Fifth Restaurant, is one of only three remaining  centers of Japanese culture in the US (the other two being in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.)  Almost destroyed by the forced internment of most of its citizens during World War II, it has bounced back as a nucleus of Japanese restaurants, shops, and community organizations.

If you go to Japantown, it’s best to start with a good meal.  Kubota’s on 5th is an upscale favorite of local Japanese businessmen and their visitors from Japan.  I’m a big fan of their chirashi, which comes with a really good tofu salad along with a sizable bowl of rice topped with generous slices of raw fish.  If you want a more casual meal you might try Gombei,  the sister restaurant around the corner on Jackson, which specializes in sushi.

20190713_134425webAfter lunch, a stroll along 5th street on the other side from Kubota’s will lead you to the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, with its serene garden inviting some digestive meditation.  If you can, enter the temple and admire its beautiful sliding shoji screens, gilded lanterns, and handsome icons.

From the intersection of 5th and Jackson, a stroll up and down Fifth Street gives you a chance to browse in shops featuring Japanese anime action figures and bobble-head toys,  music stores featuring Japanese stringed instruments and taiko drums, houseware stores, and a variety of Japanese and Korean restaurants and tea shops.

My favorite is Nichi Bei Bussan – a gift shop which has been in business over 100 years, featuring all things Japanese, including kimono fabric and patterns, whimsically decorated socks designed to be worn with flip-flops or Japanese sandals, beautiful tea sets and platters, origami paper, craft books, gift wraps, Japanese graphic novels and magazines and charming, helpful sales people who will gladly help you find the perfect item.

After shopping, time to reflect on the history of Japantown. Go back down Fifth street past Kubota’s and find the memorial sculpture and garden next to the Nissei Memorial Building housing the Japanese American Citizens League.  It’s worth studying each face of the three-sided memorial before visiting the Japanese American Museum just a few doors further down.

The Japanese-American Museum traces the history of Japanese immigrants in the US, from their being imported as easy-to-exploit agricultural laborers to their forced removal to concentration camps during World War II.  The museum includes videos, recorded intreviews, and a replica of a family’s space at Manzanar, one of the relocation camps.  You cannot spend time in this museum without feeling a bit queasy at how easy it seemed to have been to deprive thousands of U.S. citizens of their rights, even as our country  fought against the same arbitrary cruelty as seen in Nazi Germany.

On a lighter note, try to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the special festivals.  I recently happened to arrive during the summer Obon Festival, which featured dancers, taiko drummers, men and women in traditional costumes, lots of food and crafts booths, and an open house at the Buddhist temple offering one-hour classes in “Buddhism 101”.

 

 

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Pt. Reyes Seashore (Day 2)

20190711_120353docWe got the fog we had hoped for on our second day at Point Reyes.  Since we had part of the area south of our home base on our first day, we decided to head north from our base at the Cottages along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.  We stopped at the first trailhead aiming for Abbotts Lagoon, which the Pt Reyes website trail guide recommends as “an easy stroll with good spring wildflowers and excellent birdwatching in fall and winter.” Since we were visiting in summer, we lowered our expectations, but the “easy stroll” part seemed very attractive.

Near the entrance to the trail, a posted sign advised us that a family of river otters might be seen from the bridge across Abbotts Lagoon.  We set off eagerly, as we had not scored any exotic wildlife the previous day.  But we were soon distracted from the possibility of otters by the very real abundance of wildflowers.  I often count how many different sorts of wildflowers I encounter on a hike, but this time I simply lost track.  So many colors and varieties, inhabiting every niche from wetland to sand dune!  What must it have been like in spring?

OK, we struck out with the otter family – they must have been fishing up a different creek.  But we couldn’t feel deprived.

Back at the car we were beginning to feel a bit peckish, and decided to have our picnic lunch at the Historic Pierce Point Ranch at the end of the road before exploring the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point, the northernmost finger of the National Seashore. 20190711_133853web

By early afternoon it was quite windy, and there were no visible picnic tables at the Ranch. Fortunately, we had thrown a couple of folding chairs and a small folding table into the trunk. We set up our small feast in the lee of the raised trunk lid, and managed to feast on crackers, cheese, and fruit without seeing our lunch blown away.

Having missed out on sea lions and river otters, we were not sanguine about the prospects of viewing elk at the Tule Elk Reserve. But we set off on the Tomales Point Trail, and almost as soon as we got past the last of the farm’s outbuildings, W pointed out our first elk, a cow moving slowly across the slope ahead.  W got out the binoculars and cried “There’s another one, a buck with antlers!”  I looked but could see nothing where she pointed but a large sandstone boulder.  Then with the binoculars I was able to make out a dark head and antlers attached – the “rock” was the light tan body of a massive stag. tule-elk

As we continued along the trail, the wind picked up, and the chill factor increased, but every time we thought of turning back, we would come upon another group of elk down in the valley, or trooping across the road ahead.  Finally we reached the point where the sign warned us that the trail ahead was “unmaintained.”  We took that as a turnaround indicator.

Tired but thrilled by our success at elk viewing, we ended our day at a local eatery touted as having “a beautiful location on Tomales Bay”.  Tony’s Seafood Restaurant‘s bayside location was pretty much moot, as the fog was thick and low by dinner time.  Still, we enjoyed the :very good food” and “nice casual atmosphere” as a reward for our wind-blown tenacity at the elk reserve.

Freeway Free in California: Escape to Point Reyes

untitledIt’s summer, and even in a “Mediterranean climate” the thermometer’s are nudging 90. Time to head for the coast, but not the boardwalk-bordered surf beaches of the southern California coastline.  We are heading for the fog on the west coast of Marin County, the relatively empty corner of the Bay Area north west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Going north on Highway 280 at 10AM, we are basically counter-commuting, as the Young Single Professionals leave their hives in San Francisco to commute down to the massive complexes at Apple, Google, and FaceBook – just the opposite of how it worked fifty years ago when suburban residents trekked north to San Francisco’s financial, commercial, and professional centers.  We skip along 19th Avenue, working our way stop-light by stop-light up the alphabet from Wawona through Irving, then snake through two big patches of greenery – Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, and  finally we are on the bridge.  The cool fog envelops the bridge so that there is only a hint of the City on our right, but we dive into the rainbow-framed tunnel on the other side and emerge into sunshine again, in marvelous Marin.

Google sends us through San Rafael, on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a twisting 2-4 lane road which passes shopping centers and schools, then winds through pastures full of poster-ready contented cows and finally T’s into Highway 1 at Olema.  There is a parking lot just ahead, and it is about noon, so we start searching Google for a lunch spot that might be open.  We have come up dry (business must be slow in west Marin during the week) when we notice that the parking lot into which we have serendipitously pulled happens to be next to a restaurant called Due West, which is evidently open, and rates four Yelp stars.  Why notgive it a try?20190710_121442web

Four stars turns out to a serious under-rating.  We order two appetizers and a side dish from the interesting menu, and end up doing a fair imitation of the famous scene in “When Harry met Sally”, moaning ecstatically with almost every bite.  The mushroom toast was smothered in exotic varieties of fungus, the sautéed summer squash was delicately flavored, and the sauce on the mussels was so delicious that we ended up scrounging the toasts from under the mushrooms so we could soak up the mussel sauce.

20190711_083914webFeeling very happy with our first meal choice, we turned north up Highway 1 to our hideaway cottage in Inverness.  The Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore again exceeded our expectations.

We had a lovely room with a well-equipped kitchenette, including a hot water kettle as well as a coffee maker, and everything one might need for a light supper prep except for a cutting board.   (Always bring a cutting board.) The cottage included a picnic table on a small patio overlooking a fountain and a couple of actively-patronized bird feeders, so we made our supper from the grocery bags we had brought with us and watched the birds. A perfectly restful ending to our escape.

 

Freeway Free in California: Exploring Stanford’s GEM of a Library

MainLibe2I have mentioned before on this blog that I am something of a connoisseur of libraries.  A few weeks ago I had the chance to explore a local GEM, as Stanford University celebrated the 100th Birthday of its Main Library (now known, in Stanford’s frenzy of naming buildings after wealthy donors, as the Bing Wing of the Green Library).

The stately façade, with its Façade obscured by renovation scaffolding but we were assured that the look would remain unchanged, including Stanford’s trademark rough-hewn sandstone and terra-cotta roof tiles. After a barbecue buffet and birthday cake, we were escorted into the library in groups for guided tours of the exhibits.

But here’s the secret:  you don’t need an invitation or a tour guide to explore the marvels of the Main – all you need to register for use is a government-issued photo ID, which gives you seven days a year of access at no charge.  Access to what? you may ask.  Let’s explore.

20190715_142729webRegister at the entry inside the big wooden doors of the Main Library.  Then head up the stairs to the rotunda.  On the day of the birthday, there was a harpist playing near the center of the rodunda, the delicate sounds reverberating in the giant space.  When I was a student, the Stanford Choir would give impromptu concerts on the stairs, especially wonderful at Christmas time, when we were swotting away in preparation for final exams.

I f there is no harpist, turn left into the spacious reading room.  In earlier days it served as the Reserve Book Room where students waited their turn to read the assigned texts for Western Civ and other limited-access materials.  Hoover Tower looms just out the windows.  As a student, I remember watching from the Reserve Book Room as suicide-prevention grates were lifted up to install at the top-most level. Stanford legend holds that someone studying in the RBR looked up from his textbook and and actually saw that guy fall. MainLibe1

Currently, the space where I used to wait impatiently for my number to come up is known as the Lane Reading Room,  and as one of the best spots to study on campus.

At the entrance is a fascinating clock, which looks like a fishbowl with a globe somehow floating magically in the middle.  A fish points to the correct time.  Along the walls are portraits of past presidents of Stanford, most posed staidly in suits or academic robes.  My favorite is of Gerhard Caspar, the German iconoclast who came in to shake things up in the 80’s. It’s the only one that looks like the artist or the subject were enjoying the process

If you come back to the rotunda and go left away from the stairs, you will end up in the newer part of the Green Library, which is much less interesting, in my view.  Instead, go straight across the rotunda and look for the stairs on the right, leading up to the Romsey Map Room.

David-Rumsey-Map-Center-LargeThe stairs alone are worth the price of admission, as each wall is covered with giant reproductions of antique maps and charts, covering everything from a visual representation of the longest rivers on earth vs the highest mountains, to a 3-D rendering of Manhattan Island in the 50’s, and much more.

The Romsey Map Room itself is a magic place where you can seemingly travel through time and space, thanks to the technology of Google Earth combined with Stanford’s amazing collection of maps and globes.

If you need a rest after zooming in and out with Google Earth, exit the back door of the Map Room and take the elevator up to the fifth floor, where you can rest up in the Bender Room, one of the most peaceful retreats on campus.  It has deep leather chairs, capable reading lamps, and windows allowing you to look out of the Main’s front windows over the Quad.

Display cases around the rotunda and in the Bender Room often display special exhibits featuring treasures from Stanford’s collection.  If you want more personal access, you can check out the digital catalogue, and even order up an arcane book for perusal. (I was excited to find a childhood favorite, The Magic Doll of Roumania, long out of print and invisible on Amazon’s and Ex Libris websites, listed in the catalog.  I put in a request, and three days later I was invited to come up and examine the book at my leisure.  I couldn’t take it out of the building, but if I needed more than a couple of hours, they would be glad to hold it for me for several days. Amazing!) Spend some time, and see what treasures you can unearth!

 

 

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond – Day 2

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I knew the second day at Big Bend Ranch State Park would be long and challenging. W insisted that she could do and I should see the hike from the Chilcothe trailhead to the Fresno Rim, overlooking the flat irons surrounding the collapsed magma dome Calle “El Solitario”. The length of the hike was 5 miles round trip, we had plenty of water, and the high was to be only 80 degrees.

We got off to a later start than we had wanted, finishing breakfast at 8:30, so despite aggressive driving on the long straight stretches of road with no traffic and an 80 mph speed limit posted, and later on the 27 miles of gravel road that leads into Big Bend Ranch State Park, we got to the trailhead at 11:30.

 

In many ways this was a rerun of Tuesday, only with a destination in mind. Beautiful blooming desert cactus: flame tipped ocotillo, barrel cactus with fiery orange, muted brown, or clear yellow blooms, and indeed a marvelous vista from the overlook, down hundreds of feet to the river twisting along the flat brown desert floor, and the remains of a mighty mountain moldering within the jagged circle of flat iron teeth. We picnicked  leaning against a rock, hydrating and energizing with P&D grapefruit, grapes, and replenishing our salt with sardines and flaxseed crackers.

The trail across sandy washes and barren rock was marked by small piles of rocks, put together by earlier hikers with varying degrees of creativity.  As we worked our way back through the desert, these small messages from earlier hikers seemed like silent little cheerleaders, beckoning us on.

 

There was not a speck of shade. W had the idea of dampening our bandanas and tying them around our necks, which helped a lot. (Hooray for stuff that is always in the backpack and seldom gets used!) By the time we sighted the truck again W was moving at maybe 60 steps at a time, then stopping to rest with her head and arms propped on her walking stick. I did not let myself think about what would happen if she fell over- maybe I could have driven the truck at least partway down the path, but getting her into it… Ah well, a bad thing that didn’t happen. She said “I knew I could do it if I just took it a little at a time.” We rewarded ourselves with a shared granola bar.

We had hiked at an average rate of one mile an hour.

Back at the Visitor’s Center, we found that the water supply was under repair due to a leaky pump, so we were directed to the bunkhouse, where we would have stayed if not for the geologists convention. The facility looked quite comfortable, each cubicle with two twin beds, a shelf and plenty of under-bed space for stashing things, and a curtain for privacy. And best of all, showers! I rinsed my feet under cold water and changed to sandals. Bliss!

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If you go (and it IS a marvelous vista!) take PLENTY of water, use PLENTY of sunscreen, and wear sun-proof hat, long sleeves, and long pants. Take your time and look around! We had completely missed these hoodoos on the way in.

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Freeway Free in Texas: The Other Side of Nowhere in the Back of Beyond

20190326_103521docWe had planned to leave at 7AM for Big Bend Ranch State Park, but ended up feeling a bit lazy after our cold evening at McDonald’s Observatory and hit the road in Moby Dick at about 8AM. Two hours and 100+ miles later we arrive at the turnoff – 27 miles of gravel road getting progressively rockier and washboard-y as we go along. 10 miles in is the “Welcome to Big Bend State Park” sign.

20190326_105934webWith a sigh of relief, I spot a privy decorated with a cowboy mural down a little side road.  The Visitors’ Center is 17 miles further on. The gravel road is bordered  with ocotillo (long slender bare dead-looking sticks with flames of bright red flowers blooming at the tips) and Spanish bayonet (giant pompons of green narrow leaves cupping a torch of white and pinkish downward-facing blooms) and lots of bare earth where the cattle have grazed and platinum blonde grasses where they have not.

20190326_115748docAfter about an hour of jouncing over mostly-pretty-good gravel road, we get to the Visitor’s Center, a plain building with a minimal gift shop and a sign saying “Welcome to the Other Side of Nowhere.” The center also offers an up-to-date set of rest rooms with cool running water, and a friendly ranger who supplies us with trails and suggestions.  We decide to eat our lunch at the lone picnic table under the lone bit of shade, and then head out on the Horse-Trap Trail that promises a view out over the central interior of the park, and possible encounters with local wildlife.

We spot a bird nest in an ocotillo bush, but no bird. The blooming cactus lures us on down the trail, and near the end of the hike we do encounter one large deer drinking at the oasis spring, and several even larger cattle with alarmingly long horns.

Not a great pay-off for a 100-mile one way trip, you might object.  Still, we felt we had explored some amazingly alien territory, and we still had dinner at Magical Marfa to look forward to on the way back from the Other Side of Nowhere.

Freeway Free in Texas: Into the Infinite at the McDonald Observatory

20190326_202551docW had made arrangements for us to attend a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory 15 miles west of the Lodge. We knew reservations were required and had them, but did not realize that each party had over 200 invitees. I negotiated the twisty road in Moby Dick, our outsized 4×4 pickup, and parked in daylight, hoping to be able to find the truck later in the dark.

starparty_1We were early for the star-gazing, and browsed the Visitors’ Center and Gift Shop, as my spouse, a big fan of the Observatory’s Star Date broadcasts on PBS, had asked me to bring him something from MacDonalds.  I managed to find some postcards and an affordable and portable book at the gift shop, and made it through the line at the cash register just as they were calling for the partygoers to come to the outside auditorium for the start of the star gazing.

Starparty7Whatever did we do before fleece! Cozy in fleece jacket and pants and three layers beneath, topped with hats and scarves, we sat on concrete benches as the star ranger pointed out details we had never seen before of Orion.  The ranger drew a big laugh with his description of  “the hunter, he has a sword, shield and these two bright stars mark his brawny shoulders, but like some other athletes, his head is this fuzzy thing…;”  We were introduced to  Leo,  Taurus, Canopus Major and Minor, the Pleiades, and our old friends the two Dippers, .  We were pressing our luck,  as the observatory happened to be positioned between two thunderstorms.  We saw lightning all around but heard no sound.

mcDonald_observatoryThen the host recommended we adjourn to the telescopes for viewing, as clouds were beginning to obscure the sky. There were three outdoor telescopes and two domes open, but even though some of the 200+ viewers had left the amphitheater early to get a head start, there were still long cold lines. We wished we had a fourth fleecy layer.  We saw the Pleiades up close and two star clusters and then headed for the interior Sky Tour, which was rather redundant but at least it was indoors, warmish, and sitting. We bailed at 10:30, foregoing another classroom talk, and I drove prudently down the mountain.  We crashed into bed at 11:15, piling on all the warm quilts we could find.

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If you get an Invite to a Star Party: Even in summer, you are at elevation at night.  You will be sitting on cold benches, and standing outside waiting your turn at the scopes. I suggest a backpack full of extra layers to be added as needed.

Also, bring water, or a thermos of hot chocolate, or both. Don’t count on eating at the Observatory restaurant, as those other 200 guests will be crowding in also.  Better and easier to eat dinner before and bring some energizing snacks.  The Star Party starts late and ends later – particularly in summer.

And say Hi! to Orion for me!

Freeway Free in Texas – The Civil War’s Westernmost Outpost

FtDavisFt. Davis National Historic Site preserves an outpost in the Back of Beyond which actually saw some action in the Civil War.  The Federal troops at Fort Davis fled the advance of  CSA General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who  dreamed of conquering New Mexico and establishing the Confederacy all the way to the Pacific. Sibley’s forces were beaten back at  Glorieta Pass, ending Sibley’s dream.

After the Civil War ended, the fort was re-manned mostly by black soldiers, with the mission of keeping wagon caravans safe from Indian attack as they headed toward El Paso and the gold fields of California.  There is some evidence that officers with a black mark on their record were sent to command the black troops, although in general Ft. Davis was considered to be a very comfortable posting, tucked into a stream-fed canyon, with reasonably decent weather most of the year and relatively little actual fighting required.

An informative short video sets the stage at the Visitor’s Center, which also offers a very good museum dealing very fairly with the black soldiers and the racism they encountered, and their medal-worthy battles with the mostly Kiowa and Commanche Indians.  The Kiowa, Apache, and Commanche tribes are also given a fair presentation, and the museum reminds us not to judge the behavior of the soldiers by our current gauge of how native peoples should be treated.  And a full shoutout is also given to the roles of the officer’s wives and children in providing structure and keeping up society’s standards in this remote outpost

It’s hard to be politically correct  in so many directions!  But where are the Latinos?  Maybe there weren’t many, as this part of  what is nowTexas was not part of the disputed territory which  became the Republic of Texas before the Mexican-American War.   W says that there were outposts of Spanish rule all along the Rio Grande, (Presidio, El Paso) but maybe not above in the desert.

The fort is in process of being restored to its 1860’s appearance.  Some homes and hospital rooms and barracks are already fully restored and furnished, others not, so you can see what has been done and is still to do. Lots of walking is required, as the Parade Ground needed room for cavalry manoevres. In the restored sections, you are likely to find a docent in period costume eager to tell you all about life in the fort back in the day. It is a peaceful place for a National Historic Site, with less than 50,000 visitors a year.

20190325_135040webIf you stop, I can recommend the Stone Village Market and Deli in the nearby town of Fort Davis – excellent soup and sandwiches and a cheerful decor full of oddities to look at man maybe purchase. 

 

It is located just up the street from the courthouse square, with its requisite ornate detailing, historic marker, pictures of stern mustachioed judges from time out of mind, morphing into smiling, nicely coiffed modern ones , and of course a carved cowboy statue.  It’s a nice stroll to settle your soup and sandwich.

 

 

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