My Great Southern Excursion of 2010

Daily Logs from My Post-Divorce, Solo Road Trip from Virginia to Tennessee

Preface

When I think back to some of my happiest memories of recent years, my road trip from Virginia to Nashville and Memphis always comes to mind. I’d kept a daily log on my excursion and had originally published them to my now-defunct personal website. I’m republishing it here to this blog, even though it’s 6 years old, for your reading pleasure. I feel fortunate I was able to take the trip when I did, as our country feels a little less friendly, a little more hostile and frightened, than it did back then. I hope you enjoy the trip!

Day OneNovember 11th, Charlottesville to Wytheville

After a brief visit to my one-time hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia to attend to some personal business, I was ready to hit the highway. The morning of my departure loomed gray and wet, as a massive storm had laid siege on the east coast overnight. One hearty breakfast at the Villa on Rte 29 later and I departed, heading west on I-64, up, over and into the Blue Ridge mountains through thick fog and pounding rain. Tractor-trailers, big enough to have their own micro-climate, barreled past either side of me. Up near the turn-off for Skyline Drive, I white-knuckled it as fog engulfed my car. All around me were drivers exhibiting signs of panic, everyone coping with the crazy weather the best way they knew how – one car turned on their emergency flashers, another slowed to near backwardness, another screamed past cockily. After only an hour on the road since departure, I had to grudgingly pull off and take shelter in a Staunton Starbucks, the intensity of the storm too dangerous for my comfort level. I waited out the worst of it, cursing the delay under my breath as I nursed my cappucino.

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On Route 11 in Virginia. Photo by Angel La Canfora

Back on the road, through more temperate rain, I drove for a couple hours, south on serpentine Rte 11 before coming to a lunchtime stop in Lexington, home of the Virginia Military Institute. I strode around its historical streets during a break in the rain, taking in the architecture, Stonewall Jackson’s unassuming house among them. I visited the stately grounds of VMI. Autumn had turned the leaves to brilliant reds and oranges. I made my way to the chapel. The only way to view it was by tour guide. I was met by stout blonde a little older than me, who gave me a terse tour of the chapel, apparently ill-at-ease with having to go through the rigamarole of conducting a tour for only one person.

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Robert E. Lee outside the VMI. Photo by A. La Canfora

I noted the simplicity of the chapel, gawked at Robert E Lee’s marble sarcophagus (which never, in fact, held his remains). At the tour’s end, my guide pursed her lips and said, “you can continue on downstairs to the crypt, but you seem like you’re in a hurry.” Uh, no, I was enjoying the break from the road. Whatever. Downstairs I took a moment to peer at Lee’s crypt situated behind jail cell bars then emerged back outside into the fresh air of non-judgmental skies.

Arriving in Wytheville, Virginia in late afternoon, I took advantage of another pause in the rain to poke around this tiny town straddling the border of North Carolina. In a stiff, sub-arctic breeze, I maneuvered my shivering, inadequately clad self through the crumbling historic district, gingerly avoiding holes in the sidewalk. A monument to Daniel Boone and an original log tavern dating from the late 1700s provided the highlights on my tour.

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Wytheville, Virginia. Photo by A. La Canfora

Chain restaurants abounded in this hamlet off I-81 (your Cracker Barrel, your Shoney’s, etc…) and I’d determined when I’d set out on this trip to avoid chains as much as possible, so I settled on what looked like a non-chainey seafood restaurant near my motel for dinner. The tired coffeeshop decor clued me in that any fish that would grace my plate would most likely have not resembled a fish for sometime. I steered clear of ordering any supposed frozen and boxed fish fillets and since I care about my health and ordered off the “calorie restricted” column. This is what I received, follow along, if you will; a slab of over-baked salmon with about 1/4 cup of melted butter on the side, a bowl overflowing with fuzzy tan slugs, er, hush puppies (fried cornbread), a dinner plate full of steak fries, a salad plate overflowing with shredded cheddar cheese with 2 wedges of tomato and some iceberg lettuce confetti with a side of ranch dressing (their “salad” ….all the fun without the guilt! And few of those pesky nutrients!). I’m pretty good at eyeballing food and guestimating the number of calories and I’d concluded that this meal, the “calorie restricted” meal mind you, was somewhere in the ball park of 2000 calories, perhaps more. They say that an adult female of my size (5’5”) should consume roughly around 1500 calories a day. So here before me was a full day’s worth of food and then some! Ah, the South.

I bedded down for the night in a cheap and cheerful, Indian family run motel called the Budget Host. I’d read rave reviews of it online and it didn’t disappoint. The place was basic but immaculate,the bed surprisingly comfortable. My internet connection in the room was zippier than mine at home, and all for the low, low price of $42 (with your AAA card). My gentle and mannerly hosts made me feel welcome and cared for. I almost regretted having to leave!

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Day 2 – Knoxville to Nashville

Rising early the next morning, I made my way through the remnants of the storm on the way to Knoxville, Tennessee. As I drove west on I-40, sudden squalls would give way to sunshine beaming down over rolling hills, making for an interesting game of panic versus leisure driving. Pulling into Knoxville at about noon, I plopped down in a funky coffeehouse where I sipped one of the best cappucino’s I’ve ever had ( http://www.oldcityjava.com/ ).

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Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by A. La Canfora

I rested beside a window while eavesdropping on a nearby table full of band members, listening to them outline their plans for conquering the local music scene. After my break, I bought some fruit for lunch at a nearby neighborhood market from some chirpy college kids then resumed my trek to Nashville.

 Upon reaching town, there was some confusion, as the directions I’d gotten off Google Earth turned out to be for a hotel by the same name only at the wrong location. After zipping back and forth on the freeway, I finally came to rest at my Comfort Inn on the west side of town. While my room was fine, the location of the hotel itself was swear-word inducing. Nestled amongst the fly-overs of the freeway system and with lots of street construction to boot, getting in and out of the hotel was a stressful task.

I decided to grab dinner that night nearby my hotel. I cracked and ate at a chain restaurant, a place called O’Charley’s, too tired from all the driving to go on the hunt for something with more character. I sat in the bar and was waited on by an attractive 30-something year-old black guy with stud earrings and an outsized personality by the name of Willie. Willie introduced himself, gently took my hand, kissed the top of it and said, “hello, beautiful. Is it just you? Now why would someone like you be dining alone?” I blushed. He was smooth!

Up at dawn the following morning – yes, by myself – I was happy to see the storm had cleared out. I hopped in my trusty silver Ford Focus rental and drove on the freeway, thinking I was heading towards Downtown. I wasn’t and soon found myself heading into more rural territory. I spied a sign indicating that the Natchez Trace Parkway was accessible at the next off-ramp and I giddily exclaimed, “awesome!” I wound up driving a good 15 to 20 miles on its windy, desolate stretch.

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Dawn at the Natchez Trace Parkway. Photo by A. La Canfora

Pulling off at an overlook, I stepped out to watch the sun rise over mist-covered hills, the sound of rushing water close by, the air crisp and winter-cold. I marveled that I had this beautiful place and moment all to myself and shot some photos before hunger compelled me back towards the city.

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Sunrise at the Natchez Trace Parkway. Photo by A. La Canfora

After breakfast, I headed Downtown and parked near the Ryman Auditorium. I needed to stop at the visitor’s center adjacent to the arena to pick up a Music City pass (you pay a flat rate of $50 and get hassle-free entry into many Nashville attractions).  A huge crowd had lined up outside the arena so I asked what was up. Turned out folks were there to score tickets to benefit concerts being thrown by Garth Brooks for Nashville flood relief. I next wandered across the street to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, arriving just as they were opening. The museum is housed in a wonderful building with one side looking like a stack of records topped with a radio antenna, while the rest is a curvilinear take on a piano keyboard (when seen from the air, the building in its entirety looks like a bass clef). The history of country music is here represented floor-by-floor in the museum, with the top floor being the oldest. I’m not a huge country music fan, but I like the vintage stuff, such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams or Patsy Cline.

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One of Dolly Parton’s old dresses at the museum. Photo by A. La Canfora

I became especially drawn to Williams after learning of how he battled chronic health problems while simultaneously influencing and shaping the course of modern music. As a lifelong musician and songwriter, I choked up, wiping away tears while gazing down at his handwritten lyrics laying there under glass. This was a musician whose influence is so widespread, so pronounced, that you can trace anyone and everyone back to him – one of those early songwriters of such great importance that many musicians today don’t even realize they owe a debt to him. Hank Williams music is like the bottom-most layer of strata at the base of a mountain range. A musical foundation.

After the museum, I pounded the pavement around downtown Nashville, accompanied by the soundtrack of bands already jamming in clubs at 10:30am. I poked around in shops, got some coffee, and made my way down to the river to take in the scenery.

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In Nashville. Photo by A. La Canfora
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Nashville at night. Photo by A. La Canfora

By 1pm, I’d already put miles on the soles of my shoes and was very tired. All I wanted to do was to curl up in my hotel room for awhile but wanted to check out the Hermitage, president Andrew Jackson’s home, located on the outskirts of town. A lover of American history, I’d read a great bio on him – Andrew Jackson: His Life & Times by HW Brands – and wanted to round out the pictures I’d had in my mind of where he’d spent his life.

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Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Photo by A. La Canfora

I drove about a 1/2 hour out of town and was able to use my Music City pass to get in. I had to bypass the house tour, as I was pressed for time since I had a show to catch that evening at the Grand Ole Opry. But the grounds were beautiful, the stately trees resplendent in fall color and I was glad I pushed myself to go.

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Log cabin on the grounds of the Hermitage. Photo by A. La Canfora

After an hour at the Hermitage I drove back to the hotel to freshen up and shovel some leftover fish into my gob. Then I returned Downtown to the Ryman Auditorium for a 7pm Grand Ole Opry concert.

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Ryman Auditorium. Photo by A. La Canfora

I was seated in the back row on the far right side, but still had a great view of the stage. I chatted with an older couple seated beside me. Newly retired teachers Bill and Sue McGowan hailed from Binghamton, New York, and were on a road trip themselves, their final destination being Florida. We joked and gabbed the rest of the evening. As for the show itself, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I’d been hesitant about going, but after polling my Facebook friends and receiving enthusiastic recommendations, had relented and bought a ticket. It was a great experience. I especially adored the bawdy, authenticity of Little Jimmy Dickens. 89 years-old and standing all of 4’11”, a man who was actually an influence on Hank Williams!

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Little Jimmy Dickens. Photo by A. La Canfora

A big deal was made that night over the appearance of CNN anchorlady Robin Meade, there to do her first ever G.O.P. performance. It was one of the mercifully few “please shoot me” moments of the night, another being Montgomery Gentry and his testosterone (the man clearly hails from a world where men are men and women are women, and there’d better be no in-between, otherwise yer queer). But another highlight was a fella whose name I didn’t catch, who sang all of one song, but what a song… Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Faithfully rendered, I was thrilled, as I’d had Dylan’s album “Planet Waves” playing in the car during my drive in. I lit up like a Christmas tree and sang along, turning the white-haired heads of the gals in the row in front of me. I didn’t care. I was blissin’ out.

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The original entry for Day 3 is missing due to a hard-drive crash. I learned the hard way to always back-up. And then back-up your back-up. But on this day I went to Graceland and that was pretty much it, mainly.  Some pictures survived…

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Your host as seen in a cheesy tourist shot.

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Day 4 – Memphis

On the shuttle returning from Graceland, I spoke with the gentleman seated next to me, an off-duty bus driver. He told me this was his 12th trip there. He had taken this particular trip, he explained, because he’d acquired a new camera (an Olympus) that would take better indoor shots. He showed me some of his photos and he was right. This made me pout internally about my puny, beat-up Canon Powershot that hates low-light and I made a mental note to eventually buy a better quality camera.

From there I headed to the National Civil Rights Museum. Pulling up to that iconic motel, and stepping out of my car, the quiet felt eerie and somber. I toured the museum, taking careful note of original historical documents such as Rosa Parks police report and legal briefs filed in the fight for equality. I concluded my visit by watching a documentary in the museum’s theater entitled “The Witness,” a powerful film about Martin Luther King and his time in Memphis, ending with his tragic death. The audience and I sniffled, teary-eyed. The film left me feeling shaken so I went to the restroom and hung out for awhile to regain my composure.

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At the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by A. La Canfora

After this intense and emotional morning, I was in need of a little levity. First a pit stop back at the hotel, to scarf down some leftovers. I left the car parked and proceeded to hoof it Downtown for the next few hours, up and down and over, until I’d worn my feet raw. I gawked at great old buildings – examples of Italianate architecture, Beaux Arts, Romanesque, Gothic Revival standing elegantly alongside modern skyscrapers. I meandered through the ornate lobby of the Peabody Hotel and winced at the sight of the sad little ducks in the fountain. I browsed the cool clothes at Lansky’s, spent some time on Beale Street, visited my first juke joint and listened to some world-class blues.

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Beale street. Photo by A. La Canfora

Beale Street, seemed to me very similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans only grittier and less tourist-trappy. There are only a couple blocks given over to clubs and flashy neon signs, so what you’ve got is an intense concentration of music and lights bombarding you from all sides. I am a sensitive thing (the deafening roar of a snail crawling 50 yards away can give me vapors), had lived the last few years of my life in the idyllic university enclave that is Charlottesville, Virginia, population 40,000. About the flashiest thing there would be the IHOP on Rte 29. Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, along with the Corner, are the party zones, and you just *might* hear someone speak using an outdoor voice. I have a saying; “Virginians use their inside voice outside.” They’re a quiet, non-flashy people. Plus, I’d last lived on the outskirts of town, in a semi-rural environment, with chickens in the yard of my neighbors. I think I’ve hammered my point home. A little stimuli goes a long way with me. But while Beale Street doesn’t have Bourbon’s sleaze – there are no strip joints here – Beale is all about music and most of it, the blues. The more time I spent there, the more I loved it. If I lived in Memphis I’d surely spend much time down on Beale.

After Beale Street, I walked down to the river and around Confederate Park, which features a statue of Jefferson Davis, one-time leader of the Confederacy (to me a little incongruous in this land where civil rights came to its head) then finally heading back across the street to my hotel for a break.

I didn’t last long in my hotel. I’d been itching to pop over the Hernando de Soto bridge into Arkansas, so I could add another state to my “been there” list. It was now going on 4pm and so I got in my car and made the quick trip over the Mississippi. Oh yeah, did I mention I’m afraid of heights? The bridge soars over the river at dizzying heights, giving you the sensation of flying. As a kid, I used to amuse my parents to no end whenever we’d cross a bridge. Whenever I’d see one approaching, I’d yell “duck!” would crouch down and cover my head. My parents thought this was hilarious but I was sincerely scared of heights. So I tried to ignore the woozy feeling in my stomach and concentrate on keeping the car operable, impressed with the sight of the great river below. Once in Arkansas, I drove off the highway and had a look around, noted the farmy landscape, with no hint of Appalachian or Smoky mountains in view, just plain flat.

Back in Memphis and time for dinner, I walked four blocks from my hotel to the Flying Fish restaurant on 2nd Street, where I slurped down some fabulous fish tacos. Emerging onto the sidewalk over-stuffed, I walked back to Beale Street. I wanted more, more, more. I plunked myself down in a courtyard to listen to yet another great band. There was a crowd gathered of about 35 enthusiastic listeners and after awhile, it dawned on me that I was the only white person there. With my blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin, I’m like Lightbulb Girl. All along though I’d found the people of Memphis to be some of the most genuine, truly friendly, kind people you’ll meet anywhere. Folks seated on the bench near me asked me where I was from and soon others gravitated to the conversation. We swapped stories, enjoying the cool weather and wonderful band. Lots of laughs and smiles, lots of warmth. Just a really great time.

I spied the beginning of a beautiful sunset, so I walked the few blocks over to the Mississippi River. There I found a place where I could scamper down to the edge of the water, to the fabled banks of the Mississippi and shot a dozen photos of a spectacular, fiery sunset. Standing there, drinking in the view, I was all alone in what looked to be an abandoned industrial area. I realized going down there alone wasn’t the brightest move on my part, but I was willing to risk it since I’d be leaving the next day and the sight was so stunning. But I was cautious not to let my guard down and soon proved right to be guarded, as I was approached by a couple of ragged guys who appeared to be chemically altered. A normally relatively soft-spoken type, at times like this I use my “big, firm” voice and gave them a hearty “hello, nice night isnt it?” They receded away, mumbling to each other, and I decided it was time to scram before darkness fell and an assertive personality would be worthless for a little blonde chick in the black of night in an unfamiliar town.

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Amazing sunset over the Mississippi river in Memphis. Photo by A. La Canfora

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Day 5 – Memphis then home

Early dawn, I was trying to sleep in my Hampton Inn hotel room but laid there thinking that this was the last chance I’d have to poke around Memphis before catching my flight home later. Besides, a trip is no time for sleep, you can do that at home! So I rose from my bed, showered and dressed. The plan was to find a diner or some place interesting for breakfast. I soon learned that Memphis is not exactly a town of early-risers. I found a Denny’s, a Starbucks, the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel. But nothing, and I mean nothing else was open for business in downtown Memphis at this hour. After awhile I gave up and headed back to the hotel. I queried the desk clerk about any breakfast joints with character that might be open at this hour but she wrinkled her nose and shook her head, said that if I was willing to wait til 8am, there’d be plenty to choose from. I was famished so I gave up on this plan, grabbed a couple hard-boiled eggs from the breakfast bar and went next door to Starbuck’s for a cappuccino. Back in my room, I packed my bags, with the intention to squeeze in a tour of Sun Studio before dashing to the airport.

 Sun Studio is located in a humble little brick building at a fork in the road, a large hollow-body electric guitar sculpture adorning its exterior. It was only 10am but the place was packed with tourists, most of them elderly. It looked like I was the youngest one in the tour by about 5 years. There were few surprises for me on the tour, as I’m pretty familiar with the legend of Sam Philips and the history of his fabulous studio, but it was wonderful to see the artifacts and to bask in the presence of this shrine to early rock and roll. Some items on display; Elvis’s high school diploma and first music contract; the first microphone he’d used to record; early, monstrous-sized recording equipment, etc. The highlight was getting to stand in the actual studio, where some of the earliest rock and roll singles were recorded. I could’ve hung out there for hours, but I had a plane to catch.

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Birthplace of rock & roll. Sun Studio. Photo by A. La Canfora

Then it was on to Memphis International for the ceremonial bequeathing of the rental car back to its agency then a nasty salad for lunch in the terminal. On my flight out of Memphis to my connection at Salt Lake City, I had an interesting seat mate, a 50-something year old man by the name of Joseph. Looking like a taller version of the musician Levon Helm and sounding a bit like him too, with a Southern drawl, he told me he lived with his wife, a teacher, on 20 acres in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was taking this flight to visit his son, a smoke jumper for the forest service, out in Idaho. Clad in plaid-flannel and jeans, he had an easy-going, affable personality and wanted to chat. I wasn’t especially happy about this initially as I was very tired and was looking at a long day of travel. I’d been hoping to sleep for the duration of this flight. But I gave up on the idea and we wound up having a nice conversation, lasting nearly the entirety of the 3-hour flight. I learned his story: a high school drop-out, he’d gone into the Navy where he’d become an electrician. Once out, he’d married young and since he had kids to support he enrolled in a technical school and became an electrical engineer. The pay was good so he was able to buy land and retire young. What made his job pay so well, he said, was the fact that he’d done long stints working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Dubai, a region of the world he came to loathe. While he appreciated the pay and being his own boss, he said that if you dared utter anything negative about the country you were in, you’d get your throat slit; that the level of violence day in, day out was unreal. Joseph and I discovered we both shared a mutual fondness for documentaries, history and archaeology, so we had some common ground. We talked about movies, and he even dared ask my view points on religion and God. I winced and thought “oh boy, here we go…” But while he was religious and I’m most certainly not, we were both delighted to find that we have a mutual respect for others believing however they pleased. He was willing to hear me out and I was willing to hear him out and it was all very pleasant and civil, even humorous, no hint of rancor or condescension on either of our parts. The plane landed, we said our goodbyes, wished each other well.

Now I had a four-hour layover in Salt Lake City. If it’d been a little longer, I’d have left the airport to have a look around, but by the time I’d gotten off the plane and made my way to the gate, my time had already whittled down to 3 hours. So I used it to eat dinner (sushi), read and to type up thoughts about my trip. So I’ll conclude the story of my Great Southern Excursion with my entry from the SLC airport:

Here I am on a layover at Salt Lake City, with a chance to collect my breath and thoughts. I had steeled myself for the fact that this might be a grueling trip. The word “travel” is derived from “travail,” after all. But overall my trip couldn’t have gone smoother. There were some minor hiccups, the worse being an argument with my rental car provider, Avis. Otherwise, the trip went suspiciously well. Little went wrong and the things that did were relatively minor or things that could not have been helped (having to drive in stormy weather or missing an off-ramp, etc…). This was unequivocally one of the best trips of my life. It’s funny, even though I was traveling solo, I rarely felt alone. People (and by “people,” I mean mostly men) gravitate towards me and chat away. Something about me makes me approachable. Maybe with my shiny, yellow hair I’m like a lighthouse, a beacon in the night. Anyway, I shouldn’t question it, whatever “it” is. Maybe it’s that people picked up on the fact that I was having a blast and wanted in on it. Even here at the airport, where I managed to find a quiet corner, away from the obnoxious TVs tuned to CNN blasting Sarah Palin’s borderline screech there are still people (uh, “men”) drifting over to me, asking occasional questions, smiling and saying “hi.” But I felt safe throughout this trip (most of the time), un-harassed, un-hurried (for the most part). I had wonderful luck with all my hotel rooms. Clean, functional, well-priced. The airline didn’t lose my luggage. I didn’t come down with any viruses. And I’ve never encountered so many genuinely kind people on one trip. I ran into only a couple of sourpusses (at Lee’s chapel, or the occasional a-hole who cuts you off on the road). I got to visit with some old friends before the start of the trip in Charlottesville, including my ex-husband/still friend and our miracle kitty, Sigh, survivor of epilepsy.

I think a good measure of a trip is whether or not it changes you, leaves an indelible print and this trip definitely did that. Also, I’d had an epiphany and realized that I’ve come to the end of this particular phase of my life and am now entering a new one. I’m excited, optimistic and hopeful for the future in a way I haven’t been in years.

November 15, 2010

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