The Front, for the future

Last year I wrote about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a piece of legislation still stuck in the middle of the legislative process. I still think the bill is a great example of what I wrote about yesterday, a compromise which doesn’t sacrifice the future for the present, or vice versa. There’s a great short documentary making the circuit this summer, which you can watch online, and is worth 20 of your minutes:

All of this is particularly relevant due to the recent discussions about giving federal lands over to the states. There are many cutpoints for discussion on that issue, but one is more significant than any other: while wild places may be located in Montana, Utah, and so forth, they are also in the United States, and their significance to and for the country as a whole cannot be overstated. Everyone in the country should have, as direct as is practicable, a say in their administration.

More than anything, the Front Act would take a symbolically important step towards acknowledging this, and admitting that it is important for our future.

The democratic wild

If you live near one, come August it’s impossible to not think that the American National Park system is fatally flawed. Glacier National Park, our backyard, gets around 2.5 million visitors a year. I’ve not seen a month-to-month parsing, but my guess would by that well over 80% of those folks come in the 2.5 months between the end of June and the second week of September. Yosemite, which is more popular and during the height of winter a lot more accessible to the non-ambitious visitor, gets around 60% of its roughly 3.5 million visitors in the four month of June through September. Zion National Park is a bit more popular than Glacier, and has 90% of its commonly visited sights easily accessible 10-11 months a year. It sees a comparable approximately 60% of its visitors in a five month window, May to September.

I choose these three parks because they are all quite large, and all quite popular, and all have the overhwelming majority of their traffic focused into the quite smaller percentage of their land which can be seen from a paved road, or very close to it.

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The most relevant point here is that it is impossible for so many people to be crammed into a small space, while dealing with the ambiguity and complication of a new and overwhelming place, and still behave themselves. Summer visitors to national parks do things, as a matter of routine, which they would never imagine doing at home. They stop in the middle of a busy road to take photos. They take photos of banal items, like signs and deer. They wear peculiar clothes. They feed cracker jacks to squirrels and mountain goats. They take photos with iPads, often tripping over things, and occasionally in the process falling into streams and over cliffs. They are loud; in voice, manner, and metaphysical proximity. They are rude; to families, strangers, themselves, and most egregiously the workers who give them directions, take their parks passes, and serve them coffee. Humans in national parks during the height of the summer season show everyday humanity at its langorous and unintentional worst.

Much though I try not to believe it, these tourists are not contemptabile people. Indeed, back home they not doubt behave much as I do while immersed in the familiar routines of daily living. I must believe that they behave as they do because they cannot view a national park as home, or indeed as part of the real world. The combination of so much unaltered and spectacular, inhuman nature combines with the absurd rules and crowds of the national parks to form an un-save situation in which sane (or to use a more accurate term, normal) behavior would in context be quite insane itself.

This is the most compelling argument for a greater breadth of human-powered activities in national parks. The idea of national parks is not struggling for relevancy on a theoretical, or even on a policy level, but on a visceral one. A lot of outdoor neophytes come to parks enthusiastic, or at least curious, and I would suspect leave disappointed. The reward which comes with an involved backcountry traverse should not be dumbed down, as there is no substitute for the satisfaction of a skillset cultivated over a decade, but too many visitors experience national parks as little different than Disneyland, and anything which might help them break through to the other side of the wall will for the future be of benefit.

Anything, that is, except that which would (as the Organic Act says) negatively impact the preservation of the parks, for future generations. Its hard to have a productive conversation about this, because of the normative judgements which come hard and fast. An understandable state of affairs, as most everyone talking about this has a high level of personal investment, but not particularly helpful. Even Hayduke himself recently penned one of the more hackneyed works on the subject, largely it would seem due to his own anger at what seems like a growing cultural disengagement with wild places.

The most helpful response here is not to close the portcullis, run up the flag, and man the gates. If we cannot look at the history of the national parks and see, from George Bird Grinnell through TR, Bob Marshall, and indeed Abbey and Peacock, that personal experience with the wilderness (lower case) is a prerequisite for substantive action. The tendancy amongst the establishment over the last 40 years, as wisdom and perspective has shown how much has been lost alongside that which was gained, has been to save what is left by freezing the status quo, at all costs and against any change.

This ideal has the virtue of simplicity. It also makes any future a rather bleak affair, by removing any politcal dynamism from what are otherwise the most creative parts of the world left to us: those places where we have the least influence, over small and large scale changes. On a personal level Mr. Peacocks intentional hyperbole in the above essay can be excused. As policy, he has done himself and his cause a great disservice, as well as striking a ringing blow against intellectual honesty and for the current climate of political hysteria.

Thus far I’ve been conflating American National Parks and wilderness. Lower case wilderness is land where human influence is only visible on a secondary, or more remote, level. It can be, but is not necessarily, the same as juridical Wilderness, which is protected by the aforementioned law. There is in the US today wilderness which is not deemed as Wilderness, and Wilderness with very little wilderness left. Often this last contradiction is due to nothing more than size; in a world of the internet and interstate highway, wilderness demands a certain size so that it may well and sufficiently exceed the artificially augmented human imagination.

This is the primary importance of wilderness, and of the National Parks. Modern humans often need a vehicle of introduction and interpretation in order to become acquainted with wilderness on a visceral, intelligible level. The primary mission of national parks, and of Wilderness, is to preserve venues so that this may be possible in the future. The secondary mission is to facilitate this introduction.

Proscriptive, not normative, guidelines can be built of the tension which will always exist between these two. Should horses be allowed in Wilderness? On the one hand they make the area functionally smaller, and demand more from trail crews. On the other, they facilitate depth of immersion for folks who would otherwise not have such experiences. Should mountain bikes be allowed in Wilderness (or wilderness)? Bikes also make such areas smaller (the most compelling argument by far in my book, perhaps the only valid one). They might also increase human-wildlife conflict (though rhetoric has largely preempted research on this question). Mountain biking does promote a different and in many ways more intimate minute-to-minute relationship with the landscape than hiking, by virtue of its added complexity, and is thus in some ways a better teacher.*

These questions, and others, should be resolved with exclusive reference to the above balance. Personal, aesthetic preference has no place here, because there is too much at state.

 

* Does anyone really think Bob Marshall notched up all those 40 mile hiking days just so see could see more trees? Or that John Muir climbed volcanos and peaks merely so he could see over the next ridge? Extra-pedestrian intimacy with the wilderness has always been best served by extraordinary exertion. Were he around today Mr. Marshall would ride a mountain bike, and he would not ride it for only 20 miles a day.

Excuse me, there’s meat in my cheeseburger

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Just hiking.

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Into the hidden world.

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The story?

Post-hike at the Two Med Grill M meant to order a grilled cheese, but actually ordered a cheeseburger on sourdough with swiss and cheddar, no veggies. A good idea, but not what she had in her head. When plates arrived confusion reigned for 15 seconds, and the aforementioned phrase was uttered, much to the amusement of all.

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The sandwich itself was quite amazing, in a tripartite grease bomb sort of way, and should become a regular menu item. Get it with tomato slices if you’re not a fruit hater.

Fear, hello again

Spencer and I had a fantastic run on the North Fork of the Blackfoot yesterday, one of the best whitewater runs in the Bob. So great was the fun, and so continuous and fast was the action, that this is the only photo I took all day.

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I first ran this stretch a long time ago. I hadn’t had my raft for very long, and to convince myself I was ready to run the Selway with Forrest and Luc I wanted to find and run something hard.  It felt pretty tough to me at the time, and provided the requisite boost in confidence.

It still felt hard yesterday, especially with 1/3 again the volume of my previous two runs.  Whitewater is not really my thing, constitutionally, and throughout my packrafting I’ve sought out technical runs at the absolute basement-possible flow, the better to have control and not get pushed down and around.

While static sports like climbing were what I was raised on, more dynamic activities like (in order of fluidity) mountain biking, skiing, and boating have made their appeal known.  Letting go in a planned fashion and having to respond to challenges in the moment, and not entirely on your own terms, is a good thrill and under the right circumstances, an even better teacher.

It’s something I still find intimidating, and those don’t seek out all that often.  There were plenty of times yesterday when I was tempted to get out and scout, not out of necessity, but to contemplate and thus delay the inevitable.  Mostly I resisted the temptation, and just boat scouted and ran it.

The North Fork at around 350 cfs has both a bit of backbone and lots of technical ledge drops and rock dodging.  Neither of us swam yesterday, though we both got close on a number of occasions.  Spencer took about 20 seconds I pry himself off one big mid-rapid rock (which I hadn’t entirely avoided either), and I got a little lazy at the last drop of one of the longer sequences and was a goat hair away from a classic packraft bandersnatch, only just getting in a brace.  Moreso than usual, fun is not nearly nuanced enough to be an appropriate descriptor.

I’m still running my 2010 Yak with the then-standard cruiser deck.  Spencer has a 2013 Llama with all the bells and whistles, including the forward seating position whitewater deck.  Between me having to dump often and getting bucked around all the time, it’s easy to see that were whitewater more of a habit, I’d need a new boat.  As is I appreciate the lighter weight, and smaller packed size; which are better for wilderness, and the reduced length and greater floatation (thanks to the bigger forward tubes), which are better for the micro-creeks which I still prefer most of the time.

Western Montana packrafters: the Blackfoot is at an ideal level.  Get out there, and don’t forget your helmet.

Paradox Unaweep: the category killer

Regular readers will know that I have a deep and abiding fascination with backpacks, though terms such as obsession or problem would not be entirely amiss.  This being the case, the Paradox Unaweep I’ve been using for not quite three months now presents a serious problem.

Our lookout rental this past weekend was a steep (300 vertical feet) quarter mile trail from the car.  As seen below, the obvious and easy solution to getting our beer, wine (and large block of ice), steak, ribs, bacon, and so forth up there was to strap the cooler to the Unaweep and carry it.  I’d spitball the total weight at 60 pounds, and aside from the inherent awkwardness and poor weight distribution, the pack did very well, and by well I mean that the belt stayed put with no more tightening required than if I’d been carrying 15 pounds.

As I’ve been running the Unaweep (detailed below), it weighs a bit over 3 pounds.  That attributes like these so easily coexist breaks a lot of rules.

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M photo.

Obsession is fed by new things, which in the case at hand is fed by dissatisfaction.  Occasionally I’ve bought or built a pack out of the desire to just try something new, but almost always the primary or only mover has been things which didn’t work properly on a recent outing.

Increasingly, I’ve become disgusted with new stuff for new stuffs sake, and am thus very loath to keep messing with new packs unless I have a good reason.  The problem here is that the Unaweep doesn’t give me much.  It can carry anything I can fit in it, as comfortably as I believe a pack can.  It’s tough.  It’s close enough in weight to anything save much smaller, less durable, and/or less capable (and usually all three) packs that not bringing the Unaweep, or trying to replace it for a given task, just seems silly.  For example, back in June I brought this pack to save weight.  I regretted it the whole time, because the Unaweep would have done so much better.

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I have made a few modifications to the Unaweep as it came to me.  The big one was building the two chambered orange camo pocket shown above and below.  The side-opening pockets measure roughly 16 inches high, 6 wide, and 6 deep when stuffed full.  Together they add a bit more capacity over the stock Paradox Talon pocket, and quite a bit more organizational capacity.  The blaze fabric, a 600D polyester plain weave from Rockywoods, was the only thing I could find of a decent weight and in non-monolithic orange.  Good for hunting season, it has actually ended up being an impressively tough and waterproof fabric.  This project was a huge success.

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Unaweep 3900 at right, HMG Porter 4400 at left.  M photo.

Additionally, I added a haul loop near the shoulders, fixed the bottom compression straps to buckles on the bag (rather than the bottom of the Talon), cut out the carbon rod and associated fabric near the top of the frame, and sealed some of the seams.  Eventually I’ll add a hydration hose port.

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A haul handle is nice for donning and doffing the pack, and very nice for hauling it on a rope, which I don’t do all that often.  If you put a half-twist into your handles they stand out a bit more, and are easier to grab with mittens.

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Having the bottom panel attached to the bag makes compressing the bottom when the bag is not full a bit easier to do, and possible independent of the Talon.  The Unaweep 3900 is long and thin, and when it’s not full keeping the weight from sagging to the bottom is crucial.

These things being done, I’m left with very few beefs.  The side pockets are rudimentary, but perfectly effective.  The pack is around 5-6 inches deep, which is quite skinny, and can limit how you pack larger things (to keep them from poking you in the back).  The benefit is a load which is exceptionally close to the body, a price I’m more than willing to pay.  The pack is also quite wide (14″ at the bottom), which is occasionally less than ideal when down climbing or scrambling through tight rocky places.  The metal frame along the bottom is also a concern when I pack it in my Scout, which on first try put it unpadded against the floor, something easily fixed with a foam bad or just the hipbelt wrapped around the right way.  Again, when I think about making a pack to address these issues I come back to how much I’d be giving up in the quality of the load carry, and leave well enough alone.  Easy to do given how well the VX-42 fabric has held up to everything, and how the pocket array and compression panel easily manages everything I want of it, from packrafting gear to rifle to snowshoes to ice axe and skis.

Aside from a smaller pack for day trips and light 2-3 day hikes, the Unaweep seems to be all I need for everything I do.  Imagine my disappointment.

30

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It’s a secret.

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Six months; that’s the lead time for reserving a forest service lookout around here.  For July that means you need to be thinking about sandal hiking right as ski season is fully firing, and with most lookouts only open during the non-snow season (July-September), there is not time to mess around.  Fortunately I thought to ask M the question early enough, so we had suitable accommodations.

We’ve done quite a few cabin trips now.  They’re always pleasant, but plans for hiking or skiing in the area always end up watered down in favor of reading, hanging around, cooking, eating, and just looking.  Given their original purpose, fire lookout towers are perfect for this.

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There was a lot to look at, especially at dawn and dusk, and a lot of time to look, as with such unimpeded access to all horizons we had readable light between 0530 and 2315.

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Happy birthday M.

Where Bears are Spotted

There have been many occasions over the last three years when I’ve thought about counting all the trees in the Bob.

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Chatting with the guys at RMO the other day I repeated for the upteenth time, to myself and others, that one of the greatest virtues of packrafting in these parts is getting you out of the forested-in trails along valley bottoms and out in the middle of streams and lakes, where you can see things better.  A lot of the most multifaceted, spectacular valleys in the Glacier/Bob complex, like the Waterton and Middle Mokowanis, are only visible occasionally from the trail.  In a boat you can see things well and constantly, at least when looking around won’t immediately get you stuck on a rock.

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I have a long list of rivers and creeks still to paddle in the Crown ecosystem (and that’s not counting Canada).  I have a rather shorter list of waterways which I think have a good chance of not being manky woodfests.  Yesterday the river at the top, the Spotted Bear from Dean Creek to the South Fork, got checked off.

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The bike shuttle in the morning confirmed that my cratering and having to walk last year was somewhat justified: there’s a lot of climbing on the Spotted Bear road.

The above pack is the latest day-and-a-half iteration.  Key feature for both functionality and simplicity: full side zip.  Good for skiing, as it keeps the snow off the back panel, and for rafting, as you can lash your pack on and get into it while floating.

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Gorgeous out there; the “Great” is not really necessary.  No bears seen, as they’re likely smart enough to be hanging out way up high.

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There was just enough water right at Dean Creek (above), and the float back to the South Fork river access took five hours.  I had to get out and carry twice, once for a log in the lower reaches, and once at the seived-out and shallow Spotted Bear Falls.  Mostly the whole float was fun, engaging, and fantastic.

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As seem to be usual in this part of the Bob, there were a few places like the above where you have to pull over, stand around, and pinch yourself.

Overall, highly recommended.

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The full sun rig

It’s not too often I have cause to dress only for sun and heat, but there always at least a few weeks mid-summer, and this year they are here right now. Thankfully, I’ve finally discovered the missing link in my system for multiday backcountry trips when it’s darn hot.

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M photo.

As per above; I have shades, cheapo synthetic truckers hat, and a homemade cancer curtain on my head, long sleeve thrift store shirt and wicking synthetic t-shirt on my torso, and shorts. If the sun and/or is really bad or I’m bushwacking I’ll add pants, but strongly prefer shorts.

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I try to minimize sunscreen because in the backcountry it’s a non-renewable resource, and gets in your eyes when you sweat.  The cancer curtain shown above is key to making this work.  It’s a simple 2/3s of a bandana sewn over a thin piece of shock cord, with a small cord lock on the end.  Not my idea, by the way, but a very good one.  It goes over any hat, and even helmets if you leave enough cord, and can be stowed when not needed.  Custom cut it for length and width, so it reaches your collar with a bit to spare, and just doesn’t get in your peripheral vision.

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A cotton/poly blend dress shirt, in a very light and light-colored fabric is a great tool for hot sun, and cheap.  It keep the sun off, and can be soaked in creeks for cooling.  The issue has always been the boggy chafe after a few days of continuous wear.  The solution this summer has been to wear a Mountain Hardwear Way 2 Cool t-shirt underneath.  I thought the fabric tech here was hype until I found one half-off at Zion Adventure Company this spring.  Now I’m a believer.  It wicks and dries incredibly fast, and the combo of a close fitting synthetic t-shirt under a cotton shirt has proven the best I’ve used.

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Most thrift shirts will require a bit of tailoring for optimum fit.  The new one above is a large, which I need for long enough sleeves, but the diameter of the chest is a full 2 inches larger than I prefer.

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Simply take in the side seams to fix this.  You’ll want fairly straight seams, but it doesn’t need to be especially neat.  Cut off the extra, and roll the seam and sew again to keep unraveling at bay.  Further mods I usually are taking any plastic stiffeners out of the collar, and sometimes shortening the tails in front.

My favorite hiking shorts, by far, are the various Patagonia board shorts.  All are expensive.  The stretch ones are more comfortable, the heavier non-stretch fabrics a bit more durable.  The key feature here is the waistband, which is totally flat under a hipbelt.  The bunched elastic common to most running shorts sucks under a decent pack load.  I wish Patagonia put this design on a pair of pants.

On the subject of pants, finding good summer pants is tough.  Look for a 100% nylon, probably plain weave, under 4 ounces a yard, and in a baggy fit.  This should result in something fairly breezy, while still being bug resistant and tough enough.

All I need besides this is a bit of sunscreen on my nose and backs of hands and I’m good to go.

The First Packraft Roundup

M and I got home a few hours ago from the APA Packraft Roundup, and even though it was early afternoon, we were both done in.

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It has been hot the last few days; record breaking for northwest Montana, which means mid 90s. Good river weather, but being out in it all day for three days non-stop made it tough to stay un-jerkyfied. Drinking beer with new friends makes that process harder still.

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It was enormously rewarding to lead paddling groups on Saturday and Sunday.  Saturday we had 18 beginner paddlers out with three instructors on one of my favorite after-work routes: lower McDonald Creek to the confluence of the South and Middle Forks.  I believe around half of those 18 folks had never been in a packraft more than a few times before, if that.  Everyone learned well enough, and was in high enough spirits, that we kept the whole gaggle of 20 boats and 21 people together all day.  Seeing so many bright little craft bobbing over the waves of the Middle Fork, and then a train of a dozen hikers with paddles and PFDs on the hike back to the circle bridge, is a joy I cannot yet elucidate.

Sunday was quite different, but just as satisfying.  Mike from American Rivers, as well as John and Matt from Tasmania, joined me on a favorite hiking and paddling loop up in the North Fork.  John had given a very impressive slideshow the night before of the exceptionally remote and rugged trips he and Matt have done in western Tasmania over the last decade, and as we were starting out it occurred to me that I had the thinnest paddling resume in the group.  The terrain was all new to the three of them, and it was fantastic to see such new and unalloyed appreciation for a lovely but subtle and obscure patch of terrain.  When it came time to float we negotiated the smallish, fast and woody creek in seamless form, dispensing with a few portages and strategic ducks under strainers easily and with great humor.  Taking a group on a new to them 25 mile loop, and making it seem easy after getting an 11am start, is a rare and beautiful thing.  We undid all that ease with a lot of beer afterwards, but it was all in the service of meeting members of the still thing and far-flung band of packrafters.

I’m headed back to work tomorrow, while a bunch of folks are headed out in to the Bob with rafts in tow.  The enthusiasm is quite infectious.

The annual visit

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Let us suppose you win the lottery with the ticket you’ve never bought, or some other comparable hypothetical, and have practically infinite leisure options for the rest of your life. Let use further suppose, given that you’re reading this, that outdoor pursuits would feature prominently in the eternally recurring debate which would no doubt ensue. Amongst all the options vying for your attention, which places would you return to every year? Which would get the annual visit?

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The South Fork of the Flathead would be on my list, along with a very few others.  Specifically, the section between the origin at the confluence of Danaher and Youngs and the mouth of the Whiter River.

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It’s not the most gobsmacking valley.  The treed foothills rise a thousand feet from the broad river plain, only occasionally hinting at the big mountains 3000 vertical feet and 10 or more linear miles away.  The glory of the upper south fork is in the remoteness, the subtle terrain, and the feeling of a raw landscape.  The valleys have never been logged.  The flora and fauna have survived european colonization largely intact.  The native fishery is intact, guarded from Lake Trout by the reservoir below and Rainbows stocked in alpine lakes by the rugged and cold streams.  Aside from the trails and the remenants of the old phone line, it’s easy to imagine you’re looking out as a trapper would have circa 1830.

And the water.  The water and the riverbed below it might be the most gorgeous on earth.  I’ve yet to see their equal.

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After this trip I’ve floated every stretch of the wilderness South Fork at least three times.  While the options for new entrances and exits, and unseen seasons, remain immense, I do have a certain familiarity with the South Fork.  The best thing about our route this past weekend wasn’t seeing new terrain, like White River Pass above, but in seeing M, Luke, and Spencer witness new-to-them terrain.  I can never recreate my own first trip four years ago, but helping others have their own experience is a very nice substitute.

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I think we’ll all be back.

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