Central London, England

It seems unfair to stuff a week in London into one post, but most of my time (this past April) was spent at the National Archives, the British Library and a few other research sites, so I only spent a day exploring. I had also spent a week in London in 2004 and (unsurprisingly) the city was unchanged.

For the purpose of this post we will go through the city in a circle, and technically we are not in London at all. We are in Westminster, a suburb of the ancient city, but the government buildings and palaces are there, so we all conveniently call the area London, by default. Here is your humble correspondent at Buckingham Palace – official residence of the Queen.

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I happened to be there the week of an international conference, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in which prime ministers from current and former British colonies came to chat and pose for photos. Here is the view of The Mall, which is the street leading from Buckingham Palace to the National Art Gallery, and beyond. I assume the placement of the flags was based on population, with those of Britain, Canada and Australia closest to the Palace, behind me in the photo

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and the flags of Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (on the left) and Brunei and Antigua (on the right) farthest from the palace, which stands in the distance. You may notice there is no car traffic, because they street is usually closed on Sundays.

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Going farther up The Mall is Trafalgar Square, home to the National Gallery of Art, but I am remiss to explain why I did not take a photo of the gallery. Instead, I took one of the Canadian Embassy. Its official name is High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom, which is not nearly as impressive as the building itself.

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Turning back from The Mall we go down Whitehall, leading to the government buildings. Halfway between Trafalgar Square and the houses of Parliament is something called Horse Guards Parade, the place where men in jovial uniforms and shimmering helmets ride in on horseback, to the delight of tourists. This is the parade area. For the purpose of the photo, this was taken on a side street, with Whitehall on the other side of the buildings.

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Farther down Whitehall is the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets, and (again) the space is so confined I had to take a photo from across the Thames River to get the full effect. The famous clock tower called Big Ben is under renovation, and obscured by scaffolding. On the left of the large tower with the flag, in the distance behind the trees, are the towers of Westminster Abbey.

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Now imagine you are in the same place I was when I took the photo: the southern bank of the Thames River. We will proverbially turn around to the sight of Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ranking clergyman in the Church of England (a.k.a. the Anglican Church). This is the side of the palace that runs along the river. The modest black door leads to a courtyard behind the wall, then goes to the palace archives, where I did some research for a book. It was in this archive that I found a letter written in 1762 which warned that the American colonies might someday want independence. It happened fourteen years later, of course.

 

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To the right of the photo above is the brick guardhouse, built about 1495, and here is the same guardhouse from the front. I had mistakenly thought this was the entrance to Lambeth Palace itself, because it looks so old. Alas, it is not. Beside it on the right is a former church called Saint-Mary-at-Lambeth, now turned into a museum of gardening.

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Now we will cross over the Thames River again and go on to a better known religious site, Westminster Abbey. It is across the street from the Palace of Westminster – where Parliament meets, remember? – and it is also in a rather confined space, so I had a devil of a time (pun intended) finding the right spot to get a photo of the whole building.

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It is here that many in the royal family are buried – Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V, Mary, Queen of Scots, and others, along with some bishops and nobility from hundreds of years ago. It is beautiful and dark and spooky inside, but one thing that struck me about the site is this: the British charge twenty pounds (each) for tourists to enter Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a mile or so away, while the French charge nothing for tourists to enter the equally famous Notre-Dame, and other medieval churches in Paris.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

This is a brief entry, inspired by that of three days ago, with the photos of antelope in Wyoming. I live in New Jersey, where a deer is the biggest mammal one can see in an everyday setting, and they are so ubiquitous that you hardly notice them by the side of the road. This is likely true for people in Wyoming, of course, who see antelope all the time.

Thus, when I drove to Colorado (before getting to Wyoming), I was aware that I might see big game mammals. After crossing the Kansas-Colorado border and having breakfast at the I-70 Diner, with a floating pink car to lure in customers from the highway

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I crossed the Colorado plateau, then skipped Denver and took the bypass to Estes Park, which is the trendy, happening, expensive tourist trap/paradise just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Apparently, the town is jammed with tourists in summer, which is another reason why I went in October.

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As you can see, it was overcast and drizzly that day, but I was there and did not want to find a hotel for the night in such a trendy, happening, expensive tourist trap/paradise (did I mention that already?). So I went into the national park. This is Fall River Visitor Center.

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Like other national parks, there is a loop road that leads visitors on a prescribed route, and they frequently stop their cars by the side of the road to take photos.  Many visitors are from Colorado and go to Rocky Mountain N.P. on a routine basis, while others (like me) make long journeys to see the wonders of the West. In this case, it was a herd of elk, something I had never seen before, and although they are simply bigger and fancier versions of the white tail deer I see in New Jersey, it was a thrill to see them for the first time.

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Below is a pair of males jousting with their antlers. It was the rut season, but these two appeared to be too young to actually mate, because they would dip their heads and rattle their antlers a few seconds, then turn and walk a few yards, then do it again, then walk away, then joust, and so forth, with no attempt to actually win the contest.

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It was already afternoon when I got there, and the sky was not cooperating, so I am intent on returning someday – perhaps in summer to battle the crowds, or perhaps in early spring when the view is better and I have more time for a few days of exploring the mysteries of the Rocky Mountains.

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Thunder Basin, Wyoming

This blog is taking things out of chronological order, for the slightly embarrassing reason that I am using hand held cameras from the drug store, and not a cellphone, to take photographs, and I do not know which camera has which photos inside. So it’s a mystery what I will get back with each visit to the photo lab.

Today it is Thunder Basin, Wyoming, which I saw the day after visiting Fort Laramie and Scott’s Bluff (which are not on this blog yet, though, because that camera is still in my car). I was on my way to the Mount Rushmore area and decided to take a long drive through what looked like empty territory in eastern Wyoming – and the emptiness was, naturally, an added benefit for going.

The first stop was for breakfast in Bill, Wyoming. on Route 59, at a diner which advertises that it is open 24 hours a day. It is across the road from what looks like a railroad depot, with frequent trains coming and going, carrying freight, and I assume most of the clientele are either coal miners or railroad employees.

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Continuing up Route 59 takes one through Thunder Basin National Grassland, which is prime grazing country for cattle and sheep.

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I saw this herd of sheep next to the road, and spooked them just before taking the photo, then coincidentally turned and saw the sign signifying exactly what was the preferred livestock in the area.

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Up the road I went, and got to the town of Wright, where I turned right on Route 490, going towards South Dakota. I had already noticed – in several states – the many long convoys of railroad cars taking what I presumed was coal to some distant market. It was on this journey I saw the evidence, at Thunder Basin Coal Company, which claims to be the largest surface coal mine in North America.

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Notice the railroad tracks going through the property below. This is across the road from the photos above

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Along the way I found another type of livestock, although one which is not taken to market. The state of Wyoming is home to four hundred thousand pronghorn, which  many people simply call antelope, and they are apparently free to go wherever they want to graze on the rich grasses of the Equality State.

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Like the sheep, most pronghorn/antelope wander in herds and run away as soon as a human gets out of their car, and the faster I ran to take a good photo the faster they retreated from view (they are just to the left of the trees in this photo)

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However, this one politely stood alone by the side of the road, ready to be photographed like an aspiring movie actress.

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The morning had turned to afternoon, and I wanted to make Mount Rushmore before sundown. But the idea that people are willing to live in this remote area, and the obvious success of the coal industry (with the wealth and stability it brings) were just as inspiring to me as the sight of carved faces on a mountainside. In fact, the presence of those carved faces led me to this area to begin with, which may not have happened otherwise.

 

 

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Boonville, Glasgow, and Arrow Rock, Missouri

While in Montana I followed sites for Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River, so I will continue that theme. So the story goes backwards one week. While driving through Missouri on the trip west, I pulled off Interstate 70 at signs for Boonville, knowing that Daniel Boone spent the last years of his life in Missouri. But the town is not named for the famous explorer; it is named for two of his sons, Nathan and Daniel Morgan Boone.

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I followed signs to the visitor center, which is next door to the historic train station (above), and saw a display of local artifacts and stories about early pioneers.  But looking beyond the train station I sensed something more interesting, and walked a hundred yards to an old train bridge over the Missouri River.  A few blocks away is a car bridge over the same river, showing the train bridge in the distance.

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Across the road, next to the railroad tracks going along the Missouri, is a grain elevator for MFA, a farmer’s cooperative. I admire the look of such buildings, functional and yet distinct against the background.

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Boonville has its own historic district and features the 19th century Cooper County Jail, in a residential neighborhood. I walked several blocks in a circle trying to find it; I may have actually walked right by it looking for something more majestic, but this is obviously more fitting for the frontier.

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About ten miles north of Boonville is Boone’s Lick State Historic Site, which is tucked away on a side road and was once a prime hunting spot. Deer came to lick the salt from a stream and settlers came to hunt the deer, then set up a salt works, which was a frontier industry in which men harvested and boiled water to produce salt, taking barrels of it to cities like St. Louis for sale. In the days before refrigerators and preservatives, people needed salt to keep food from spoiling. The historic site is really just a field with a few signs explaining the process.

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By now I was in an area with no bridge across the river, so I went north to Glasgow, which has another train station and another MFA grain elevator next to (another) road crossing the Missouri River.

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I crossed the river intent on getting back to the interstate, but along the way I saw signs for Arrow Rock State Historic Site, and spontaneously followed them. The town is actually close to Boonville, but inaccessible due to the river, and it required making a round about route through Gilliam and Slater, then a five or six mile drive through farm country to Arrow Rock. I did not know what to expect, but the area is actually a village with a visitors center and displays well worth the effort.  There is a neighborhood preserved with historic buildings.

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The brick building below is billed as the oldest surviving tavern west of the Mississippi River,

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and this area is billed as the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail, which led all the way to New Mexico back when that was a dangerous journey through Indian country.

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The charm of such sites is not only a reminder that places we now think of as tame were once wild, maybe lawless. We watch old western movies and see men settle their differences with fistfights or shootouts, and a town like Boonville and Arrow Rock – 150 miles west of Saint Louis – must have featured something similar in the 1840’s. But there is another reason to keep these old buildings intact: no matter where we live, we want to think that our area has some special significance, something unique that sets it apart from the Big City Far Away. And in Boonville, Glasgow and Arrow Rock, they have it.

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Pompey’s Pillar, and the Lewis and Clark Trail, Montana

In 1803, the United States government bought (from the French) a vast area of land known as the Louisiana Territory, although only a small part was actually in what we know as Louisiana. It stretched up through the prairie states and the Rocky Mountains, and symbolized the mystery of the frontier. The following year, the government sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the territory, reach the Pacific Ocean, and – if they were lucky – come back to tell the tale.

Lewis and Clark left St. Louis and followed the Missouri River north and west: stopping to meet Sioux and Mandan Indian tribes, shoot bison, get chased by grizzly bears, make dugout canoes, and generally live the ultimate walkabout. They met Sacagewea, who led them farther west to meet the Shoshone Tribe and ascend the Rocky Mountains. Eventually they walked and canoed across Oregon and saw the Pacific Ocean, then turned around and made it back to what they knew as civilization, on the East Coast. Much of the land they discovered remains as it did two hundred years ago, and many of the sites they visited are marked today.

The first site I reached was Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, in southeastern Montana. It is a large rock (named after Sacagewea’s child) which pokes out of the ground and could be seen for several miles, and it made a good reference point for traveling tribes. The park service thoughtfully [?] put up a teepee, with Pompey’s Pillar seen on the right.

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William Clark climbed up this giant rock and saw Native American carvings, so he thought it was appropriate to carve his name and the date (July 25, 1806) into it as well. Many others who followed in the years since did the same. Clark’s name is still there, preserved under glass to protect it from vandals. I admit it was a small thrill to be standing at the exact spot where Clark stood: leaning against the rock with a knife in one hand to record his visit for posterity.

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There is a staircase leading to the top of the Pillar, and I imagine the view is just as good now as it was then.

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The surveyors continued west up the Missouri, and the Montana state government has marked several areas along Interstate 90, with brown and white signs showing Lewis and Clark, pointing west. You can get on or off the highway whenever the mood strikes. This is one site where the adventurers camped for a few days.

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Their journey took them as far west as the Missouri River could go, and they discovered that the great waterway was actually formed by three smaller rivers. They named these after the President (Thomas Jefferson), the Secretary of State (James Madison) and the Secretary of the Treasury (Albert Gallatin).  The unassuming area is Missouri Headwaters State Park, with a few dilapidated wooden buildings from a 19th century village still standing.

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Eventually, I found the place where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers meet to form the Missouri, but it did not seem historic or important in person. It is just another shallow creek flowing into a second and third creek. Yet it was from there that thousands of Indian hunting parties made their way east through the prairie, over several centuries, and thousands more fur trappers and cowboys and gold seekers made their way west.  There is a traditional song, called “Shenandoah,” which has a mysterious origin and changing lyrics, but the theme is that of a man going to the western frontier, thinking of his home farther east. It is sad and romantic, and presumably sung at isolated camp fires in the wilderness. “Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you,  look away you rolling river, I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri.” This is where the Missouri begins, and ended, for many of those travelers.

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Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Naturally, it is difficult to write a post about Yellowstone, since it is so famous. It is a cliche to say that Yellowstone is beautiful, or majestic, or inspiring – just as it would be if describing the Grand Canyon. And a few photos will not do the park justice, either. Yet, no tour of America could be complete without a stop at this beautiful and majestic and inspiring place.

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I approached it from Montana. using the northwest entrance.  It was early October, and a light snow had fallen overnight, and I drove the eighty miles from Bozeman to Gardiner with some of the snow still on my car’s hood. This was taken along the Yellowstone River, just north of Gardiner.

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Once inside the park it was still a five or ten minute drive to Albright Visitor Center, which featured rangers in bright yellow vests standing in the road and asking people to stay in their cars – which seemed strange, until I saw that several elk had decided to eat breakfast on the lawn of the visitor center. This is, apparently, a common occurrence in the area, and in a few minutes the small herd had wandered in back of the building and disappeared.

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My first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, just south of Albright, and one of the main reasons why people love the park. It is on top of a geothermal area, with deposits of calcium carbonate, and an endless cloud of steam rises out of the ground. There is a sulfuric smell around the springs as well, with signs warning visitors  to stay on the boardwalk to prevent falling through the brittle crust of ground. People have been scalded when their legs went through. It is worth two photos.

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The road going south, to Old Faithful Geyser, was closed, so I turned back to Albright Visitor Center and took the northern loop road, which meant that I would spend more time in the park than planned. I had hoped to reach Grand Teton National Park on the same day, but the closed road prevented that from happening. Of course, that turned out to be a good thing. After an hour I turned south, toward Canyon Village, and stopped at the parking lot for Tower Fall, which drops 132 feet into Tower Creek and the Yellowstone River. I walked down the trail – it has a railing until the last hundred feet or so – and from there it is a slightly dangerous zig-zag  over rocks and gravel to the water’s edge.

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I climbed the trail again and continued south. The roads of Yellowstone National Park form a giant figure eight pattern, with visitors going on the outside loops or, if they choose, through the middle road. Between these roads are the Rocky Mountains, ready to be explored by hearty campers and hikers who are willing to spend the night and take their chances.

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I took the road more traveled, past Canyon Village and along the Yellowstone River to Fishing Bridge, at the north end of Yellowstone Lake, It covers 136 square miles and has a shoreline 110 miles long.

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A few miles south of Fishing Bridge is a field (if that’s the right word) of steam rising from the ground, just at the lake’s edge.  In this case there were no warning signs, just the visitor’s common sense not to get too close.

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After seeing the steaming ground at the lake I drove a few miles south, and a thousand feet higher in elevation, with views of the distant mountains. At one point I drove across the Continental Divide, which marks the point where rivers flow either west, to the Pacific Ocean, or east, to the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. You can see the snow was deep enough for someone to build two snowmen: one on each side of me.

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Now the road turned west, at the bottom end of the giant figure eight pattern, then north again. It was fortunate that the road at Mammoth Hot Springs was closed, because it meant Old Faithful was my last stop of the day – as if it were dessert for the banquet I had witnessed. I arrived between five and six o’clock, so there was a smaller crowd than would be there at noon, or in August. One of the reasons I went west in October was specifically to avoid the summer crowds.

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We waited, staring at an uninteresting hint of steam rising from the ground. We knew approximately when the geyser would erupt (it’s faithful, after all), and the crowd predictably got bigger with every passing minute. I expected a rumbling sound, or a shaking of the ground under my feet, but nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, the geyser simply bubbled up, slowly, rising into the air so quietly that someone facing the other direction would not know it was happening at all. And there was no ooohs or aaahs from the crowd, either. We all simply watched in silence as the water and steam rose, and dissipated.

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From there it was an hour’s drive to the town of West Yellowstone, past another field of steaming land. Is it fair to say I was getting jaded at the spectacle of the park? It seems disrespectful to say that, by the end of the day, a sight like the one below was just another glance out the car window, while wondering where I would have dinner that night. Of course I should have stayed more than one day at the park, and after a drive to Missoula and Helena I doubled back and went through Yellowstone a second time – reaching Grand Teton to boot. There were many other wonders to behold on this particular two week journey through the West, but none quiet as wonderful.

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Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota

We are leaving Kansas, skipping over Nebraska for the moment, and going up to South Dakota. There are five National Park Service sites in the western part of the state, including Jewel Cave National Monument.

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Jewel Cave is located within the Black Hills, which were named by the Lakota Sioux Indians [“paha sapa” apparently translates to ‘hills that are black’]. In 1868, the U. S. government agreed to give the Black Hills to the Sioux, forever, but we all know how tenuous such promises turned out to be.

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In 1874, the U. S. Army sent Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry to find a suitable place for a new fort. There were rumors of gold buried in them thar hills, and within a few months miners, con men, and settlers poured into the area. The Indians had to either fight, or flee, or both, and Custer met them on a different set of hills (on the Little Bighorn) in 1876.

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The cave was first discovered in 1900, by two men who felt a breeze coming from a hole in a hillside. They put dynamite in the hole to blast it open so they could crawl through, and when I walked by this original opening, a breeze still came from inside the cave. The U.S. Government named the cave a national landmark in 1908, and the Park Service took over in 1933, building a cabin and a pathway to the opening.

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The dirt pathway leads down the hillside – seen here in early October – and it is easy to understand why it took so long for anyone to find the cave itself. One can be distracted by the beauty of this surrounding area.

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All these photos are from the original area of the national landmark. A modern visitor center was opened in 1972, with an elevator leading down into the cave, where tourists can marvel at the twinkling calcite crystals. I admit I never went on that part of the tour, knowing I had seen the more rustic version of the cave a mile away, and while it may be true that I missed something beautiful, I am sure that those who merely use the modern entrance have missed something beautiful as well.

 

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