A tale of friendship, survival and reverence for the powers of nature on the Appalachian Trail
Author: Joe Boroi
Editor’s Note: This long form story shares the life-or-death adventures of three friends in the wilderness around Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Appalachian Trail network in Pennsylvania. It interweaves Native American legend and parables into a story that is both timely and poignant in its themes of conservationism and learning to respect the gifts that we are trying all too hard to squander. Links to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and sources referenced within this story are provided throughout. Please click through for more information and to show your support. As always, keep the conversation going by posting questions in the comments below.
The Appalachian Mountains are as mysterious as they are beautiful. It’s not hard to imagine how the small towns dotted along the Appalachian Trail might have first inspired a young novelist named Conrad Richter as he traveled with his father who was a Lutheran Minister living in and around Pine Grove, PA. Although the region is not far from much larger population centers, the area is remote and rugged. It’s easy to see how a boy’s imagination and creativity can be so greatly inspired by the rolling hills of Appalachia. In fact, there are stories of horned serpents and thunder beings living in the hills less than 30 miles from where Richter was born. For some travelers who encounter or experience the unexplained while hiking the Appalachian trail, these creatures may be more than myth and legend. I’m not sure if it’s a curse or if it’s in the benevolent nature of the storm spirits to rescue those poor souls unfortunate enough to cross paths with the serpents, but I do know that the sky beings are as powerful and dangerous as they are merciful.
I began to write this story in fear that its contents might somehow offend the sky people of Algonquian mythology. I was warned when a family painting fell several times in my house, shattering glass and wood along the floor. That painting ties directly to my own family legacy of Lutheran Ministry in the foothills of Appalachia and to one of several times that the thunder beings saved me in battle during my military service. It was a warning that I did not take lightly.
Was this a warning, or just a shocking reminder of the night that the sky people once saved my life?
This little epic has been rewritten several times, yet I may never share it with the world for fear that it is still in some way too disrespectful to the original narrative and true-life events that inspired it. After my most recent revision, thunder shook the Georgian Pine outside a small bar down in the Panhandle where I stopped late one evening to order a grouper sandwich. Without warning, as I sat alone at the bar, lightning crashed against the tin roof outside. In the same instant, a flash of light struck the ground in front of me. A jagged streak of hot air burst like a balloon, leaving the room smelling like smoke and fire. Was this a warning, or just a shocking reminder of the night that the sky people once saved my life after several of my friends were struck down by lightning in the mountains?
Make no mistake, I know first-hand that the great spirit of the Lenape Nation is alive and well in the Mountains of Appalachia. I respect the mythology and I love the sacred mountains that the Delaware considered home. The views of breathtaking sunsets and the fresh smell of pine rising with the morning fog of the valleys below are incredible. The lure of the mysterious mountains north of the Blue Ridge is second to none.
There, deep in the heart of eastern PA, there is a bird sanctuary called Hawk Mountain. On hot summer days, it’s said that the anthropomorphic sky beings can transform into birds. As they flap their wings, it causes thunder. The thunder birds soar high above the ridge line and are known to strike down their enemies with lightning. Regardless, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is an incredibly special place to explore. More than 1500 feet below Pulpit Rock, dirt roads wind their way down the mountain to small towns, farms, and pine swamp. There, among the pines, the devil hides in the early morning mist. So, be respectful and careful as you travel among these forests of Eastern Pennsylvania. The eagles above and the serpents below are the original settlers of this sacred land, and are ready to protect what is theirs from any who don’t abide.
Only a few decades ago, three young boys set out on a hike from the valley floor. Jack was their leader, as foolish as he was lazy, but always seemed to escape serious trouble with a moment of intuition and luck. His friends Jason and Roger were loyal but cautious when Jack was leading the charge.
Like any other day, Jack was particularly excited to get an early start. He had packed an overnight bag that he slung over his left shoulder as he knocked on Roger’s door. Jason, still half-awake, looked curiously at how light Jack’s bag seemed. With a yawn and a long stretch of one arm over his head, “Dude, is that all you brought? Just that bag?” Jack turned around and smiled, “Yah, I mean what do I need, a can of food, bottle of water, some matches, a sheet, and a hammock, right?” Jason’s eyes widened as he looked down at his bag on the ground, too heavy to waste energy holding as they waited for Roger. “Oh, I don’t know, what about some clothes or a raincoat?” Jack laughed, “Overnight? I would be lucky if it rained, then I would have a fresh pair of clean clothes to wear.”
Just then, Roger opened the door. “I’m ready,” he said, pointing to a bag on the floor as he stuffed the rest of a breakfast sandwich into his mouth. Wiping his face with his arm he picked up the bag and mumbled, “Let’s go already.”
The boys made their way through town toward the trailhead, but it seemed the devil had beaten them there. Jack set down his bag and pointed into the woods. “Look, a campsite. No one should be camping here. I wonder who that is.” He wandered off from the pack as the others failed to keep up.
Roger shivered. He felt like something was off. Just then the wind whistled through the trees. The fresh morning air and the cold smell of pine was quickly overtaken by the more pungent odor of rotting flesh. As the boys reached the camp, they could see that it was clearly abandoned. The tent was on the ground and the wind had blown trash out from under a tarp. Jack picked up a stick and immediately walked to the edge of the campsite where he fished down the carcass of animal hanging from a fishing line. “This looks fresh,” he exclaimed. Roger’s face turned cold, “Dude, don’t touch that, we have no idea whose camp this is.” Jason turned back and shrugged his shoulders, “Looks abandoned to me. There isn’t even a fire pit.” Before he could say anything else, he felt something nip his arm.
Paralyzed with fear, he waited for the creature’s jaws to close around his arm. Instead, whatever it was felt cold, wet, and seemed to glide quickly across his elbow. He yelled and turned around abruptly. Jack dropped the stick he used to lance Jason and assumed a defensive position. Jason, still shaking, looked down and saw the stick and animal carcass that had been dangling above the camp. Jason held his arm up and away from his body as if it was on fire and lunged at Jack. Grabbing him with his left hand, he brought his elbow back in toward his body jabbing it into Jack’s side. The two boys yelled and wrestled into the tent knocking anything still standing in the camp to the ground. Roger stared through the trees toward an embankment in the distance. Just then he saw a figure climbing up from a stream bed grasping the root of a tree for stability.
“Someone is coming, run, quick, get up, come on!” Roger yelled as he grabbed the boys and tried to separate them on the ground. His voice turned to a whisper as he continued to plead, “Run, to the trail, come on.” All three boys picked up their gear and began to run. Jason’s metal cup clanged against his bag. Gear from his large knapsack fell to the ground with each stride.
The boys ran for some time before finding a clearing. Sweat dripped from their brows as they set down their packs and plopped to the ground exhausted. “I told you not to touch anything.” Roger, out of breath, gasped. Jason wasn’t listening, he realized that his bag wasn’t quite as secure as he had hoped. He inventoried what was left and realized that he had lost the boys food, his rain gear, and his water. Jack on the other hand was busy staring ahead trying to assess where the boys were. They had ventured off the trail deep into the forest. Jack turned around to see Roger chugging his canteen and Jason repacking his bag. Jason began to think out loud, “Well, I was carrying our food which is gone, and I have no water, but, Jack, you said that you had a can right?” Jack didn’t answer right away as he had seized Roger’s canteen up from the ground and chugged what remained. “No, I don’t have any food or water, I was just talking hypothetically.” Jason, frustrated, looked at Jacks bag. “What do you mean you don’t have any water, what is in there?” Jack thought for a second and then retorted with, “Well, I do have a tarp in case it rains, but you had the food, and I knew you would bring way more water than we need, so, I was going to bum some off of you.” Roger looked up at Jack as he chugged the last of his water only to dump the empty canteen into Roger’s lap.
“Here’s the good news guys,” Jack continued as he turned back around, “We are way off the trail but still along the bottom of the ridge, so, we climb the face here and find the trail which runs along the top. From there, we can make our way down to Pocahontas Spring for more water. I did bring an empty water container.” Roger sat up and tilted his head so he could see up the ridge. “Heartbreak Ridge? That’s 1000 feet or more of elevation.” Jack shook his head, “Yah, Pulpit Rock is a few miles and 1400 or more feet up from here, so, we have quite the hike ahead of us. It’s still early, so, backtracking to the spring once we are on the ridge won’t be so bad really.” The boys get up and secure their equipment before slinging their bags securely over their shoulders.
The walk turned into a scramble before long. A 10,000 year winter once caused the ridge to fracture into a river of boulders. Years of weathering made each step more treacherous than the last. It took all four limbs to climb the ridge slowly and carefully. Jack wasn’t quite as careful at first. He leaped from one boulder to the next, bounding higher and higher above the other two boys, who were struggling to keep up. Just then a rock gives way and he slips into a small crevasse. As Jack climbs back up battered but not injured he realizes that Roger is yelling from below, “Slow down, you are going to kill us.” A large boulder had given way rolling down the hill just above Jason. It bounced like a pinball nearly missing the two boys below Jack before resting against a tree. Jack missed the rock fall but could see the tree still swaying violently like a pendulum.
The river of blue rocks baked in the sun and a cold dark forest had now opened onto a bare face of the mountain. The rocks were hot to the touch and the smell of a brown earth moss seemed to fill the air as if it were baking in an oven. Jack was tired but still just above the other boys in elevation. The rugged inaccessibility of their off-trail location meant that there were no other hikers out and about. In fact, if one of them did get hurt, it might be hours or half a day before help could arrive. Jack was tired but he had reached the forest again and knew that a gentler slope meant that the boys were nearing the top of the ridge. He could almost taste the cold bubbling water of the spring. He decided to take a break as his mind drifted off and he waited patiently for the other boys to catch up.
Time seemed to stand still. He knew that he was done for. The snake was about to strike.
Out of breath, but now only a dozen or so yards away, Jason and Roger closed in on Jack. As they did, they realized that Jack was not paying much attention to where he was stopping to rest. With his bag tossed on the ground next to a fallen tree he just kind of stood there, taking in the view through the trees with a look of triumph. Just as he was about to say, “We did it boys.” Roger’s face once again went cold. He reached out and grabbed Jason who was seeing exactly what Roger was seeing. Jack immediately knew that something wasn’t right. Then he heard it. The sound no Appalachian wants to hear pierced the air. It was loud. So loud that even Jack froze. It almost seemed to echo through the forest and across the rocks below. “Nemo me impune lacessit, or, no one provokes me with impunity!” the snake seemed to say with the rattle of its tail.
“Timberback,” Jason quietly muttered under his breath. Jack’s heartbeat seemed to match the pace of the snake’s rattle as it shook. Without moving a hair, he could see out of the corner of his eye that the snake was a few feet away. It was curled up with its head back and easily within striking distance. Time seemed to stand still. He knew that he was done for. The snake was about to strike. The presence of Roger and Jason were perhaps the only thing making the Rattlesnake rethink her next move. She was clearly outnumbered. Just then, thunder rumbled in the distance. The ground seemed to shake. Without thinking twice, Jason bent down to pick up a stone. Jack’s eyes widened as if to scream, “NO!” After the thunder, some branches crackled in the thick brush behind the boys as if someone was behind them. No one moved except Jason as he raised the rock while staring down the snake who seemed to be looking directly at him now.
Jason’s aim was true as he hurled the rock through the air, striking the snake and knocking it back. Unsure if it was dead or stunned, Roger and Jason immediately picked up another rock and proceeded to stone it to death. Jack fell to the log he was near and scrambled back, still in too much shock to do much else.
The boys recovered quickly, but were breathing heavily. Roger now was the only one of the boys with a plan on what to do next. “Come on, let’s get to the trail. We aren’t far from the spring. There is rain coming.” He looked up tilting his head back as far as he could to see clouds gathering above the mountain. The boys began walking again, but much faster now that they had reached the top of the ridge. Jack was now in the rear and at one point he once again heard branches and leaves behind the boys as if something was following them. He turned around and glanced back, assuming to see the snake back from the dead. The gently rolling slope disappeared in the distance over the rocks that framed the top of the ridge line.
The trees thinned, giving way to brush and eventually a rocky dirt trail and the dusty blue rocks no longer glistened in the sun. Now they seemed to reflect the overcast shadows above. “We made it!” Jason exclaimed. Excited, the boys stopped for a moment to rest. Each of them bent over allowing the packs to slide up their cold damp shoulders. Their backs were sore and legs tired. Roger bent backwards again and tilted his head to look up at the sky. A drop of rain answered his curiosity, landing squarely on his cheek. The clouds above the trail were dark now and the rain was starting to fall. Jack began walking as Jason and Roger followed him without saying a word.
Backtracking to the spring required the boys to follow the trail down the mountain to a lower elevation on the far side of the ridge. As they walked, the rain continued. Before long, the boys reached a part of the road that curved down a spur of the mountain just above a stream. They could see a small bridge down the trail from where they stopped. A thin trail seemed to disappear down a cliff next to them in the opposite direction. The steep embankment was flanked with small trees and roots weathered above the ground.
“It’s going to be muddy, but let’s take our gear down to the spring. We can cut across the forest there in the bowl where several streams bubble out from the mountain. It’s flat eventually and we can use the forest there as a shortcut that will take us to the base of our final climb. There we can head back up the steep ridge to Pulpit Rock,” Jason muttered, still slightly out of breath from the brisk walk that had brought them to this point on the trail. Roger, also out of breath smirked, “Another steep shortcut huh.” He then proceeded to the edge of the trail where he looked down over the embankment toward the spring. He could hear it now and taste it. “Hold onto the roots if you can,” a thirsty Roger said as he began scrambling down the cliff below the trail. Jack went next as Jason grabbed a tree at the edge of the trail. Almost on cue, the rain picked up and the water poured off the trail over the roots of the trees growing from the cliff like a waterfall. All three boys began to struggle as the ground below their feet gave way. Each one slid and tumbled the last few feet to the bottom where a stream was flowing below a pipe extruding from the cliff. “There she is boys, the spring!”
For a few minutes, the boys forgot about the rain as they sat and drank fresh cold water from the spring. Jack looked out across the draw as it opened into a forest of tall pine. “Should be an easy hike. There is no underbrush down here. Honestly, the storm isn’t so bad under these trees either,” Jack thought to himself. After a cold but refreshing stop at the spring the boys packed up and moved on, excited to find cover in the thicker forest ahead. The rain now was coming down hard as the boys made their way to a shortcut that could take them to the base of their next climb. Before long, they started to realize that the stream they needed to cross was flooded and far too dangerous to portage. In fact, the boys had wandered into an island surrounded by small streams that emerged from the spring, all flooding as water poured down from the ridge above. It was getting late and it didn’t take much convincing to decide to make camp on the highest ground they could find at the center of the converging waterways. They hiked back toward the middle of the forest where they seemed high enough to stay dry as the flood waters raged nearby. In the back of Roger’s mind, he was still worried about the rising waters of the mountain streams, but he felt some relief knowing that the boys had a tarp that they could temporarily gather under to take shelter from the storm that had raged on all afternoon. Maybe a break would give way to a better plan of what to do next.
While Jason worked on setting up the tarp for water collection, the other two boys went looking for firewood. As Jack stacked fallen logs onto a pile next to the tarp nicely strung between several trees, he started to realize Jason was huddled underneath shivering. His face looked pale, clammy, and he was muttering something about the fire that wasn’t making a lot of sense. Jack stared at him and yelled for Roger to come in. He knew that hypothermia was setting in for Jason and that they needed to get him warm soon. Roger asked Jason to strip off his wet clothes while he tried to use everything the boys had to warm him up. All the boys’ gear was now soaked through, even the fire-starting materials the boys brought with them. Setting up a fire proved to be impossible, and Jack was growing more and more frustrated. Roger was shivering now. The day turned to dusk, and a fire started to feel like a lost cause. Jason’s condition continued to deteriorate. Jack’s fingers were now too cold to do much as he leaned back into the tarp where the other two boys were already curled up trying to stay as warm as they could.
Then, he saw a figure emerge from the darkness. It was a man with a snake around his neck.
Jack muttered to Roger, “You look blue.” Roger opened his eyes briefly but then drifted off. Jason’s eyes were also closed, and he wasn’t responsive to Jack’s hardly conscious rambling either. Jack’s head fell to the ground under the tarp and he stared out into the darkness of the forest. Then, he saw a figure emerge from the darkness. It was a man with a snake around his neck. Roger opened his eyes, as he too heard the crackle of sticks and leaves nearby. His reaction was more severe in that he once again reached out and grabbed Jason by the arm, squeezing him as tightly as he could. “The man from the camp,” Roger said. Jason’s eyes shot open for the first time in 20 minutes. Jack, shaking uncontrollably, stuttered, “Help, please!”
The man was as aged and wrinkled as he was ugly. His white beard seemed to hide a long square chin and his skin was as hard as leather. His clothes were old and tattered. When he opened his mouth, his tongue was yellow and his teeth perfectly white against the olive tone of his skin. His voice crackled as he spoke. He smiled gently and spoke with an accent that was hard to distinguish. “Now why should I help you boys? You destroyed my camp and ruined my dinner. You have desecrated the forest with trash and wasted good meat. You have dishonored the mountains and the valley.” He bent over grabbing the snake from around his neck with both hands. He lifted it up revealing that it no longer had a head. He tossed it in front of the boys. As it hit the ground, there was a splash of muddy water out from under the long brown pine needles that covered the ground. Even in a state of frigid consciousness, the boys realized that it was the snake that they had stoned earlier. Jack’s vision began to fade and his heads slumped back to the ground beneath the tarp, his eyes slowly closing as he drifted into darkness.
An intense warmth on the skin of Jack’s face pulled him back to consciousness as he slowly opened his eyes and lifted his head to survey the scene around him. The rain had stopped, and the flames were so close that the crackling ash flying about nearly burned his shirt. He slid back from the fire with his feet and noticed that neither of his friends were under the tarp next to him. He looked up into the night sky and realized that through the trees he could see stars shimmering above. After a moment of confusion, Jack sat up slowly and looked around. The man he had seen was gone and each of the boys was now laying around the fire. Smoke filled the air, but there was something else, the smell of food. Jack glanced down and saw a rock cooking near the fire in a pile of hot coals with what looked like snake sizzling on it. Jack remembered the man and jumped up in a panic. He stepped backward toward the tarp knocking water onto some gear piled up next to him. The water trickled down onto Roger who was laying hidden behind the bags. Jack began looking around but didn’t see the man.
Roger wiped water from his face and turned to Jason. “Wake up man, you are on fire!” Sparks from the fire had just landed on Jason’s shirt and he began smoking. Startled, Jason feverishly patted himself to put out the flames. Each of the boys was now dry and warmed by the fire. “Did you see him? Do you see him?” Jack said. Roger looked around and shrugged, “Yes, he didn’t seem happy.” “I am guessing he is the one who saved our life with this fire. Where is he now?”, Jason exclaimed as he stood up and walked around the fire toward the rock. He bent over to see the snake perfectly prepared along with a bed of leaves that smoking above the rock. He then quickly pushed the rock out from the fire with his foot. “This looks done,” Jason said. “Smells done,” Roger smiled.
All three boys gathered close to the fire. They passed around the snake using the leaves as a dish. “It’s fishy but delicious,” exclaimed Roger as he gobbled down a few bites that he carefully plucked out with both fingers. Jason picked some of the meat from the bone and said, “Yah, it has a lot of small thin bones.” The boys knew they wouldn’t sleep that night, but they were happy the rain had stopped. “When the sun starts to come up, we should try to make it up the mountain. If that guy is gone, he crossed the stream somewhere. That means there is a way out of this place. We should try to cross too,” Jack explained as he chewed one of the last bites of snake. Once he was sure every bite was consumed, Jack tossed the bed of leaves into the fire. The boys sat silently, each privately reflecting on their own interpretation of what the man had said to them.
Each of the boys vowed to be more respectful of the mountain.
They ate every bite of the snake that had sacrificed its life for their meal that night. Thunder rolled in the distance despite a clear night sky. Each of the boys vowed to be more respectful of the mountain. As he stared into the fire, Jack started to doze off. Realizing his eyes were closing, he jolted himself back awake. No matter how hard he tried, the flickering flames lulled him back into a daze. Before long, his head hung low and his shoulders slumped closer into his lap.
Suddenly, he felt cold again. The warmth of the fire had faded. Jack’s cold legs were numb and his clothes wet. Disoriented, Jack realized he was laying on the ground in the mud. He blindly reached up, grasping a rock in his left hand. There was a leaf in his mouth and some dirt too. He chewed it for a moment and then spit it out. He wiped mud from his lips with his right hand. Jack was face down on the ground but it was sloping to his feet. He used the rock and a small sapling to lift himself up. His feet slipped in the mud to a pile of small rocks.
Jack was confused. “Where am I?” he said to himself. “Where is the camp?” Then he blurted out, “Jason? Dude, this isn’t funny,” He let out a frustrated yell assuming that the boys had carried him off into the woods as a joke. He sat back down on the ground shivering. After a few brief moments, he realized that he must be near the trail that ascends back up to the top of the ridge line. He could faintly hear the sound of water in the distance. He was so cold. The rain had stopped but water continued to drip on him from the trees above. The sun wasn’t up yet. His eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness when he heard a voice behind him. “Are you coming?” He slowly turned around. It was the old man. He jumped back up awkwardly into the same defensive position from the camp earlier. It was no use, his legs were so numb that he immediately collapsed to his knees grasping the rock again.
The man effortlessly moved down the hill to help Jack back up with one hand. Once he was sure Jack was standing on his own, he handed him a metal cup. “Drink, my friend,” he said. Jack held the cup with both hands. It was hot. He drank it without so much as a second thought. The warm liquid of a hot tea filled his belly. The man put his arm on Jack’s back and pointed his long bony finger up the hill. The ridge isn’t too much farther. Let’s go. With that he began back up the hill.
Jack paused to drink more of the tea and then carefully began climbing up the trail. Maintaining balance and holding the hot cup while navigating the rocky trail proved too cumbersome. After only a few steps, hot tea spilled over the edge of the tin cup, burning Jack’s arm.
Before long, the man faded into darkness. A short switchback gave way to more level ground. Within a half hour, Jack found himself back at the top of the ridge line. The man was gone and the sun was just starting to rise. Jack finished what was left of the tea realizing that he had assumed his friends would be there at the summit waiting for him. When he saw the man again on the trail, he simply assumed that they must be hiking too but were further up the trail. “Where were they he thought?” The daylight slowly gave way to expansive blue skies. The clouds were gone and Jack could hear the sound of birds above him. Oddly, the storm seemed to be a distant memory on the mountain. Even the rocks and trees seemed to be wet with dew and not soaked from a strong rain storm. Jack was wet though. His clothes were heavy and weighed on him making it hard to move.
Jack wondered if he was dreaming…or worse.
A sinking feeling began to set in. Jack started to wonder if he was dreaming…or worse. Then, he heard a voice yelling in the distance. He couldn’t quite hear what they were saying but he yelled back. He began limping forward on the trail toward the voice. A man and a woman emerged from behind a large boulder. They transitioned from a brisk walk to a sprint the moment they saw Jack stumbling forward. When they reached him, the woman opened a blanket she was carrying and wrapped it around him. “Jack?”, She said, “We have been looking for you.”
Jack looked at the woman confused. He had no idea who she was. How did she know his name? Who is “we” he thought? Then the woman explained that there were more rescuers near pulpit rock and the observatory. As they walked down the trail, both the man and the woman braced Jack helping him take each step. Still confused, Jack looked up from the trail and asked, “Where is Jason? Where are my friends.” The man tightened his grip a bit and said, “We don’t know. When did you last see them?”
Jack stopped for a moment and said, “Last night, during the storm, we camped down near the spring.” Before he could finish, the woman corrected him, “You mean 3 days ago, during that big storm we had?” Now Jack was really confused. “3 days ago?” Jack couldn’t think of any storm that had passed through the valley 3 days ago. “No, Last night,” he said. “Jack, there was no storm last night. The storm was 3 nights ago right after you boys left town. Are you hurt? Did you fall?” The man began studying Jack’s head. Jack turned to the woman and explained, “There was a man who had helped us. He made us a fire and food. He gave me hot tea.” Jack realized the tea cup was gone from his hand. He turned and pushed the blanket to the ground, releasing himself from the brace of the man and woman. He glanced down at the trail as he walked looking carefully for the cup.
Before Jack could get very far back up the trail, the woman caught back up to Jack and exclaimed that there was no cup. Jack lifted his arm expecting to see a burn but there was nothing there. “I don’t understand?” Jack collapsed onto a rock along the side of the trail. The man wrapped the blanket around him again, “It’s ok bud, we are going to get you out of here. We will find your friends.” The woman looked at Jack puzzled, “You are wet though. Really wet. Did you fall in the water somewhere?”
©2019 55 Cities
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