Trip to Los Mochis and Copper Canyon

Feb. and Mar. 1999

Leigh Robertson

In the summer of 1998 some of the family started to think about a trip to Los Mochis and the Copper Canyon. We wanted to poke around a bit in the area where my father grew up, and where I was born. Due to many family complications, too numerous to detail here, it was early February by the time we could put a plan together.

The group was to be Terry, Sean, Barbara and me in Terryís caróGlenn and Esperanza in his pickup. We left Mariposa on the 17th of Feb, staying overnight at Terís. Next morning we were off to San Miguel and Su Casa. This was to be the official starting point. At the border we got tourist papers for us and a permit for the car to go to the Mainland of Mexico. All rather painless, really. Glenn was not able to leave until the 20th, so we had a down day at the house.

2-20, 6:45 AM. On the road to Tecate, where we stopped to pick up Esperanza and meet her daughters. During the time that we had lived in San Telmo I had talked to a number of old timers who told horror stories of the Rumorosa grade between Tecate and Mexicali. Ed Lasalle said he got started in the trucking business as a teenager, driving that grade. The switchbacks on the old road were so tight that a truck would have to back up once or twice to make the turn. Considering how marginal the brakes were in those days, itís surprising that any of the truckers survived! The road is much tamer today, being two lanes in each direction, but still a very steep, winding grade from the alpine plateau down to the desert floor. In fact, when we came down there was a tow truck retrieving a large truck that had gone over the edge.

After 30 or so miles of desert we came into the farming area around Mexicali, and through the town itself, and on to San Luis, Rio Colorado, where there is another big farming area.

From San Luis to Sonoita and on to Caborca, and then to Santa Ana is one LONG HAUL through the Sonora desert. The mountains on either side of the road are most interesting. They are nearly barrenóno trees, and only rarely a cactus. Mostly they are gray in color, indicating granite, I guess, but certainly not granite as we know it in the sierras of California. There are caves everywhere, but the area is too dry to ever have supported human habitation. Occasionally the dominant gray rock is overlaid with red lava flow. We really needed Merilie to explain it all to us.

Checked into a motel in Santa Ana about 5:30. Santa Ana is not much of a town, mostly serving the truck traffic that goes through, either north to Nogales from the south, or East-west to Mexicali and Tijuana, and all of Baja. We decided to drive north to Magdalena to find a nice place to eat, but didnít really do too well in that regard. The motel turned out to be a poor choice, as all the trucks came right through the bedrooms, all night long! Also a couple of trains.

2-21, out on the road again about 6:45. Much better road from here south. The stretch through the desert was only two lanes, but now we were on a four lane divided highway, much of it Toll Road. We took the truck route through Hermosillo, which was unfortunate, as we discovered on the return trip. This is a very nice old town that deserves more time than we gave it.

Farther south we detoured off the road to go out to San Carlos, on the coast. This is a beautiful bay north of Guaymas. We parked and walked over to the water. In no time at all most of us were in the water-some in our shorts and some in all their cloths. It was just too nice to resist!

From there we went Into Guaymas the back way, planning to find a place to have shrimp for lunch. The polluted water of the harbor made all the waterfront places rather unattractive, so we went back out to the highway and found a nice place that Glenn knew of. The shrimp was great!

We arrived in Navojoa about 3:00. Yoyo, the bartender at San Miguel, had arranged for us to visit his parents in Navojoa, so we looked them up as soon as we arrived. They had expected us for lunch, so we were fed a late lunch when we got there. The main course was a delicious chicken dish.

The Valenzuelas (yes baseball fans-Fernando is their nephew) are so warm and friendly. Glenn and Esperanza stayed at their house the two nights that we were in Navojoa. The rest of us got a nice room at the Del Rio, where they also have a nice restaurant.

    1. Had a great nightís sleep, and back to the Valenzuelas for a wonderful breakfast. Machaca like you cannot even imagine! Not since Angelina Mendoza made it for us in La Paz 30 years ago have we had it like that. Actually, Sonora is known for having good beef, and wherever we ate it in that area it was good. After eating we set out for Alamos, an old silver mining town. At one time the government had a mint there to convert the silver to coins. The mines played out long ago, but the town has undergone a revival of sorts, due to tourism and quite a number of Americans having homes there, at least part time. Mr. V had served several terms as mayor of Alamos before moving to Navojoa, and at the last minute he agreed to go with us to give us a tour of the town. Actually, his father had been mayor before him and one of his sons is the present mayor. Everywhere we went he was greeted by old friends.

      We went to the plaza, the old church, the government building and several of the old homes that had been converted into hotels. In those days the homes of the more wealthy people were built right to the street with few, if any windows opening onto the street. They were built in a square or an "L", with a courtyard in the center. Entry was by way of iron gates, wide enough for a carriage to pass through. All the rooms opened onto the courtyard, with a covered walkway all the way around. Some of us were privileged to spend a night in one of those old restored homes of Alamos many years ago, but thatís another story!

      Terry stepped off a four inch curb that she didnít see and tumbled into the street. She was able to carry on the rest of the trip, but it turned out that she badly bruised a bone in her wrist. Of course she made a big deal of it when it happened, stopping traffic, getting all sorts of sympathy. Pathetic, really!

      On returning to Navojoa we visited the Mercado Municipal. It is a wonderful place, full of small booths where everything imaginable is sold. We found enough things that we must have that we had to go across the street to a bank to buy more pesos! We got fresh fruit and lettuce, so that we could make sandwiches for some of our meals. Sean and I bought swim trunks, so we could take a dip in the motel pool.

      That dip in the pool turned out to be a fortuitous decision. While sitting by the pool mother (surprise, surprise!) struck up a conversation with an American couple. Terry had gone to the motel desk to get some bandages for her arm. When she returned the man volunteered that he was a veterinarian, and that he would check for broken bones if she wished. His opinion was that nothing was broken. Then he went to his room and returned with a brace for just the problem at hand. It fastened with Velcro, and when in place it stabilized her wrist. He insisted that she keep it, as he only brought it in case of an emergency such as this. Thank goodness! She probably would have been impossible the rest of the trip without it!

    2. Had a leisurely breakfast at the motel, then off to Los Mochis. It was only a two or three hour run. The four of us checked into the Santa Anita, probably the most expensive place in town. I donít know why we did that, except that the original owners had been friends of my folks. Glenn and Esperanza found a much more reasonable place a couple of blocks away. We went to the travel agent in the lobby to see about the train trip and lodgings at Copper Canyon. That turned out to be quite a shock! Of course, the lady wanted to book us into the luxury hotels owned by the Balderama family-owners of the Santa Anita. We had to retreat, and regroup, as it were. The problem is that at Cerocahui and Divisadero, the two main viewing areas along the track, there really arenít any hotels other than those of the Balderamas. Little by little, as our agent realized that she was not going to sell us the expensive packages, she started to make other suggestions, such as going directly to Creel, where there are many reasonably priced motels. Eventually, this is what we opted to do.

      All of us met at the hotel restaurant for dinner. As is our custom, Mother and I split a meal. We just canít handle the amount of food in two meals. We ordered a flank steak-arrachera-. It was quite large, more than enough for the two of us. More importantly, it was delicious. Possibly the best beef we have ever eaten-certainly the best in Mexico!

      As Dad Robertson used to sign off his trip journals---and so to bed.

    3. It was NOT a good night! Sean was sick all night, and Terry in the morning. When Glenn called he said he had been sick all night, and was pretty miserable all day long. So, it was a slow day. By afternoon our group had recovered sufficiently to go over to the museum. The portion of the museum that pertained to the history of the Topolobampo colony and Los Mochis is housed in the restored home of B.F. Johnston, the man who built and owned the sugar factory in Mochis. He, and the factory, played a large role in the lives of my father and grandfather. There were many interesting photos and artifacts, and observations by people of diverse points of view. Unfortunately, there was no one on duty there to possibly help me identify where the old homestead was.

      For anyone wanting more information on this area and the era of 1887-1925, read The Robertson Story and, or, A Southwestern Utopia, by T.A. Robertson.

    4. Everyone woke up feeling better, so we took off to see the harbor of Topolobampo. This is where the very first American colonists arrived in November, 1886. Over the years I have heard and read much about Topo, but never saw it, unless it was before the time of my memory. We hired a boat to take us on a cruise of the harbor, and then a short distance into Ohuira, the inner bay. The rental agent assured us that we would not have to pay if we did not see dolphins in Ohuira. Well, he knew what he was talking about! We saw dolphinsódozens and dozens of them. Also went through an area teeming with jellyfish. The boatman scooped one out of the water, making certain to keep his hand away from the tentacles, so as not to get stung. I was surprised at how firm and solid the body was. I guess I expected it to be soft and watery. It was the size and shape of a softball.

      It was only midday when we left Topo, so we decided to go to the next bay south, San Ignacio. Summer is VERY hot in this part of the country. To escape that oppressive heat the Americans in Mochis went to Topolobampo. Gradually, some of the families, including the Robertsons, started going to San Ignacio, establishing summer camps. For that reason I had visited this bay when I was about twelve years old and again about 1970, with the four younger children.

      Glenn led us into the fishing village of Cabezon to look for any remaining family of Lino Jocobi, Tomís longtime hunting and fishing companion. We did find his two sons, Apolonio and Milesio, and their families. The wife of one of them cried when she saw me, saying that I looked just like Don Tomas! Of course we must stay long enough for them to fry up a large amount of fish for us to eat, with tortillas and salsa. Etiquette demanded that we eat heartily, even though the fish was rather greasy. As we ate, the younger women were preparing another dish that I eventually realized was ceviche. Some how, we managed to decline the treat of raw fish! Glenn and Esperanza did take two plastic containers full, which they put on ice and had for lunch on the train the next day. More tears as we left. These people have very little, but it would be unthinkable to let us go without feeding us. There definitely is a life lesson here.

      Back at the Hotel we got six train tickets for the next morning and reservations for one night in Creel. We are ready for the big adventure. Tomorrow is the day!

    5. Tomorrow has come, and it is a disaster! Mother and I are very sick. We sent the others off to catch the train, while we took turns in the bathroom. It was a day to forget. The details are far too gruesome for the faint of heart.

    6. I woke up about seven, having slept the clock around. After being up for a while I decided I had not come to the place of my birth just to die! By the time the rest of our group called, Mother and I had decided that we would take the train the next day and join them. They were amazed at our rapid recovery, and assured us they would be at the station in Creel to meet us. We walked around a little, and tried to eat but nothing really looked or tasted good to us. We knew that we must take our own food and water on the train, but just couldnít pull our heads together to do a proper job of it.

    7. We were up at 4:00 AM, did some last minute packing, checked out of our room, and departed for the train station at 5:00. At the station we were directed to the two front cars, where we soon found our seats. The car was far from full, so I asked the conductor if we could move to seats with an unobstructed view. That was fine, so at last we were settled in for the glorious trip to the Copper Canyon on the Chihuahua al Pacifico RR.

This RR was first conceived by Albert K. Owen, who started the Topolobampo Colony. The overall scheme was to develop a port at Topo and connect it to the mid-western United States, to create a shorter route for goods to get to and from the 0rient and the eastern United States.. At the same time he would develop an agricultural industry at Los Mochis. None of this happened, except for building the first irrigation canal and the modest start of the farming. The colony broke up without ever laying a single rail or tie. Over the years Owen formed various Companies for the purpose of building this railroad, but none ever got beyond the paper stage. Eventually, after the breakup of the colony, he got an American railroad man, along with Enrique Creel, to start building the line, about 1900. In the next twelve years they built track from Ojinaga, Texas, south as far as Ciudad Chihuahua, and on to Creel. Also starting at Topolobampo northward to El Fuerte. The canyon country, however proved to be too much of a barrier. Itís interesting to note that as far as historians can tell, Owen never once ventured into the Sierra Madre Occidental, the mountains that he so confidently said would be easy to cross!

Finally, about 1953, the Mexican government took on the task of completing the railroad. It was a monumental project, taking eight years to complete. It crosses forty bridges and passes through eighty tunnels, one of which includes a 180 degree turn. The steepest portion climbs 7000 feet in 100 miles.

We didnít know until later that our train normally is just two first class cars. On this day they combined first class and the other, local, train for a total of ten or eleven cars. We rolled out of the station at 6:00AM, on time. That proved to be the only place that we were on time on the whole journey! The first part of the trip is through the vast farm lands of the Fuerte Valley. Even though it was no yet full light, I could see what seemed to be endless numbers of processing and storage facilities to handle the agricultural wealth of the area. Near San Blas we crossed the rail line that goes from Nogales south to Tepic, and beyond. At that point we were stopped for a long time, with much backing up. Later we discovered that we had acquired two more private, luxury cars. They must have come down on the other rail line. A couple of Canadians were in the seat s ahead of us. They had both been railroad men at one time, so they had gone to the open doors between cars to watch the operation. They told us that we had left Mochis with three engines, and were now down to two. So now we are going to climb the mountain with at least twelve cars, and only two engines. Great!

Shortly after leaving El Fuerte we started into the mountains, following first the Rio Fuerte and then the Rio Septentrion. Since we were now a local train, we stopped anywhere and everywhere there were passengers to load or unload, and seemingly a few places in between! There were, I think, three stops that were long enough to jump off and buy food. However, in our still delicate condition, nothing looked the least bit appetizing. So, we ate our meager store of crackers and bread. We didnít have enough water, but our Canadian friends assured us that they had ample, so we gladly refilled our bottle more than once. There was a fifteen minute stop at Divisadero, for viewing the canyons, then back on the train for the final "dash" to Creel. We had been told that the whole trip was about 9 Ĺ hours. Well, I suspect that is a goal that is seldom attained! It took us 13 Ĺ hours! Our family was all there to meet usówhat a joyous reunion! After getting cleaned up in our room at the Parador de la Montana, we had our first solid food in three days. It had been a long day!

    1. Glenn had lined up a guide, David, and his van to take us to see some of the sights in the nearby area. We headed south out of town on a paved road. The first stop was at lake Arareko. Very pretty, with rock formations and pine trees all around the shoreline. Next we turned off the highway to the west and entered an area that is an Ejido, where we had to pay a small entry fee. The Ejidos in this area are like huge preserves. Only members can own land, and only the Tarahumara Indians are members. Land has been distributed to the people that historically have lived here. It can be passed to succeeding generations, but not sold, even to another member. These Ejidos are pretty much self governing, the tribal council making the major decisions regarding membership, land and in some cases discipline. We drove down a sandy valley, with a small trickle of water, past several small ranches, consisting of one or two small wooden houses, a grain storage bin supported by poles set in the ground, corrals, and usually one or more smaller structures that may house animals or chickens. In many cases there were also cave dwellings. All along the way were Tarahumara women and children, selling their wares. Mostly the children sold and the women kept working on weaving, or whatever they might be doing. Presently the canyon narrowed and the road ended. Our destination was Cusarare Falls, more than a mile away. I really didnít want Barbara to do this hike. I offered to stay with her, but no amount of talking was going to dissuade her, so off we went! We knew it had been a very dry winter, and that there would not be much water in the falls, but thought we should make the effort to see at least one of the many falls in these mountains. Even with almost no water it was a beautiful sight. It is about a hundred feet across, with a drop of one hundred and sixty feet. When we arrived Glenn told us that Esperanza had taken the trail to the bottom and soon we could see her, barefoot, standing under the spray of water, with her arms raised to the sky What a sight to see her communing with the spirits that way. Later she told us she was catching grains of ice that were breaking loose from the rocks! On the return trip to the van Barb and I got pretty tired, and by now it was getting quite warm. Once again, we found ourselves short of water. We sent word ahead, with one of the better walkers, to bring us water! Soon David showed up with a fresh supply, and we were able to make it back to the van---barely! We enjoyed a nice lunch there under the shade of some trees. On the way back to the highway we picked up more Indian waresódolls, baskets, beads, shawls, carved snakes. One of the women where we had parked the van walks six Km each way, every day, with her children and all her wares to sell to tourists. Walking is just a way of life in these mountains.

      We drove back to the highway, then a little south before turning east, to the village of Cusarare. The mission of Cusarare, or "La Cusa", was built around 1744. The main walls are of adobe, about four feet thick. I think the belltower was of stone, possibly added later. This mission has been undergoing restoration off and on for many years, and is quite ornate on the inside.

      The next stop was Mission San Ignacio de Arareko, closer to Creel. This is not quite as old as "La Cusa", and made entirely of stone. I believe that this structure is all original. The doors were not open, so we could not see what it looked like inside.

      On the way back to town we detoured through the valley of the frogs. Many, many, interesting rock formations in this area.

      Our last stop was a visit to a large cave dwelling. Across the front of the caves are rock walls built up to make an enclosure. Sometimes they reach to the ceiling of the cave, and other times there is a space left for light and ventilation. This cave had a kitchen area partitioned off by a rock wall, with a wooden door, which was closed. There was a second door that we were told led to sleeping quarters, also closed. Outside, next to the main cave were other smaller caves that had been enclosed with rock walls. These are used to store food---mainly corn, beans and squash.

      In front of this cave was a small building made of wood, with a shed roof covering a work bench. Two men were working at the bench, making a violin. We found out that one of them had been born in the cave, as had his father and grandfather. Who knows how many generations before that. The only tools that I saw were a hand saw, hammer, wood chisel, and a brand new brace and wood bit. They were quite proud of that! Violins and leather drums are among the European things that the Tarahumara readily embraced into their culture, and are for sale in all the shops.

      Back in town we got cleaned up and did our nightly search for a good place to eat. If there was one, we did not find it! Creel is a rather different kind of town. People go to bed early, and compensate by getting up late! We got the impression that the locals donít eat out much, as all the restaurants featured American food, not very good and usually served not very warm! We did better at breakfast. Hotcakes, bacon and eggs were available, as well as some Mexican dishes.

    2. Yesterday having been rather long and tiring, we had decided to take a "down day". We just strolled around town, went to the museum, and shopped for more interesting things to take home. By now it was becoming obvious that we would need to rent a large truck to get all our goodies home. As you know, I am not much of a shopper, but I did get caught up in the spirit of things.

      The Tarahumara are a very interesting people. They have been resisting change since the arrival of the first Spaniards. The missionaries tried to gather them into mission communities, with little success. Later the mine operators more or less enslaved the men to work the mines, and later still the lumber people tried to gather them into pueblos. Through it all, for 500 years they have resisted, occasionally violently, but mostly by retreating deeper into the vast complex of mountains and canyons in the central portion of the Sierra Madre Occidental. It is estimated that the population is 50,000-70,000. Very few of that number live in towns. Mostly they prefer to live in their traditional homesócaves or small one room log houses. They seem to have rejected that part of modern culture that would radically change their lives, while embracing the things that can make the old life easier. It is a delicate balancing act, as some of the things that can help cost money, and money is not generated by the old ways! So, selling their crafts is one way to get cash, also a little closely controlled timber harvest. In some cases live stock can produce a little revenue. The main staple of their diet continues to be corn, with beans and squash also.

      The women all wear long skirts and blouses of the brightest colors imaginable. Actually, we saw very few men, nearly all in conventional clothing. Far from town we did see two men in the traditional loin cloth.

      We made arrangements with David to pick us up at 8:00 the next morning for a long trip to see two of the larger canyons.

    3. Fortunately, our hotel had a bus tour leaving early, so the dining room was open early. As I mentioned, Creel is not an early rising town. 7:30 is about as early as you can normally get breakfast.

Leaving town we stopped at a little market to buy bread, sliced ham, bananas and soft drinks for our lunch. The first 90 Km of our journey was good paved road. Along the way we dropped down into the Rio Urique canyon and back out the other side. This canyon, farther west, is known as the Barranca Del Cobre. It is said to be as deep as our Grand Canyon, but with nearly vertical walls. We left that for another trip!

Beyond Rio Urique we turned off on a dirt road, which leads to La Bufa and Batopilas, both in the bottom of Rio Batopilas canyon. Both had been rich mining areas at one time, with Batopilas supporting a fair size town. Of course in those days everything that came in or out was transported by mules, or more likely burrows. Itís really hard to imagine what people were able to accomplish without all the modern equipment we take for granted.

We traveled about 20 Km on the dirt road. I have seen much worse roads, but it was still rather slow going. Once we started down into the canyon it got narrower, windier, and steeper, and definitely one-way traffic! As we rounded a curve we could see two trucks laboring up the grade towards us. David patiently started backing up looking for a place to get off the road. We must have backed up at least a half mile before he found what he was looking foróa place on the inside, next to the mountain. After the trucks passed we proceeded to our destination, which was a beautiful spot overlooking La Bufa and Rio Batopilas. Best of all it had room to park off the road!

We ate our lunch and took in the grandeur of the mountains and canyon, with glimpses of the road, switchbacking down and down to the bridge at the bottom. The occasional car on the bridge was a mere speck! Someone had put up one of those roadside shrines that are so common in Mexico. I had always thought they were to memorialize those lost in accidents, but David told us that many times those who travel the road frequently erect them as a way of guarding against such accidents. In this case the shrine did the job. We waited outside while David cautiously jockeyed his van back and forth to get turned around, with the rear wheels sometimes being precariously close to the cliff.

The trip back to Creel was interrupted only for a stop at a grand viewpoint of the Urique river.

Back in our rooms we started the task of organizing and packing all the treasures we had bought, in preparation for the return train trip to Los Mochis the following day

3-4 The train leaves at 11:30, so after breakfast we had time for a little last minute shopping to get those special things we might have missed earlier. We also prepared ourselves with sandwich makings and lots of water

Now, with our bags stuffed to overflowing we boarded the bus for the four block trip to the train station. Tickets cannot be purchased ahead of time except at Los Mochis and Ciudad Chihuahua, and for tour groups. There was a small army of people at the station, waiting to board our two car train. It was a mad scramble getting on, and we got pretty well separated. Glenn and Esperanza managed to get seats together in the front car, and I got Barbara settled in a seat. I knew that Sean was caught up in a knot of people in the front, and Terry was nowhere to be seen. I went forward and brought Sean back to a seat near Glenn. Terry had ended up in the rear car, most of which was reserved for a group boarding at Divisadero. By the time I got my flock settled there were no more seats, so I stood up, wandering back and forth between groups. I also got the conductor to arrange for Terry and Sean to be together. It was not an ideal situation, but at least we were all homeward bound. After a couple of hours a seat near Barbara became vacant, and the nice folks across the isle said we could use it, as their son wanted to stand between cars, to view, visit, and smoke, I presume. I put Barbara there and I took her seat. At last, we were all settled in!

The man next to me was going only as far as Bahuichivo, just South of Divisadero. It took a while, but I finally got him engaged in conversation. He was a heavy equipment operator that had been working somewhere in the state of Durango, on his way to his home in Urique. He had already been on the road for more than eight hours, and had several more hours of train and bus travel ahead of him. We talked about farming-corn and beans, specifically. When I asked if he was Tarahumara, he smiled and said "well, yes and no". It seems that his grandfather was Tarahumara, his grandmother Pima, from Sonora, they spoke different languages, and he didnít speak either of them. Obviously he was one of those that chose to go into the outside world to make a living. After he got off at his stop, Barbara and I had seats together the rest of the way to Mochis.

We arrived in Mochis about 10:30 or so. We had opted not to make reservations, Thinking we could surely get rooms in one of the many hotels in town. BAD DECISSION! Our taxis took us to one hotel after another, only to find them all full. Finally, we took the last three rooms in a really bad hotel.

3 Ė5 No one slept much that night. I think we were all down in the lobby before six AM. I walked four blocks over to the Santa Anita, where we had left the cars. I drove Terryís car back to get Glenn, so he could retrieve his pickup. After some difficulty starting his truck, we went to our hotel, loaded our stuff and took off for the north. I think we were all delighted to be leaving Los Mochis behind!

In a little over two hours we were once again at the Del Rio in Navojoa, this time for breakfast. After a long day on the road we checked into a decent motel in Santa Ana. It was ever so much quieter than our last stay there! We walked next door to a very busy restaurant- barbecue place, actually. The chicken was wonderful. This was the first really tasty meal we had had in some time. After dinner we said our good-byes, as our group planned to leave early and drive all the way to San Juan Capistrano the next day. Glenn and Esperanza planned to go only as far as Mexicali.

    1. We had carefully packed the car the night before, so we had only a couple of bags to load in the morning. We made our getaway about 5:00AM. Another long haul across the desert, some frustration finding and crossing the border at Algodones, and we were finally back in California. Arrived at Terryís mid afternoon.

3-7 Once again we, Barbara and I, were up and on the road shortly after 5:00AM. We made our usual stop at Madera for groceries, and were home before noon. There are several reasons to travel. Of course itís always fun to see new and interesting places, but I think the memories we carry with us afterward, especially memories shared with people we love, are the most important. This was a great trip, with a great group of our family, and will be forever treasured.

Oh yes, another thing about traveling is that it really makes us appreciate hearth and home!

For pictures of this trip, you will have to look at our Album!

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