2010 Grand Tour PART 1: ACROSS THE USA

Itinerary:

  1. Ashland, OR
  2. Elk Grove, CA
  3. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
  4. Death Valley, CA
  5. Las Vegas, NV
  6. Grand Canyon, AZ
  7. Farmington, NM
  8. Dallas, TX
  9. New Orleans, LA

SATURDAY JUNE 12th 2010: Last Days in Ashland, OR

After leaving New York and out year-long tour of the United States we had settled in Ashland, Oregon at the furthest point in the Rogue Valley. Ashland is a small town but has built itself as tourist mecca around the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – which is what drew us to the town.

We had moved here in 2008 not really knowing where life would take us. Karen got a job in the Schools and Jack and Emily attended the Ashland schools. And we saw plenty of plays – the festival runs for nine months of the year! I had looked for work and found a temporary position in a small consultancy in Medford – but it was not a career direction I wanted to take and didn’t last.

During our time in Ashland we decided to manage our out-goings. When we were both working we did rent a house for a few months. But for the most part we lived in our RV at Glenyan RV park on the outskirts of Ashland by Emigrant lake.

Things were not really working out so we decided to try out luck in emigrating to New Zealand and got accepted into the country and secured places at Auckland University to train as teachers. So, we set-off on a final road trip – across the US and around Europe.

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Emily & Sophia moving up ceremony for Girl Scouts

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Graduating Walker Elementary School

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Jack and Emily Karate belt test

SUNDAY JUNE 13th 2010:  Ashland, Oregon to Elk Grove, California

We woke to another wonderfully sunny day in the Rogue Valley. Our plan for the day was to finish packing up our apartment (which is in Talent, the neighbouring town to Ashland). Emily and Jack had sleepovers from the night before so they were not around to help (or hinder). The alarm went off at 6:00 am so we could maximise our time and set-off sometime shortly after lunch. As usual, or at least for us, our planned time to pack up everything and get our possessions to their various final destinations; storage, charity shop or the trash, was significantly under estimated. When we last moved from our house in Ashland back to our motorhome, we returned our most valued chattels to the storage unit and took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of things. Somehow there still seemed to be much to be got rid of!

The hours slipped past, and before we knew it lunchtime was upon us. There was still a lot to do! A phone call later and we had an invite to a barbecue at our friends the Pritzlaffs, which was too good an offer to refuse. We piled things into our two cars, to be delivered to friends, storage units and charity shops. Karen had an additional chore. We were looking to sell the lovely old car we had bought on arriving in Ashland; a 1998 Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon. This car is a maroon colour with wood-veneer paneling. For those out there who are old enough to remember the 1970s TV series “The Brady Bunch”, it is similar to the family car they drove. We had originally planned to bring Mercury with us on our cross-country trip, but sadly it was suffering increasingly with the wear and tear of age, so we chose the Jeep for the journey. For a while we had been thinking about donating our cars to a charity that could sell them and make some money, but Mark had left it too late to get this organised. Luckily, Lisa Walker, who works with Karen at the Middle School was potentially interested. So after clearing the Mercury of its contents Karen took it over to Lisa and her husband to have a look at. After a half an hour they called us back and said they would take it! Result!

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Last BBQ with the Pritzlaffs

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Mike had spent half an hour lovingly polishing the old girl and she shone like new! They are going to use it to pull their mobile Aloha Grill around all the fairs and affairs! The car and the grill looked made for each other! Mark in the meantime had gone to collect Emily from her friend Sophia and Jack from his friend Max. There was a lot of sadness, particularly with Emily and Sophia, on saying goodbye. Even Mark was close to tears watching Jack and Emily say their goodbyes. Before emotion took the day, Karen was collected from the Walker’s and we headed off to the Pritzlaff’s for the barbecue. For the first time this day, Karen and Mark had the chance to relax and the pressure melted away, at least temporarily. We had a lovely time and filled our bellies.

We said our goodbyes to the Pritzlaffs and headed back to our apartment in Talent for a final clear-up. Finally we completed the cleaning task and headed back to the Walker’s to pick-up our money, and then at last it was time to leave Ashland. This was a hugely sad moment for all of us.

We have truly loved the nigh on two years that we have lived in this wonderful town. We made some fantastic friends, had some great experiences and had made the most of the Shakespeare festival, seeing virtually every production over the last two seasons! Despite our original target of leaving early afternoon it was now 6pm before we pulled out of town.

Our route took us south into California, along Interstate 5, towards the city of Elk Grove, just below California’s State capital Sacremento. We still had over 300 miles to go, which was likely to take over five hours, giving us an estimated time of arrival after 11pm! We headed out of Ashland towards the State line with California, climbing up and over Siskiyou Summit, a four thousand foot pass through the mountains. As we crested the summit, Karen saw plumes of smoke pouring from the exhaust of our car. Calamity! Were we about to break down only 20 minutes out? Luckily the smoke stopped and we carried on.

It was a glorious evening and we were treated to a splendid view of the magnificent, 14,000 foot plus Mount Shasta, still capped with snow. We stopped at a viewpoint for some pictures. Mount Shasta was our companion for a lot of journey, from first sighting it as we entered California until we passed out of Redding, California some 120 miles to the south. As expected we reached our hotel at 11:30pm and fell into bed.

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Mount Shasta from I-5 heading south from Oregon into California

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MONDAY JUNE 14th 2010:  Elk Grove, California to Kings Canyon / Sequoia National Parks

The beds at the Holiday inn Express were so comfortable, and it was with much regret that we extracted ourselves from our slumbers and descended down to our complimentary breakfasts. We have stayed at so many Holiday Inn Express hotels that we can name the breakfast items before we get to the breakfast room. These breakfasts would not score high in terms of culinary excellence but they fill a space and keep us going until lunchtime.

We hit the road just as the day is warming up and head south towards Fresno in California’s Central Valley. There is nothing too exciting about Fresno, except that it has two “Sweet Tomatoes” restaurants, which is just about our favourite restaurant chain. Our timing is perfect as we arrived at the restaurant at 1:00pm, and as usual we proceeded to eat far too much. Can one eat too much salad? After our gorging we set out for our final destination, the twin National Parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. We pass out of urban Fresno into the hot, dry and fertile farms lands of the Central Valley. The grasslands are already parched and bleached a pale yellow by the fierce sun. In amongst the dry grasses are vivid green groves of citrus trees, although it is too early in the season to tell what fruit these trees were yet to bear. This valley is famous for its fruit plantations. It is too early to taste the oranges and lemons but there are plenty of fruit stands selling tasty cherries and succulent plums and peaches, so we had no option but to buy some of these fruits.

Soon after leaving the fruit stand we began to climb into the mountains. The temperature in the Valley was in the mid-90s and it was not too much cooler on our climb, which resulted in our poor Jeep beginning to overheat. Cautiously we pressed on and the views across the valleys many thousands of feet below us were stunning. The scenery changed along our route from low-lying scrub plants in the valleys to tall pine trees and mountain pastures. Knowing that petrol was not available in the National Park we pulled into a gas station to refuel. This was not your typical gas station but more of a rustic Indian Trading Post, and expensive at that! With little choice we filled up and moved on.

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Finally we reached the National Parks entrance and found our accommodation, a small wooden cabin at Grant Grove Village. To call this a cabin would be to give an unwarranted Illusion of grandeur. A more appropriate description would have been shed! Our “shed” was sparsely decorated with two beds, with rock hard mattresses, a table and chair and bedside table. Also being in a forest and with postage stamp-sized windows it was as a dark as a Hobbit’s burrow! Anyway it was home for a couple of nights.

We didn’t hang around our cabin for too long as the day was drawing to a close and we wanted to do some exploring. A short drive from Grants Grove Village is Grants Grove, where there are some magnificent specimens of the giant Sequoias after which the National Park is named. These monstrous trees live only in a narrow stretch of alpine real estate on the west facing side of the high Sierra Nevada Range in California. They are the largest trees in the World when measured by the volume of their huge trunks. Starting from tiny seeds these magnificent trees grow to over 200 feet in height, with trunks up to 40 feet in circumference. The giant Sequoias also have a long life span, with some living to be over 3000 years old. The coastal Redwood trees which we had seen over on the California coast reach over 300 feet in height, but have much narrower trunks, so in terms of volume or mass are much smaller. There was a short trail that took us through the Grove where as well as finding live, upright Sequoias we came across some fallen giants, which gave us the opportunity to see their sprawling root structures. Surprisingly, these structures are small relative to the size of the tree and it easy to see why there are quite a number of toppled trees throughout the Park. The headline tree of the Grove is the General Grant tree, a majestic monarch. The Sequoias have five stages of development; seedling, sapling, spire-top, mature and monarch. At the mature stage the Sequoias have reached their maximum height but continue to add thickness to their trunk, and also their branches begin to contort and become less regular in shape. After a quick photo opportunity we head off to make the most of the remaining daylight.

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Our final mission of the day is to drive down to and along Kings Canyon. This is a deep canyon that has been sculpted by the erosive flow of the Kings River and long gone glaciers. It is deep and is surrounded by steep granite cliffs. There is only one road in, which winds its way down several thousand feet to the valley floor and from there it follows the Kings River to a point appropriately known as “Road’s End”. This point is the start of many hiking trails into the back-country wilderness of the high Sierras. We were not planning to be that adventurous today so instead were intending a simple road trip. The journey to “Road’s End” took quite a while as the road twisted and turned down the side of the cliff, offering glorious views and precipitous drops. We also loved the sight of tall spikes of flowers shooting from the yuccas which clung to the sides of the granite slopes. On reaching the valley floor we pass alongside the bubbling, turbulent waters of the King’s River, swollen by the continuing melting of snow from the Sierras. Some miles further down (the road from Grant Grove Village to Road’s End is about 40 miles long) we reached a pull-in for a waterfall. Never ones to miss the a waterfall opportunity we piled out and took the few steps to where the falls dropped some 50 feet into a pool. The force of the tumbling water threw out a spray and gusty wind, soaking us all in just a few seconds. Exposure was short, and we quickly beat a cold and damp retreat back to the warmth of the car. Reaching “Road’s End” there was not much to see, and by this time we were getting hungry so we turned the car around and made our way back up along the King’s Canyon, and climbed the mountain to return to Grant Grove Village.

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Jack and Emily never frightened of getting wet

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TUESDAY 15th JUNE 2010: Kings Canyon/ Sequoia National Parks

The mattresses on the beds in our cabin were so uncomfortable and the night temperatures had dropped considerably from the day before, that we woke stiff and cold. Breakfast was a cobbled together affair from provisions we had bought at the pricey market in the Village. Barely refreshed, we ventured out to explore the delights of the Sequoias. Our first port of call was the Visitors Center at Lodgepole, one of the two main National Parks complexes in the Park. Perusing the schedule of events for the day it became apparent that it would be difficult to fit everything in that we would liked to have done. After some debate we decided to do the tour of the Crystal Caves and skip the Ranger programme talks scheduled for that day. We had some time before our tour so we headed out to drive through the Forest of the Giants, the main Sequoia Grove in the Park. It was wonderful to see the numerous Sequoias scattered throughout this area. Just a short drive from the Visitor’s Center was a turn-off for “Moro Rock” and “Tunnel Log”.

As with many of these forests of giant trees there are all sorts of “feature” trees. Along this drive there were two main tree exhibits; “Autolog” and “Tunnel Log”. The former is a large fallen Sequoia which during the early years of the Park was used as a parking driveway for visitors to the park. Today cars are not allowed on to the “Autolog” but it is easy to see the evidence of its past life; grooves have been made in the tree’s trunk by the passage of numerous vehicles. Whilst cars are no longer allowed up on to the tree, people are, and it took no encouragement whatsoever for Jack and Emily to run up and down its length. The most fun part for them was to reach the root end of the tree and stare the 20 feet or so down to the ground below.

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The second feature tree is “Tunnel Log” which is, as its name suggests, a tunnel carved out of a tree. Unlike some other “tunnel” trees this is not carved out of a live standing tree, but is made from a prone Sequoia which obviously has fallen across the path of a road. We had some fun driving backwards and forwards through the tunnel taking pictures. Probably more impressive overall is a cluster of eight giant Sequoias called the “Parker Group” after the eight members of Captain James Parker’s family. Captain Parker was a former Superintendent of the Sequoia National Park.

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Tunnel Log

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The Parker Group

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Emily the tree hugger

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A hollow log tunnel

A short distance from “Tunnel Log” is “Moro Rock”. This is an impressive granite monolith that has been pushed out of the surrounding mountain to form a dome-like structure, similar to the famous “Half-Dome” at Yosemite National Park. Just as we arrived at the car park Emily had a bit  of a melt-down, so she decided to stay in the car while the rest of us went to explore the Rock. The climb to the top of “Moro Rock” is via a set of some 400 stairs which wind their way up sheer rock faces, with a vertical drop-off of several hundred feet to the sides. A short way up Mark decided he did not fancy the climb so he came back down to read the information boards on the geography of the Rock. Unbeknownst to him Emily had decided to rejoin the family and began to climb the stairs to find us. She got about halfway up when she realised she did not like the heights, or more likely the drops, so she just sat down and began to cry. At this point Jack and Karen were on the top of “Moro Rock” enjoying the spectacular views across the valleys to the distant Sierra Nevada mountain range. Luckily some other visitors took pity on Emily and went back up to the top to find Karen. Jack descended to meet up with Emily, followed by a more cautious Karen, who herself was feeling a nervous of the walk back down. Finally the whole party was reunited, much to their relief, and started their descent to the bottom. Mark, unaware of all the drama, was patiently waiting at the base of the Rock and was most surprised to see Emily in tears when she reached him. It took quite some time for her to recover her composure. The photo on the next page shows the widest, safest part of the trail … further up there were passing places on a narrow trail and a rock wall at knee height between a walker and certain death!

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Moro Rock

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Luckily there was not a cloud in the sky

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The view to the Sierra Nevada from Moro Rock

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It was by now getting close to the time of our tour of the Crystal Caves, so we jumped into our car and headed on the winding road to the trail head for the Caves. It was a 15 minute walk from the car park to the Cave’s entrance. It was a very pleasant walk down into a verdant, luscious valley along a steep trail path. Coming the other direction were people from the previous tour, who looked very red faced from the exertion of climbing back up the hill. The altitude here at the Park is somewhere in the range of 6000 to 7000 feet, so any form of exercise is much harder here. Finally we reach the bottom of the path to the cave, passing by a pretty set of waterfalls. As this is a guided tour we had to wait in the cave entrance for our tour party to form. This was to be a special tour as the lighting system in the caves had failed so we had to use torches (flash lights) to illuminate our way through the Cave.

The usual tour party is made up of around 50 people, but for our tour there were only 10 people, so we had a easy access to the Tour Guide. Our Guide gave us a brief overview of the history, geology and ecology of the Cave. He explained that the Cave was home to nine species of bats, but that they tend to stay away from areas where the tours passed through. On cue a bat flew into our part of the cave and did several aerobatic manoeuvres before heading back out! Almost embarrassed, the Guide ushered us into the first of the Cave’s chambers where we got to see the usual range of formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, popcorn etc. We had been to many caves, but the experience of doing this under torch light gave it a more spiritual feeling. The most special moment was when we all switched off our torches and listened as our Guide gave us more information about the Cave. All too soon it was time to leave the cool 50 degree subterranean temperatures to return to the 80 degree temperature of the forest. The journey back up the hill only served to show us why the people we had met on the way down were red-faced.

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Crystal Cave

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We decided that to end our day we’d revisit the Forest of the Giants to see the museum dedicated to the Giant Sequoias. Outside the museum is a magnificent specimen of a Sequoia monarch, called “Sentential”, which is deemed to be an average tree, but it is still impressively huge. Inside the museum there are a number of exhibits that cover the ecology of the Sequoias.

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The museum to the Sequoias

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The Giant Sequoia lifecycle

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Jack checks out the Sentenial Tree

It turns out that the perfect conditions that have resulted in the establishment of the Sequoias have only been around for 4,500 years, which is only 1 ½ Sequoia lifetimes. Sadly as the the scourge of global warming works its damaging effects on the environment it is unclear as to what the long term prognosis is for these arboreal giants. Never mind we were here to live in the moment and enjoy these trees. As we discovered some of the Sequoias in this forest have been around for 3000 years and have survived droughts, vast temperature swings and forest fires, so they are tough and adaptable so perhaps they might be around for some time to come.

A short drive from the museum is another signature tree, the “General Sherman” tree”. This is purported to be the largest living tree in the world, with a base diameter of approaching 36 feet. We took the ½ mile walk from the car park to the “General Sherman”. Jack in particular loved these giants of the forest.

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We left the “General Sherman” behind and returned to Grant Grove Village and our “lovely” cabin. The final event for our day was to attend the fireside Park Ranger programme talk. The Ranger gave a presentation about the potential impact of global warming (or cooling) on several National Parks; Joshua Tree, Glacier and Sequoia / Kings Canyon. It was not the best Ranger talk we had been to, but it was still a pleasant way to finish our visit to these twin National Parks. So there was nothing more to do but to return to the cabin, pack-up our belongings and prepare ourselves for an early start the next day on our trip down to Death Valley National Park.

WEDNESDAY 16th JUNE 2010: Death Valley, California

Our next destination after the cool forests of the Sierra Nevada is the baking hot deserts of Death Valley. It is not a flat desert, but is a varied and beautiful landscape of mountains and slot canyons.

We pass over the Sierra Nevada mountain range which keeps the rains away and makes it a very, very dry place. Our drive is thankfully short and we are soon pulling into the relative oasis of the Furnace Creek Inn.

There is no escaping the heat and we take care to carry water – but this does not stop us exploring this interesting National Park. Our hikes into the canyons are short and we make sure we take our time.

Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America. We decide to take the short walk on the boardwalks out onto the salt flats – but wait until the relative cool of dusk to do this, which also gave us the chance to see an amazing sunset.

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The entrance to Death Valley National Park

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Now at sea level

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If we were at the coast we’d be getting more than our feet wet!

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The temperature is rising

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Taking a hike in a narrow gorge

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Jack takes a rest

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Layers of rocks exposed by erosion

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Badwater Basin

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A beautiful sunset

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Disused Borax mining in the middle of Death Valley

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SATURDAY 19th JUNE 2010: Las Vegas, Nevada

We set out early from Death Valley to beat the heat of the day. As we were climbing out of the valley the early morning sunlight provided perfect lighting to capture some stunning photo opportunities down across the valley.

Next stop Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is a place we have stopped many (or at least I have) times before – so this was going to be a quick pass through with just and overnight stop. We were staying at the Tropicana on the South End of the strip – not the most salubrious of places, but it was cheap! We rushed the hotel as we were deep into the football (not soccer) World Cup only to disappointed once again with the English side being thrashed by our old nemesis the Germans (remember the war – we won when it mattered!).

Anyway not much time do anything of substance like a show so we decided to wonder the streets. As per usual the heat was unbearable this time of year so we hustled from one air conditioned casino to the next. Only when the sun went down did we get any respite. Our go to place (or at least mine and Karen’s) for free entertainment are the fountains at Bellagio. However many times we have seen them we cannot get enough – and it is purgatory for Jack and Emily to have to sit through song-after-song. But who is paying for this after all!

We were not sure whether we’d ever be back to Vegas so this was as far as we knew goodbye and sort of good riddance (it is more of an adult playground than a place for families to visit).

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New York, New York on the Las Vegas Strip

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The impressive Eiffel Tower on top of the Paris Hotel

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Jack and Emily pose with some not very lifelike wax models

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Waiting for the fountains at Bellagio to begin

SUNDAY 20th JUNE 2010: The Grand Canyon

After 1300 miles we are already racking up on the National Parks, this time the most spectacular of all. We have been here before a couple of times and it can be irritating when people say how magnificent this place is and words can’t describe it – it is true. One of these days, before I get too old, I would like to take the hike to the canyon floor (if only I could get over my fear of heights – perhaps if I went at night or blindfolded).

We are of course on a mission – a new life in New Zealand – so as wonderful as this place is we have to take everything in as quick as possible. We’re staying close by and make the most of our day by fighting through the crowds and taking the spectacular walk along the South Rim, soaking up the stunning vistas at the numerous viewpoints.

It is always disappointing when you leave the sanctuary of these great National treasures to see the awful encroachment of man. The small enclaves of hotels and shops are tacky and cheap – could someone not take control of these places and preserve them in the same way or at least in keeping with the neighboring spectacle! At least the parks are preserved … for now.

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Looking down into the Grand Canyon

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Still working on those selfies

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Emily huddles on the edge of the Canyon

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