Along Route 66

I came across an old Tulsa World article in the archives at the library recently. It was written a few months after Route 66 was federally de-certified and I found it quite interesting.  I have transcribed it below (exactly as written) with the photos from the article.  I’ll chime in a bit at the end.


Along Route 66 by Nick Foltz / Tulsa World

September 23, 1985

Like a meandering stream, U.S. 66 wandered 2,000 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., crossing eight states.  Right in the middle of it was Tulsa, and many weary travelers stopped here to get their kicks on Route 66.

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For several decades, the 11th Street Bridge, above, has funneled motorists into downtown Tulsa. Small diners like the one in southwest Oklahoma, top inset, were designed to serve travelers quickly. Build in 1929, Vinita Conoco station’s trim, clean lines were meant to blend with residential area.

U.S. 66 dates back to 1926, and was the path for cross-country adventure for daring drivers of Tin Lizzies.  U.S. 66 had been in existence for years when Henry Ford started producing the Model-A, and gasoline was hand-pumped into cars that still had running boards, rumble seats and transmissions that didn’t know how to shift for themselves.

Like trees and vegetation hugging the banks of a stream, thousands of businesses spring up along the highway. The steady stream of traffic nourished diners, gas stations, hotels, garages and “tourist courts” as motels were called in the Depression years.

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In June of this year, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials voted to strip the trafficway of its “U.S.” designation and it became simply Highway 66. A victim of the interstate system, it had been replaced largely by I-40.

The 59-year-old highway still generates memories for motorists who traveled it in its early years: the aroma of frying hamburgers at a roadside stand, the dark, coolness of beer taverns, the mustiness of hotel rooms with evaporative coolers instead of air-conditions, cafe nickelodeons with faces swirling a rainbow of lights and ice cream parlors with marble-top tables and creaking ceiling fans.

Less romantic was the washboard surface of the highway that made it almost impossible for drivers to go to sleep at the steering wheel. As cars bumped along, they seemed to travel almost as far from side to side as they did forward.

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Park Plaza Court was built in 1930 with Alamo-style facade.

In Tulsa, U.S. 66 cut a swath down 11th Street and Southwest Boulevard in its 396-mile Oklahoma journey.  The Oklahoma leg has been the subject of an intensive research project by Oklahoma State University historians who have submitted a list of 33 structures as nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.

Tulsa structures in the list include the Brookshire Motel, 11017 E. 11th St.; Will Rogers Motor Court, 5737 E. 11th St.; a structure that has been an auto dealer-ship and is now Elgin STreet Auto Trim, 1401 E. 11th St, a filling station, now the Car Care Clinic, 209 W. 11th St., the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River; Park Plaza Court, 3512 Southwest Boulevard, and 66 Motel at 3660 Southwest Blvd.

A former auto dealership, now the Claremore Tire Co. at 625 W. Will Rogers, Claremore, and the Rock Creek Bridge west of Sapulpa, are also on the list.

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Auto trip shop on East 11th Street served as auto dealership in early years, according to researchers.

Dr. Joseph A. Stout Jr. researched the road’s colorful history, conducted field research by interviewing old-timers along the famed road, and wrote the text of a 65-page survey, edited by Dr. Mary Ann Anders.

Stout said the work allowed him to make a nostalgic study of the buildings “that represent the beginning of Americans becoming a mobile society – when they started traveling cross-country by car.

“Life was a lot less complicated then – there were no nuclear bombs, for instance – and it represents a period that we don’t want to lose. The roads were narrow and abominable, but they also had Burma Shave signs,” Stout commented.

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Tall, steel superstructure above, marks old bridges like the Rock Creek span west of Sapulpa.

The survey was financed by a historic preservation grant of about $120,000. Stout said he did not know how long it would take the National Register of Historic Places to respond to the list of nominations.

 


Reading this in 2018 is a mixed bag of emotion.  This was written before any historic associations were formed and nobody really knew what a movement Route 66 tourism would become. It makes my heart happy to know that so many people have a strong, positive connection to the Mother Road today. But there’s also a sadness in how much we’ve lost.

The sites mentioned in Tulsa that were submitted to the National Register are also a mixed bag today:

  • Brookshire Motel (abandoned and endangered)
  • Will Rogers Motor Court (demolished)
  • Discount Muffler (saved and in use)
  • Elgin Street Auto Trim (saved and in use)
  • Car Care Clinic (saved and in use)
  • 11th Street Bridge (closed off and unsuitable for traffic)
  • Park Plaza Court (demolished)
  • 66 Motel (demolished)

The Claremore site (Claremore Tire Co) has also been demolished but the Rock Creek Bridge has been saved.  I certainly hope that the current federal legislation marking Route 66 as a National Historic Trail passes and the efforts of preservationists continue to bring awareness to the roadside inventory along the Main Street of America.

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Hello, Chicken Fry!

During the research of my Lost Restaurants of Tulsa book, I came across a lot of information for long-time Tulsa restaurants that were still up and running. Since I couldn’t sample the food at any of the restaurants I was writing about, I made a commitment to dine at the city’s traditional diners that were still going strong. Today I made good on one: Nelson’s Buffeteria.

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Nelson Rogers, Jr. and cook Elza Smith (courtesy OK Magazine 1979)

Nelson’s was started by Nelson Rogers, Sr. in 1929. Back then, Tulsa had a series of buffet/cafeteria operations that served the masses in a simple way. Nelson’s sat on 4th Street just east of Boulder.  After twenty years, they moved to 5th and Boston.  It was a staple of downtown dining until it closed in 2004. All of Tulsa’s classic cafeterias, buffets, and buffeterias became relegated to the pages of history…except for Nelson’s, which the family resurrected a few years later.

In 2009, one of Nelson’s grandsons opened Nelson’s Ranch House on Third Street (now closed) and in 2012 other members of the Rogers family opened a location at 44th and Memorial. The latter restaurant boasted a beautiful neon sign, which had graced the downtown location for many years before being restored.

The Nelson’s on Memorial is only open for breakfast/lunch Monday through Friday; every time I thought about having a meal there, they weren’t open. Finally, though, I arrived during business hours.  The neon welcomed me under foreboding skies as I walked through the front door.  Immediately, I was greeted with the soothing sound of bluegrass music, courtesy of a four-piece band just inside the doorway.

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A line of customers drew my eyes to the back, where several old timers served traditional favorites from a short buffet table.  The choices are limited compared to the massive menus of today’s traditional restaurants, but what they did offer looked tremendous. Nelson’s also offers a regular rotating daily dish and a blue plate special. I opted for their most famous dish: chicken fried steak.  “Hello, Chicken Fry!” the server announced as he dressed my plate with a battered steak alongside a generous portion of mashed potatoes and gravy. I took my entree (and a side plate with a giant roll) and found a seat among the regulars, most of which were several decades older than me.

The CFS was unbelievable.  I’ve long said that Clanton’s in Vinita, OK is the best chicken fried steak in the state, but Nelson’s gives it a real run for its money.  It’s pan-fried, not deep fried, and the meat was so very tender.  The mashed potatoes were like eating a cloud.  And the roll was perfection. I inhaled my lunch with great pleasure as the band played, making me feel like I’d taken a road trip to a small rural community. The staff was all super friendly and attentive, too. Since I had to go back to work afterwards, I opted not to get a slice of pie…but I already regret missing out.

The food, the music, the atmosphere…it’s timeless.  It was like stepping back in time to the places I’ve been learning about over the past year-and-a-half. If you’re a fan of comfort food and find yourself in the area while they’re open, I heartily recommend Nelson’s.

http://nelsonsbuffeteria.com/

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A Western Oklahoma Ramble

On the last weekend of April, I headed west to attend a few events as the Tulsa County Representative for the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.  I had to be in Clinton on Saturday and Weatherford on Sunday, so I figured I’d stay overnight and do a little exploring.  As luck would have it, my friend Sam Murray would be staying overnight, too, with his Route 66 tour group from New Zealand.  It made for an exciting weekend!

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I left Tulsa early on Saturday morning. As I reached the western edge of Oklahoma City, I detoured off the interstate to see a relic of Oklahoma’s history.  A giant arrow, hidden in the trees on a quiet country lane, points towards the sky. It’s the remains of a monument from the 1957 Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Celebration called ‘Arrows to Atoms’.  It was originally almost 200 feet tall and stood at the fairgrounds to represent the progress of the Sooner State from statehood to the Atomic Era.  When it was taken down in the late 1960s, part of it was relocated to private property where it’s stood ever since.

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I continued west, avoiding I-40 in favor of the old roads.  Most of the drive I spent cruising Highway 152, which took me through Cogar.  About the only thing left in that town is an old general store/gas station that was featured in the film Rain Man.  It’s been closed for a long time, but still has a great look to it. I also snaked through the towns of Gotebo, Hobart, and New Cordell before heading up to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton.

Every two years, the Oklahoma Route 66 Association holds a Hall of Fame ceremony where two inductees are honored: one posthumously and one living. This year the Association had the unique privilege of honoring the same family for both awards. The late Hugh and Zelta Davis were honored for building the Blue Whale in Catoosa (as well as a few other attractions in the area) and their son, Blaine Davis, was honored for his ongoing contributions by keeping the Whale going in addition to his long-time service to the Oklahoma Route 66 Association itself.  It was a lovely event and Blaine was quite surprised.  Afterwards, a new photo exhibit at the museum opened: Oklahoma’s own Jim Ross and Shellee Graham were the featured artists. It was great to spend a bit of time with my Oklahoma Route 66 family.

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The day was still young, so once everything wrapped up I set out for a little more exploration.  I continued west to Elk City and then headed north on OK-34.  Basically, I made a huge circle back to Clinton through the towns of Hammon, Leedey, Thomas, and Custer City.  Much of the farmland was singed from a recent wildfire; it made for interesting scenery as I wound through the rural landscape.

When I made it back to Clinton, Sam Murray and his tour group had arrived for the night.  I met the New Zealanders on the Route 66 tour and we dined together, where we shared stories and a mutual love of the fabled American highway. It never ceases to amaze me when I experience the passion of Route 66 travelers.  For many international visitors, it’s the fulfillment of a longtime bucket list item.  One of the guys had even bought a classic car in Illinois and planned to ship it home when they arrived in California!

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The next morning I joined Gilligan’s Route 66 Tours for a few hours. I set up in Canute, where I took some photos as the gang drove by the old Cotton Boll Motel, and set up again on an abandoned segment of the Mother Road west of Sayre.  Everyone was having a wonderful time cruising and it was nice to be a ‘fly on the wall’ for their experience.  When the caravan pulled into the one-and-only Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Harley Russell was waiting. The larger-than-life proprietor of the famous roadside attraction was standing outside the brick market with a large New Zealand flag.  “WELCOME TO AMERICA!” he shouted with his unique brand of enthusiasm.  As Harley started his tour, I bid the group farewell and headed back east.

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I made another stop in Sayre, this time to see an abandoned bridge.  The old North Fork Red River Bridge is now on private property and doesn’t even make it to the river; the section near the river collapsed into rubble some time back. I secured permission from the landowner to explore but didn’t dally too long.  I had to get to Weatherford for the quarterly Oklahoma Route 66 Association meeting at the Heartland of America Museum.

I’d never been to that particular museum before and I was impressed.  The owners were wonderful hosts and the exhibits they have on-site provide a window into Okie living throughout the history of the state.  It’s a great addition to the series of museums that western Oklahoma has to offer. The drive home held no further detours, but that was fine by me.  It had been a wonderful, full weekend.

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15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest

Hi everyone!  Dropping a quick note to let you know that I will have a booth at the 15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest this year; it’s May 18-20 in downtown Tulsa. I’ll be sitting just east of 2nd and Elgin on the original alignment of Route 66!

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I’ll have a variety of goods available (prints, coasters, shirts) and would love to see you if you’re out and about.  I’m sharing a booth with my wife Samantha; her steampunk jewelry is amazing!  Get a sneak peek at: Bohemian Romance.

Although my book Lost Restaurants of Tulsa is still several months away from publication, I’d love to talk to you about your memories of the city’s beloved lost eateries. I hope to have more info on the book timeline soon.

Here’s hoping we have TERRIFIC weather for the festival!

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Four Days in The Marble City

I am fortunate in that I get to travel occasionally with my day job.  Although I’m not always able to get out and explore, I look for any available opportunity to escape and see a few sights.  Although it rained every day I was in Knoxville, Tennessee this week I was able to get in a little road time and see a little bit of the countryside.

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I was the second of my team to arrive in town early Sunday afternoon; thankfully, my coworker Mike was happy to drive around with me.  The first few were in Strawberry Plains, northeast of Knoxville.  The Holston River weaves through town and is spanned by a few crossings, including The McBee Bridge. The concrete through-truss (much like the Marsh Arch bridges I love in Kansas) is the only one of its kind in The Volunteer State.  It was built around 1930 to replace a ferry of the same name, which had taken people across the river since 1836.

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Our next stop was an abandoned Pan-Am Station on Highway 70. It’s a shame the little service station was in such bad shape; it’s a beautiful streamline moderne building. Pan-Am was once the largest oil company in the country and eventually became Amoco.  I don’t know how old this particular station is, but it has been in use somewhat recently.  Among the clutter of items inside was a calendar from the late 1990s hanging on the wall.

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Further south along the Holston River, we sought out a railroad bridge I’d marked and found something more interesting! Right next to the tracks leading across the river, a small collection of tombstones marked the location of the First Presbyterian Church in Knox County. “Lebanon in the Fork” dates back to 1791.  The site was eerily beautiful with the spotty rain and overcast skies.  One corner of the lot was dedicated to the Ramsey family, whose historic home sat two miles away. The Ramsey House is a beautiful limestone manor that ties in to a lot of Knoxville’s early history.

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The rain became steady right around dinner time.  My other coworkers had arrived during our exploration time and tasked me with finding a local place for our first meal together.  I suggested Ye Olde Steak House, a 1968 family-owned establishment on the south side of town.  It was GREAT!  The vintage supper-club atmosphere made me feel at home and my steak was cooked perfectly. Everyone else was happy, too, and made me unofficial meal planner for the rest of the trip.

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Late Tuesday, a few of us took a drive to the nearby Smoky Mountains.  Although it was still raining off-and-on, we enjoyed a peaceful drive up Highway 441 into Smoky Mountain National Park; there were a few neon signs I wanted to see just across the border in Cherokee, NC.  We had plenty of opportunities to stop along the winding road and appreciate the low clouds, which made the mountain forests look appropriately smoky.

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Cherokee is very much a tourist town and was very quiet this time of year.  By the time we made it back down the mountain to Gatlinville, it was full dark.  Next time I’m in the area, I hope to explore that town and nearby Pigeon Forge. They looked like a lot of fun!

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On my last night, I got to see downtown Knoxville and have dinner with an old friend. The Tennessee River cuts through the district and is spanned by multiple bridges, all of which I giddily photographed as the lights came on.  The barbecue at Calhoun’s on the River wasn’t bad, either!

After a super early flight out on Thursday, I arrived back in Tulsa at 10 AM.  Currently, I’m preparing to take a short trip to western Oklahoma for a few Route 66 meetings.  I’m still tired from my trip to Tennessee, but the excitement of a few more days on the road very soon is like a jolt of caffeine to the spirit.

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Preservation & Payne

It’s been a busy week on Route 66 in Tulsa and the surrounding area.  I love a good road trip to someplace new, but there’s a lot to be said for helping others enjoy the city and stretch of highway I am most familiar with.  Tulsa has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our architecture and history.

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For most of last week, Tulsa hosted the NCPTT (National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, part of the National Park Service) and their symposium on Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions. I joined approximately 50 other attendees from around the country to learn about various efforts (both historic and ongoing) to preserve, restore, and bring awareness to various roadside relics.

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I heard from a man who helped restore the 9,000 sq ft terrazzo Texaco highway map of New York State from the 1964 World’s Fair.  I listened to talks about Dinosaur Valley State Park, Oklahoma City neon signs, old Phillips 66 stations in the Midwest, Civil War-era cycloramas, various marketing initiatives, and more.  Our two keynote addresses were from author/historian Michael Wallis and Dylan Thuras from Atlas Obscura.  I gave the last talk of the conference, highlighting photography as a preservation tool.  I learned a lot and made many new friends over three days.

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I also lead two field excursions during the conference.  The first trip was a neon tour of Tulsa.  We only had two hours, which meant I had to make some tough decisions on what we could see.  Aside from the fact that our final stop was a great disappointment (Stokely Event Center had assured me they’d be present with all their beautiful signs lit up, but the place was dark when we arrived) it was nice to share some of our beautiful signage with a passionate crowd.  The second tour was a half-day trip from Tulsa to Foyil, OK to see a bit of the Mother Road.  Everybody loved the Blue Whale and Totem Pole Park!  Photos from those trips are below:

NCPTT Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions

On Saturday, I hopped back onto Route 66 for a different reason: commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the Bunion Derby.  If you’ve never heard of it, I recommend reading the whole story but the summary is this: it was a 1928 Trans-American Footrace from L.A. to New York that was won by a 20 year old Cherokee man from the Claremore area named Andy Payne.  The Oklahoma Route 66 Association has held occasional motorized relays to celebrate the event.  A plaque is carried from the western border with Texas all the way up to the Kansas border on the historic highway.

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I carried the plaque from downtown Sapulpa, through Tulsa, and up to the Blue Whale in Catoosa. I was joined by a few other enthusiasts on a cold morning with Samantha riding shotgun. When we arrived at the Blue Whale, I was shocked to see a massive caravan waiting to drive the next leg of the journey…complete with police escort!  I fell in line once the plaque hand-off was completed and stayed with the gang through Claremore (where the Cherokee Nation read a proclamation to one of Andy Payne’s nephews) and on to Foyil, where a statue of Andy Payne graces travelers on the side of Route 66.

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The last week was full of fun and learning.  It was a real treat to be involved with both events and I think our visitors really enjoyed Tulsa. I marked a whole bunch of new locations to visit around the country, too! It’s time to start planning my next road trip.

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A Teachable Moment

It’s not a shocking statement to say I spent a little time on Route 66 this weekend.  What made this trip much different, though, is the fact that the time I spent cruising the Mother Road wasn’t behind the wheel of my Mustang.  I spent Saturday walking a stretch of Oklahoma 66 with approximately 50 others (mostly teachers) in support of Oklahoma’s education system.

If you’ve been following the national news, you already know that Oklahoma’s teachers walked out last week.  They rallied at the capitol building to demand better teacher pay and better funding for their schools, which has been among the lowest in the country.  Although a little progress was made last week, it hasn’t been enough to get us out of the hole.  As a part of the walkout, a group of teachers from the Tulsa area (including the superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist) started walking to Oklahoma City from Tulsa on Wednesday, April 4th.  Their route took them down old Route 66, stopping in small town school gymnasiums to sleep on wrestling mats as they trekked 110 miles southwest.

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Although neither Samantha nor I have children, we believe in their cause and wanted to show our support. We woke early on Saturday, April 7th (my 37th birthday) and joined two friends on a drive to Stroud, OK.  The skies were cloudy and the temperatures were below freezing; we passed half-a-dozen car accidents due to the slick streets and icy bridges.  We arrived in Stroud in one piece as a light snow began to fall.  We walked into the Route 66 Coliseum on the eastern edge of town, signed in, and set out with Team Turtles (the slowest of the three groups) at about 8:30 AM.

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Our journey that day took us from Stroud to Chandler with a lunch stop in Davenport. I’ve driven that section of Route 66 many times (in fact, just a few weeks ago with a group of TCC students) but walking the road was much different.  I took in my surroundings differently due to the slow pace; as much as I wished the snow would stop, I appreciated the beauty of it on the redbud trees.

I also gained a stronger appreciation for the simple act of putting one foot in front of another. It was terribly cold; the wind chill was in the teens when we started and eventually the snow turned to sleet.  Shortly before our mid-day stop in Davenport, thankfully, the weather cleared and the clouds broke up. The afternoon sunshine was most welcome.

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The teachers received support from a great many people. Motorists waved, honked their horns, and shouted encouragement as they drove by.  Residents that lived along Route 66 came out of their houses as we walked by to offer water and snacks.  When we entered Davenport (and, later, Chandler) there were welcoming committees of local teachers, parents, and students cheering us on.  There were only two or three instances of people giving a thumbs-down or shouting at us to get off the road.

By the time we ambled to our destination in Chandler, the group had traveled sixteen miles. I spent a few miles after lunch inside a support vehicle due to a hip issue but Samantha and our friends (one of whom is a teacher in Verdigris, another Route 66 community) walked the entire day. We celebrated our survival with a fantastic dinner back at the Rock Cafe in Stroud. Special thanks to Jerry McClanahan for the lift back to our starting point!

OK March Teachers (5)

The historic significance of the march was not lost on me.  Shortly after Route 66 was established, tenant farmers in Oklahoma uprooted and set out for California, leaving the Dust Bowl behind to seek a better future for their families.  Oklahoma educators are using the same highway as a path to a better future for their students and the families of the Sooner State’s future.  I admire the many teachers and other staff I met on the day’s journey, including Dr. Gist who was walking right along with them. I was a broken man after a single day and cannot imagine walking for an entire week!  My hat is off to them; their passion and commitment will surely lead to the brighter future they are seeking.

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