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I ascribe it to the luck of my being Irish. It was this past winter when I started pondering the possibility of taking an extended expedition in the South, poking about, as is my wont, for Rural Americana photo ops. Although I went to graduate school in Georgia – back during the Civil War days – I hadn’t spent any appreciable amount of time there since, and none whatsoever to take photographs. No time like the present, I told myself, so I sat down and mapped out an itinerary that would take me to Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Starting point Nashville, ending point New Orleans.

rural americana french quarter Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesLooking at the calendar, I figured a good time to go would be sometime in May, when the weather ought to be more hospitable for outdoor shooting and before the hordes of summer vacationers take to the highways. More or less blindfolded, I picked the first full week. Little did I know at the time I booked my airplane reservation that my visit – during which it was mostly sunny – would be bookended by stretches of horrendous weather.

The week before saw a succession of tornados that ripped savagely through the region. The week following the Mississippi River would rise to record levels of flooding, destroying thousands of acres of farmland and displacing more families than one cares to imagine. Total damage would ultimately run into the billions. Like a blessed pinball, I managed to slip unscathed through the “flippers” of Mother Nature at her angriest.

After completing the shoot per se, which spanned seven days and covered 1,800 miles in a rented Ford Fusion (nice car!), I rendezvoused in the Big Easy with my wife Pat, who flew in from San Francisco. During the three days we spent there, we hung our hats at a lovely B&B in the Garden District.

rural americana door Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesWe celebrated our anniversary by eating al fresco at a restaurant which, if Zagat is to be believed, ranks among the nation’s finest. Was the chow good? Indeed, but probably not sufficiently exceptional as to warrant flying in from out of town, unless you happen to be in the same league as, say, Larry Ellison (who actually might elect to sail in … so as to “make a statement”). Pictured here is part of a French Quarter door.

Was the trip worth the investment of time and money? As for the former, definitely. Not only did I get scores of outstanding Rural Americana shots – including some not found elsewhere – I was to “re-introduced” to the South. Much changed, of course, since I was there as a grad student during the Freedom Rider days, and much appeared to be the same, especially the warmth and friendliness of native Southerners. And the pecan pie and pralines! To die for, unless you happen to be either diabetic or allergic to nuts. Fortunately, I am neither.

Regarding the latter – cost – the jury is out. As I write this, I have yet to receive the MasterCard statement, and I may want to be sitting down upon opening the envelope. Seven days and eight nights of repeated visits to the gas pump (at $3.79 a gallon), lodging and meals.

Still and all – assuming that I am not thrown into debtor’s prison for inability to pay the bills – it was a rewarding experience both photographically and as an adventure. Because I had no set itinerary, it was literally an ad hoc, seat-of-pants, hope-to-find-something-of-pictorial-merit experience. In my opinion, this invariably is the best approach, particularly for someone with camera in hand and with an unflagging desire to augment his collection of Rural Americana photographs.

When I arrived in Nashville, having taken a “budget” connecting flight out of sun-drenched San Diego, it was raining. Rats, I said to myself, worried that the meteorological gods might not smile upon me.

Having consulted the 10-day forecast before leaving San Francisco, however, I tried to reassure myself that a stretch of fair skies loomed. I was proved correct. For the ensuing seven days, nary a drop of rain and mostly sunny skies. As I said, must be Irish.

Having spent the first night at a Hampton Inn on the west side of Nashville, upon checking out I asked where I might find the nearest Starbucks. As anyone who knows me is aware, I am a virtually insatiable java hound, especially of precisely measured, perfectly measured low-fat cappuccinos, topped with Barbasol-dense foam. Although, in my years of experience, Starbucks’s automated machines rarely produce customer award-winning foam, more often than not the cappuccinos (and similar foo-foo drinks) are quaffable.

“Out the front driveway and down the highway to right, about two miles, in the Kroger’s shopping center,” instructed the clerk at the front desk. “Can’t miss it.”

Indeed, I didn’t. Slogging through the rain, I sidled up to the counter and ordered a “12-ounce” dry cappuccino. I always utter either “12-ounce” or “small,” as I refuse to allow the Starbuckese word “tall” pass my lips, strictly out of principle. I also refuse to utter “grande” or “venti.” The pretentiousness of Howard Shultz is enough to make me want to take my business to Dunkin’ Donuts. Well, not really ….

Road map of Tennessee in hand, I boldly walked up to a couple of men seated at a table and asked, “Either of you local?” After hearing both answer in the affirmative, I introduced myself, offering my business card and explaining that I was a professional photographer from the West Coast passing through in search of Rural Americana photo ops. “Rural Americana?” one asked. “Mostly old barns and discarded old trucks and cars,” I answered.

Pointing to a couple of county roads, one of them – Jack – advised that I stay south of I-40, which runs east and west through the state. “I think you’ll find lots of barns in this area,” added Morris, running his finger over the same roads recommended by Jack. “Good luck, and welcome to Tennessee!”

Heeding their advice, I set out for uncharted territory – uncharted for me, that is – a full complement of camera gear in the trunk and a bottle of Starbucks-bought Ethos bottled water in the console cupholder.

Although my thoughts remained as dark as the sky, I tried to assure myself that the sun would soon break through.

After a couple of hours of meandering hither and yon, and finding absolutely nothing suitable to photograph – even with someone holding an umbrella over my head – my spirits began to sag. The thought “What if this trip is a complete washout?” bounced about in my head as the wipers flipped back and forth indifferently, almost as if to mock me.

At the next intersection of two-lane roads, I pulled into Sanders Service Station and Market. I asked the old man behind the counter – the owner, as it turned out – if there were any old barns in the area.

“Well,” he said in a telltale drawl, “there used to be one across the street, but it got washed away in the terrible flood a year ago. Can’t think of anything still standing in the immediate vicinity.”

“OK,” I said, and walked back to the car. As I was inserting the key into the ignition, another man walked up and knocked on the window. Lowering it, I said, “Yes?”

Holding a cellphone to his ear, he said, “I’m Adam Sanders, the owner’s son, and I think I may be able to help you.”

“Terrific,” I replied, “I’m all ears.”

“Matt,” I overheard him say into the phone, “There’s a gentleman here from California who’s looking for barns and the like to photograph. You have any time available to point him in the right direction?”

“That was Matt Votaw, head of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce. He said he’d be happy to show you around.”

“Show me around? Wow, that would be great.”

Ten minutes later and two miles farther down the road, I was at the front door of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Linden, the county seat.

“You must be the photographer from California. I’m Matt Votaw. How can I help you?”

First, he pulled a county map out of his desk and started marking things up with his black-ink Sharpie. “Heck,” he said, looking up, “why don’t I just drive around with you. Easier that way. We can go together in my truck or you can follow me.”

rural americana barn Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images“I’ll follow,” I said. “That way, when we’re done, you can come back here and I can head off wherever.”

After wending through the back roads, we entered the gravel driveway of a farm. Matt got out and, as I was emerging from my own car, pointed to a barn featuring a silo. “How’s this for starters?” he asked.

“Excellent,” I replied, even though one had to strain to find any blue in the sky.

When Matt could see that I was done there, he said, “Next stop is a farm belonging to my grandfather-in-law. He has several old pickup trucks you might find appealing.”

As we drove up another gravel driveway, past an archetypal farm house, an older man – presumably the grandfather-in-law – stood, outfitted, appropriately, in coveralls and engineer’s cap.

Rolling down the window, Matt said, “Lofton, this fellow with me is a professional photographer from out of town. I was wondering if it would be OK for him to take pictures of the trucks.”

rural americana ford truck photo Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images“No problem. Happy to oblige,” said Lofton, tugging at the very soiled bill of a tattered cap. “Shoot whatever you like.”

Peering through a fence gate, my eyeballs almost fell out when I espied a thoroughly rusted pickup that appeared to have a tree growing through it. As I got closer – hopping across puddles and knee-high grass – danged it if wasn’t just that … a tree enveloping a 1951 Ford truck.

“I drug it over there years ago to get it out of the way. Planned to fix ‘er up, but never happened. That was 30 years or so ago. To tell the truth, I’d kind of forgotten about it.” After shooting it from high and low and giving it a walk-around, I returned to where Lofton and Matt were standing, chatting.

rural americana truck tenn Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images“Lived here all your life?” I asked. “Not yet,” he replied, wry smile on his face. “Eighty years so far. Born on a kitchen table over there where the house used to be,” he said, pointing to a vacant field behind him.

Before leaving, I also shot Lofton’s abandoned 1965 Ford truck in addition to another ’51. Good stuff.

Thanking him, I shook Lofton’s hand and offered a business card. “If you have a computer, you can visit my website and see my work.”

“Ain’t got no computer,” he answered. “No interest in them new-fangled machines.”

After leaving Lofton’s farm, Matt drove me to a couple of barns – one far more photogenic than the other – and an ancient vacant house where, said Matt, “a spinster lived by herself until she died last fall in her nineties.” Although I took a few exposures, reviewing the photographs that night on my laptop confirmed my suspicion at the time – hit the delete key.

Matt told me that as I headed west, out of town on Highway 412, I would come upon a back road, not well marked, named Cedar Creek. “You’ll want to be sure to stop there,” he said. “It’s the site of a historic iron furnace – the only one of its kind still in existence – that dates to the Civil War. It was shelled by Union boats and survived.”

Having driven several miles west of Linden on Hwy. 412, I was certain I had missed the road. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an historical marker inscribed “Cedar Grove Iron Works.”

rural americana license plates Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesAfter a good 15 minutes of driving the windy road, I wondered – again – if perhaps I had somehow driven too far. Seeing a woman tending her front garden, I pulled to the shoulder, rolled down the window and inquired if the iron furnace lay ahead.

“Sure is. Just keep goin’ futha down the road and you’ll run into it,” she said, wiping her brow with a red-and-white checkered kerchief. I noticed behind her a tall metal shed bedecked with a multitude of signs – license plates, a railroad crossing sign, street signs and the like.

“I’m a photographer, ma’am. Mind if I shoot those signs?”

“Go right ahead,” she answered. Around the corner, as I was shooting the shed signs, I espied an old Chevrolet Corvair that appeared to have sat idle for Lord knows how long. Probably for nearly a decade, I deduced, as the license plate registration tag read “2002.”


rural americana barn interior Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesrural americana old car Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








En route to the iron works was another serendipitous find, a wood barn (shown here) that, like the Corvair, had seen better days. I grabbed some shots of it, both from the outside and the inside, where the sunlight through the slats cast intriguing shadows.

Finally, I found myself at the target destination, the iron furnace. A curious thing it is. Made entirely of native limestone, it measures 30 feet tall and 31×51 feet at the base. It was built in 1834 and ceased operation in 1862, even as the Civil War was very much in progress.

Initially discouraged by the ugly chain-link “security” fence around it, my eyes lit up when I saw that the gate was unlocked.

rural americana Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesI pushed my way in and, using a wide-angle lens, I took a series of photos – two shown here – that I thought would do it justice … and add some unique images to my Rural Americana collection. By now, the sun had broken through, allowing for a lovely backdrop of azure skies. For the rest of the trip, nary a drop of rain did I encounter. Irish indeed.

Back on Hwy. 412 and heading west toward Memphis, where I had planned to spend the night, I noticed an old Chevy truck parked on someone’s front lawn, not far from the road. I grabbed the camera and scampered out. Just as I was finishing shooting, a young man appeared out of nowhere, standing above me as I was still crouching.

“Anything I can help you with, mister?”

rural americana old truck Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesHanding him a business card, I said, “Hi, I’m a photographer, just passing through. I like to shoot old trucks and cars out in the field. This one caught my eye. It’s a Chevy, right?

“It is, a 1940, I believe. My granddaddy used it for many years as a milk wagon for local delivery. Been sittin’ there a long time.”

“Plan on fixing it up?”

“I’d sure like to, but that costs money and right now ain’t got no job. Was working as a long-haul trucker, but suddenly there was nothin’ to haul and the truck got repossessed. Nearly new Peterbilt. Cost me 75 grand. Gone. Now, I’m willin’ to do just about anything. Wife and three kids. Times are tough,” he said between puffs of an unfiltered Marlboro, “but maybe things will turn around. Hope I can ride this one out.”

“Me too,” I replied limply. It was the first of many examples of de facto economic hardship – up close and personal — I would encounter on the trip.

The sun was descending, and I wanted to get myself to Memphis, about a two-hour drive from there. As I drove along, it occurred to me that I might want to get myself across the Mississippi River, and for two reasons: 1) I could get ensnared in morning commute traffic, delaying me, and 2) with the water level rising rapidly, it might be a good idea to get myself on the other side before calling it a day.

Once across the river, there was one motel after another, each beckoning me, but they were all on the other side of the divided Interstate, and I didn’t want to have to exit and turn around. So I kept on driving … and driving … and driving, until it “dawned” on me that there might be nowhere for me to stay between there and Little Rock, some 125 miles farther west.

Seated at a Burger King at a raunchy, hectic truck stop, using my cellphone I commenced a Google search for “lodging in Little Rock.” After being told there were no vacancies at three different places, I found one at a Holiday Inn downtown. “I’ll take it,” I said to the person at the front desk. “I’m about two hours away, but I’ll give you my credit card number if you promise to hold it for me.” Bingo, a bed. All I had to do was to get there, and my eyelids were growing heavy.

By the time I crept into the parking lot, it was nearly midnight. Slumped at the registration counter with my camera bag carry-on, I said, “I’m the one who called from the truck stop. You said you’d hold a room for me, did you?”

“You betcha. The room is 312 and here’s the card. Checkout 11:00.”

Within nanoseconds after inserting the key in the slot, I was undressed under the covers. Fearing I might oversleep, I set the alarm on both the hotel nightstand clock and on my cellphone.

The weather forecast called for fair skies. They were indeed fair when I arose the next morning. I pulled the curtains open and voila, what did appear but my good friend, the sun!

Upon checking out I asked the front desk clerk where I might find the Little Rock visitors center. “Right across the street, sir.” Shazam. Must be Irish.

As I arrived, two little old ladies were opening the front door, making me the first inquisitor of the day. I asked if either of them could direct me to an area where I might find old barns.

After staring at each other in silence for a couple of minutes, one said, “Ethel, do YOU know where?”

“When Fred and I go looking, we go here,” said Ethel, running her finger along a road that went north. “Probably your best bet, sir.”

Sir: “Not going to work. I’m heading south, toward Pine Bluff. By the way, how far is Pine Bluff?”

Ethel: “About an hour. All Interstate.”

Although it wasn’t uttered, they might as well have said in unison, “Sorry we can’t shed any light. You’re on your own.” Indeed, I was. Me and my camera, my carry-on and a solitary CD, Paul Simon’s splendiferous new album, “So Beautiful Or So What,” likewise purchased at the Nashville Starbucks.

Before heading out of town, I paid a visit to the Clinton Library. I wasn’t planning on spending much time there anyway, but when I saw it was overrun with schoolchildren, I cut it even shorter. I was in and out within an hour. Certainly can’t do it justice in such little time, but I hit the highlights, including peering into a recreation of the Oval Office. Very cool, although Bill wasn’t anywhere to be found. Or Hillary. Or Monica.

Wondering if the library was an example our “our tax dollars at work,” I asked one of the guards how the project was funded. Answer: “Entirely private donations. Not so much as one tax dollar.” Hooray!

Although I wouldn’t declare it an architectural wonder – pretty much a glass-and-steel box — it’s in a good location, perched overlooking the Arkansas River. They are working on converting an old railroad trestle into a pedestrian bridge that will connect the Clinton Plaza to North Little Rock. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit North Little Rock, but before the end of the year, the opportunity will be present for anyone to stroll across the river at that very spot.

After driving around in circles for a seeming eternity, I found I-530 south, toward Pine Bluff. Having seen no photo ops along the way, I exited the freeway where a sign read “Historic Downtown.” Not to be missed, I figured. Wrong. Pine Bluff appeared to be the Arkansas equivalent of Detroit, which of course is hardly a compliment. Many “For Lease” signs slapped on vacant buildings, many storefronts boarded over.

rural americana lanterns Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images

Hoping against hope, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would be able to find myself a Starbucks. Heck, they’re everywhere, right? I would soon learn the answer. As I emerged from the car in front of the Community Services Center, I saw a nicely dressed, beautifully coiffed older woman leaving the building, clasping a lovely bouquet of flowers.

“Hello, ma’am. You local? I mean, do you live here?”

As if borrowing a line from Lofton in Tennessee, she answered,
“Yes, all my life.” Her life probably hadn’t spanned as many years as had Lofton’s, but she definitely belonged in high-mileage territory.

“Do you know if there is a Starbucks in town?”

“Don’t believe so.”

“Well, then, is there somewhere I can get a good cup of coffee?”

“I drink tea myself, but they say the best coffee is at the Exxon station, across from Wal-Mart. You know where that is, don’t you?”

“Sure don’t. Never been here before today. I don’t know where anything is.”

I wrote down the directions she gave me, thanked her, told her how nice she looked, and hopped back into the car in search of the Exxon station where, I was told, one would find the best coffee in town.

Wending my way through mostly deserted city streets, I thought to myself, “This must be some fancy gas station for the coffee to be world-class. Probably an espresso bar inside. Maybe Pine Bluff is a test market.”

I strolled through the Exxon aisles, looking everywhere, and no sign of anything remotely resembling an espresso bar, so I walked over to the cashier.

“Do you serve espresso drinks?”

“Expresso? What do you mean?”

Well, there I had my answer.

What would suffice as an espresso bar was a machine where, at the push of a button, one could draw oneself a “latte” or “cappuccino.” I passed, disappointed but not the least surprised.

Looking at the road map and seeing it was high noon, I figured I could get as far south as El Dorado, a small town not far from the Louisiana border.

I spent some time driving in and around Dumas, a farming community, where I thought I might find a barn or two. In fact, I found one and an old school bus – both pictured here – that had been converted into a marquee of sorts. That was it for Dumas.


rural americana southern barn1 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images
rural americana car sign Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








Between Dumas and El Dorado – several hours taking the back roads, as I did – I happened upon a barn that fairly spoke to me. Although there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about it physically, by now the sun was starting to set, bathing it in an inviting, warm light.

Farther down the road, on the outskirts of El Dorado (Dough-RAY-Dough), my eyes lit up when I saw another homemade advertising marquee, this an old Chevrolet perched atop a pole at the entrance to a salvage yard. Since one doesn’t find many of those, I took a photograph for posterity and ambled into town.

rural americana picture Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely, quaint downtown area — nice little shops, public art on the streets, old London telephone booths and, not incidentally, what appeared to be a B&B, one named Guest Quarters.

On the front door – locked – was a sign indicating that the office closed at 5 p.m. Looking at my wristwatch that read 6:15, I thought, rats. Probably have to settle for a cheap motel … if there is one.

The sign also gave an after-hours number to phone. Phone I did.

“Hello,” I said upon hearing a female voice at the other end. “I’m at the front door and was wondering if you might have a vacancy for tonight.”

“Yes, I do. I’ll be there shortly. Don’t leave.”

Within minutes, a Honda CR-V pulls up. This woman gets out, and, walking across the street, smiles and extends her hand.

“Hi, I’m Joanie. Come on in.”

She walked behind a nicely appointed desk in a nicely appointed lobby.

“How many nights?”

“Just tonight. What’s the rate?”

“It’s $129 plus tax. I can put you in back where it’s nice and quiet.”

“Great,” I replied, “I’ll take it.” Then, I thought she said, “There’s a roommate.”

“Unless she’s young and cute, no roommate.”

Chuckling, she said, “No, there’s no roommate. I said Room 8. Here’s the key.”

Gosh, a real key, not one of those ubiquitous plastic cards. She took me around in back and we walked up the stairs together.

“No elevator?”

“No elevator.”

She opened the door to a room that was both huge and beautifully furnished. Ornate ceiling fan, queen bed, sofa, even a chaise.

I slept like a log. In the morning, I threw my Dopp kit into the carry-on, loaded the car and walked next door to a place named Wiley’s Café. “Breakfast served all day. Espresso.”

rural americana guitar Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesEspresso? Shazam. Maybe, just maybe, I’d get myself a foo-foo drink. It had been two full days since my cappuccino at Starbucks in Nashville, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out.

Peering through the window I could see a genuine espresso machine. I’m in luck, I told myself. Luck of the Irish?

I told the lady behind the counter I’d like a cappuccino. Frowning, she replied, “Sorry, our espresso machine is down, but we have good drip coffee.”

Rats. “OK, I’ll have a drip to go.”

As I drove down Main Street, I saw several cool street sculptures and a colorful mural in an arcade. Before saddling up for my next stretch – Jackson, Mississippi, was the destination – I took pictures. Technically, they don’t qualify as Rural Americana subjects, I grant, but what the heck, El Dorado, Arkansas, certainly does.

The only things I found that definitely qualified were along the highway in a little town snug against the Mississippi River – another homemade marquee – a huge “Mel’s Market” A-frame sign straddling an old truck, and, within a few feet of each other, a billboard offering a “cure” and a stand where one could help oneself to a free Bible or other religious literature. I couldn’t pass up the photographs, but I did pass on King James and companion propaganda.


rural americana sign Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesrural americana stand Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








I stopped at an Arkansas visitor center to inquire whether the rising river was yet causing any troublesome flooding in the area. Told that there was not, I got back into the car and drove across a very busy bridge, entering the State of Mississippi for the first time in my life. I’m grateful I didn’t need to equip the car with pontoons to make it across.

That afternoon I meandered north along the river, occasionally taking a gander to see if there was any flooding. To my relief – and that of thousands of residents – nothing much below Memphis.

I arrived in Jackson, the state capital, about 5:00 – just in time to hit the commute traffic – and found myself caught up in a vortex of intertwining interstate highways. From high above, it must look like a spaghetti bowl. Reminded me of Los Angeles, though not nearly as forbidding.

Of the umpteen hotels to choose from, I went eenie-meeny-miny-mo and selected a place called the Country Inn and Suites. Looked OK from the outside and the room – equipped with a Jacuzzi, no less – was fine.

I’m glad I stayed there, not so much for the amenities, which were minimal save for free Wi-Fi, but because of the assistant manager at the front desk, Janet, who signed me in.

Explaining that I was a photographer in search of Rural Americana subjects and laying a map of the state on the counter, I asked her if she could give me any pointers. “You asked the right person,” she replied. “I am a native, born and raised in a little town north and east of here named De Kalb.”

Using a highlighter, Janet traced a loop that would take me through Philadelphia eastward to De Kalb, then north to Grenada, and south to Vicksburg and Natchez.

“Give yourself two days to reach Natchez,” she said. “That should allow you time to stop for pictures. If you want to go to Biloxi on the coast, add another day.”

Janet told me to be sure to stop at a grist mill just north of De Kalb. “It’s one of the oldest water mills in the country, and it’s still in operation. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest there.”

By noon I had reached Philadelphia, an old, old town that gained notoriety during the Civil Rights days as the place where three civil-rights workers were murdered in cold blood. Thankfully, race relations are vastly improved there, as they are throughout the South, but Philadelphia will be forever linked to this abominable incident.

I drove around the public square and eyed a place called The Coffee Spot – “Coffee and More” read the sign in the window. Having gone three long days without a cappuccino and feeling gravely deprived, I was hoping that in addition to a sandwich I might actually find the libation I was sorely craving.

Upon seeing an authentic espresso machine behind the counter, I began to salivate. “Can I get a world-class cappuccino here?” I asked, smiling. Frowning, the clerk replied, “Actually, you can’t get a cappuccino of any quality, because the machine is out of service. We’re waiting for the repairman.” Two espresso machines, first in El Dorado, now in Philadelphia, both down. Hexed? I began to wonder if indeed I really was Irish.

“Bummer,” said I, loud enough for the repairman to hear even if he were in the other Philadelphia. “Clearly, my stars are not in alignment with the espresso gods.”

Crestfallen, I ordered a glass of iced water – “no charge for that, sir” – and a chicken salad, and found myself a seat. It was the lunch hour and, because it appeared to be the only eatery on the square, it was busy.

I checked my cellphone for messages – surprisingly, nothing (yet) from the White House — then surfed for baseball scores. Hooray, my beloved, perennial-underdog Indians – they of my hometown of Cleveland – were in first place in the AL Central.

Five minutes pass, 10 minutes. I hailed one of the servers. “Could you please check on my order?” “Will do,” he replied, juggling an armful of dirty dishes for return to the kitchen.

Another five minutes pass. Still no chicken salad and, no less discouragingly, no sign of the server. Perhaps he had taken a lunch break.

Fed up without being fed so much as a tender victual, I got up and went to the counter. Speaking to the selfsame clerk who had taken my order, I said, “I’ve been waiting a good 15 minutes and still no food. I’m sorry, but I can’t wait any longer. May I please have my money back?”

Fortunately, I had paid in cash, so the transaction should have been quick and easy. Not so. Staring at the register, the clerk appeared utterly baffled. Once out of her trance, she turned to a coworker and asked, “How do I open the drawer? This man wants his money back.” Had it not been for the intervention of “Monica K.,” I might still be standing there.

Refund in hand, but belly unsatisfied, I returned to the car and put downtown Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the rearview mirror.

Opening a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint, I said to myself, “Surely there’s a cappuccino waiting for me somewhere,” not really sure at all.

rural americana trailer Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesA couple of miles out of town on the two-lane highway that would take me to De Kalb, I whizzed past a mobile home (OK, single-wide) that caught my attention. Draped across the front of it, end to end, was a banner reading “GRAND CASINO Gulfport & Biloxi.” Can’t pass that up, I thought, and spun a 180. Because there was no highway shoulder, I had to park some distance away, at a pullout.

Having noticed that someone was present – unloading an ATV from his Dodge Ram – I knew I would have to shoot stealthily, so as I strode along the edge of the road, I hid the camera on my hip as best I could. Once in front of the trailer, which sat perhaps 75 yards away, I removed the camera from my hip, squared myself, and squeezed off a shot when the man had climbed into the truck cab. I didn’t even look at the LCD screen until returning to the car. Covering the back of the camera to block the sunlight, I could see that it was Mission Accomplished. No espresso drink, no chicken salad, but a keeper photograph of something I had never seen before and doubtless will never see again.

Just past the highway sign that read “Entering Edinburg,” I saw in the distance an object in the road. As I got closer, I could make out that it was a motorcycle, lying on its side, and the rider waving his arms frantically. Good thing that he did, for it was not out of the question that I might not have seen him in time. I stopped just ahead of the downed motorcycle – a Harley – put on the emergency flashers, and walked up to the man, mustachioed and wearing a do-rag (no helmet required in Mississippi) bearing the design of the American flag.

“Need help?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. “Out of gas? You hurt?” Answer: No and no. “I was making a u-ey and I turned too sharp. The bike went down and it’s too heavy for me to lift by myself.”

I was immediately reminded of the old TV commercial for the First Alert alarm gizmo for seniors. “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” says Granny, lying on her side and rubbing her hip.

Together, we got the bike righted and he immediately extended his hand. “Thanks, bro, much obliged. I owe you one. Engine may be flooded, but I’m sure it will restart.”

I got back in the car and, as I drove off, I could see that indeed the engine had indeed restarted, and he turned off onto a side road. Knowing you have played the role of Good Samaritan is always a good feeling, especially when you know that had you not stopped and put on the flashers, he – or at least the bike – could have been flattened.

rural americana structure Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesIn the hour or so it took to reach De Kalb, I took photos of a barn and several exteriors of the tower-cum-globe of a casino in Choctaw, on the grounds of an Indian reservation. Although these shots hardly qualify as Rural Americana subjects, I couldn’t resist the temptation, if only to show folks back home.

Finally, there came into view another “Entering” sign, this for De Kalb (pop. 916, median annual household income $23,000, 50 percent black) and, not incidentally, the home of John Stennis, the powerful (and staunchly segregationist) U.S. Senator who represented Mississippi from 1947 until retiring in 1989.

Looking at the map Janet at the Jackson hotel had highlighted for me, I made a left turn onto Hwy. 395. “Sciple’s Mill” 10 miles ahead, read a small, weathered wooden sign, tipped cattywampus.

rural americana house Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesAh ha, that’s the brass ring, I said to myself, recalling that Janet had said I was “sure to find something of interest.”

Indeed I did. More on this in a minute. Just a couple of miles up the road I encountered my first evidence of the tornado damage that had battered Mississippi and Alabama the week prior.

Off to my right was a house, now abandoned, that had been pretty well beaten up, and the vegetation surrounding it had taken a severe hit as well.

rural americana water mill1 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesFinally, a third sign, “Sciple’s Mill ~ Turn Right.” Almost immediately I was thrust upon a gravel road, and I got to thinking, this is a rental car, do I want to risk breaking a spring? Answer: Yes, it’s probably worth the risk, so I pushed ahead.

As I crossed a very rickety bridge over a creek, standing off to the left was a wooden building overlooking the water, that I assumed must be the grist mill. Correct surmise. It was.

I got out the camera and took a passel of pictures from various angles and distances, including this “beauty” shot of the mill alongside the river.

rural americana gas Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images After I finished with that, I turned around and shot a series of photographs of what appeared to be a small country store – more than a little down in the heel – with two very old gas pumps in front and a 1960s Chevrolet Chevelle, covered with dust easily an eighth of an inch think, in an adjoining carport. On the porch were two vintage Coca-Cola machines, neither operational. On one was a decal reading “75 cents, exact change only,” the same price that showed on one of the gas pumps. How long since we paid 75 cents a gallon? Seventies? Sixties?

As I was putting my gear away, a full-size Ford pickup truck appeared, black lab barking its head off in the bed. The driver rolled down the window and yelled, “Can I help you with anything?” Ordinarily, this language is code for “get the hell off my property, you are trespassing,” but not the case in this instance.

He got out, walked over and, extending his hand, said, “Hi, I’m Eddie Sciple. I run the mill. Been in the family a long time. Have you been inside?”

Inside? How could I have been inside? It’s locked up tight as a drum.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Would you like to?”

“Yes, very much so.”

So, that said, we strode over together – Eddie’s three-year-old grandson Seth in tow and black lab now wagging its tail – to the front door. With a turn of the key, all three of us humans were inside. The dog stayed outside, as if to guard us from potential harm.

I could not believe what I was seeing, a Fibber McGee’s closet of multifarious and multitudinous – and criminally dusty — artifacts hanging from the walls, the ceilings, the rafters. I didn’t know where or what to shoot first.


Potatoes1 300x214 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images
Wallace1 300x198 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








In the midst of shooting this, that and the other object, each a museum piece in its own right, Eddie related the story of the mill. It was built in 1790 and has remained in the Sciple family ever since. It is said to be the oldest water grist mill in operation in the country. Eddie himself still runs it, although only on a very part-time basis. His day job is as an instructor at the local community college. Oh, yes, he also has an auto windshield repair business on the side.

As I am about to wind up shooting – a wall-mounted license plate promoting George Wallace as president – Eddie asks, “Have you even seen the TV show “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel?”

“Yes, I have,” I replied. “I’ve watched quite a few episodes, and I find it interesting.”

“Well, they were here last fall filming, and the segment aired last November 8. I consider it our 15 minutes of fame.”

rural americana business cards Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesNow outside, I handed Eddie my business card. “Once I get home I’ll post these on my website. I’ll send you an e-mail with the link when they are up.”

“Nice card,” he said, as he reached around and, grabbing a thumbtack from the Lord-knows-how-old bulletin board next to the front door, stuck it in the midst of other, very dusty local business cards, some of which may have antedated Noah’s Ark. It’s pretty obvious looking at this photograph I took which is mine. Pure as the driven snow.

Eddie told me how to get to Lynville, my next and final stop en route to overnighting in Grenada (pop. 14,893). We shook hands, I thanked him profusely, the lab licked my hand, Seth bade goodbye, and I was off, extending my reach into uncharted territory.

rural americana barn1 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesA couple of hours north, approaching Grenada (gren-A-dah), I chanced upon an old barn with a sign affixed to it that read 1910. I took several shots, one of which appears here. By now, it was late afternoon, and the shadows were such that they were not photographer-friendly.

Having spent the night at the Quality Inn – very much a misnomer – for $69.95, buffet breakfast included – I continued west on Highway 8, looking for Highway 61, that would take me back south.

An old, rusted car sitting on a trailer, all by its lonesome in a field, caught my eye. I parked on the shoulder, grabbed the camera, hopped a culvert, and made my way through the thicket. Although the yard was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, I found a hole and crawled through.

rural americana car Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesAlthough the grille – and many other parts were missing – I reckoned that it was an early 1940s Chevrolet, probably pre-war. Spray-painted on both sides was “For Sale,” in penmanship not likely to win any awards.

I was so proud of myself that no one had seen me prowling about, I realized once returned to the car that this was not the case. Two sizeable – and itchy – welts formed on my face. Unbeknownst to me at the time, predatory mosquitoes had attacked. It felt as though they had drawn at least a pint of blood, and here I am with no Calamine Lotion as an antidote.

rural americana old car1 Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesA couple of hours and more than a hundred miles later, as I began to feel the gravitational tug of Vicksburg, I spotted an old Ford pickup in a field, behind what appeared to be – and indeed was – an abandoned, dilapidated single-wide. As is my wont, I shot the F-150 from every conceivable angle during a walk-around, which included this image of a partially buried tire.

Fully aware of the potential consequences of the inexorably rising Mississippi River on the leg of my travel back south through the state and, ultimately, into Louisiana, I had called ahead from Grenada for road conditions. The only reported washout was of Hwy. 465, a two-lane road across the river north of Vicksburg. Other than that, looked like clear sailing.

rural americana water sign Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesAs I approached a road sign reading “Vicksburg 10 miles,” I saw at a distance, off to the right, flashing lights, a road blockade no Kenworth could penetrate, and a state trooper cruiser, roof lightbar flashing through the setting sun.

Beyond the blockade, maybe a hundred yards off, was a sign – metal post engulfed in water – that read Dead End. Dead end indeed. This was Hwy. 465, flooded and now rendered navigable only by waterfowl and swamp boats.

Out of the car and with camera in hand, I accosted the trooper. “How long closed?” I inquired.

“Several days,” he replied. “The Yazoo River is backing up and there is no stopping it. Two weeks from now, when the Mississippi is predicted to crest, where we stand will be under water, as will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, more acres of farmland. They say this will be as bad as the record flood of 1927, maybe worse. You from these parts?”

“No, I’m from California, and we never see damage from Mother Nature like this.”

“Don’t tell me that. You get those awful earthquakes.”

rural americana flood Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images“True, really bad ones every century or so. I do not envy you folks the predictably terrible weather you get year in and year out from flooding, tornadoes and hurricanes.”

“We’ve learned to deal with it. Most of these people have been through this before. Their spirit and fortitude are amazing. They’ll rebuild. Always have in the past. Likely no different this time.”

Having taken several posterity photographs of the sign under water and the center line of Hwy. 465 receding into the water, as if it were a boat ramp, I got back behind the wheel and put pedal to the metal. I was growing tired. Hanging my hat in Vicksburg was the goal when I saddled up in Grenada that morning.

rural americana house abandoned Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesOn the outskirts of town, I saw an old, ramshackle house – unmistakably vacant – and pulled to the shoulder. Peering into a window, I made certain that it was in fact vacant.

The window screens were torn, a bicycle cable secured the front door, and I can’t imagine when, if ever, the grounds were last groomed. Detritus of all manner all over.

What interested me in particular in addition to the full street view “in-context” perspective shown here, was the front porch, where several old chairs, a broom and dustpan, and scythe had been left behind.

rural americana porch Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesThere were three straight-back wooden chairs and one upholstered chair with a gnarly mustard-yellow cushion. Although it hardly beckoned forth as a place to sit, it did stand out as a photogenic artifact of Rural Americana.

Figuring that I wouldn’t be returning to Vicksburg (or anywhere else in Mississippi in this lifetime), I followed the road marked “This Way to Port.” It was a narrow, two-lane road and as far as the eye could see, was bedotted with a nearly solid queue of dump trucks, inbound and outbound. Hmm, I said to myself, and drove on to another sign reading “No through traffic beyond this point.”

Although I wouldn’t learn so until checking the news on my laptop that night, the dump trucks were all carrying sand, employed in a frantic effort to shore up the levee protecting the city.

En route back to Hwy. 61, I stopped to take pictures of a one-of-a-kind “establishment” that one would find only in the South – a crudely built “house of worship,” consisting, among other things, of a cinder-block “church” attached to an empty single-wide, a Lego-like cross, and an abandoned bus. To say it was colorful is gross understatement.


rural americana south Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesrural americana bus Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








There was no sign of the resident Baptist pastor, but there were plenty of signs, all hand-painted and definitely the worse for wear.

Concerned that if I were to overnight in Vicksburg, by morning I might need water wings and sonar to find my car in the lot, I pulled into a gas station. I needed to refuel anyway. Compared with sky-high West Coast pump prices, gasoline was cheap for the duration of my trip. I never paid more than $3.95 per gallon and as low as $3.69. My most recent fill-up in California had been $4.25.

Grabbing a Snickers – I swear, the only candy bar I ate the entire trip – I asked the counter clerk how far Natchez was. “About 75 miles, hour and a half, give or take.”

Even though my eyelids were drooping, I decided to push on. I knew that Natchez was on the watch list for flooding, but there was no serious threat for another week or longer.

Having had good luck in the past with Hampton Inns, I pulled into one on the main drag. At the front desk I inquired, “Any vacancies for tonight?” Yes, there were. “I need a no-smoke room and one that is quiet, away from the elevator and any ice machines.”

Tapping the computer screen, she replied, “Sorry, sir, the only smoke-free room available is right across from the elevator. That’s it.”

“Anywhere else in town you think might have vacancies?”

“There’s a Best Western and the Grand Soleil, recently remodeled. It’s nice. Try there first. It’s just down the road, at the foot of the bridge.”

Bingo. The Grand Soleil was entirely smoke-free, save for the bar, and there were numerous vacancies. I repeated what I had said at the Hampton, a quiet room, away from the elevator and ice machines.

“I can give you Room 421. It’s the top floor, and both the elevator and the ice machines are at the ends of the hall.”

“How much? I have memberships in AARP and AAA.”

“With the discount, $109.”

“Sold,” I answered, handing her my now-abused MasterCard.

“Any restaurant recommendations?”

“If you want fish, best place I know of is the Sandbar, just across the bridge, in Vidalia.”

Already I could taste pan-fried catfish, which I hadn’t had in a veritable coon’s age, mainly because my wife abhors it. The very thought of whiskers sends chills up her spine. She’d sooner have a mystery-fish sandwich at McDonald’s.

Aptly named, the Sandbar stood no more than a stone’s throw from the edge of the Mississippi River. The full parking lot meant I had to park a couple of blocks away, on the street, but it probably also meant that it was a good place.

Parties of one are never popular with hostesses. “How long?” I asked. “If you want a table, 20 minutes minimum. Or you can sit at the bar.”

I sat myself down on a stool, order the pan-fried catfish, visions of which had been dancing in my head, and a Sierra Nevada, brewed in California. I knew it was a safe bet, and, besides, I like it.

On my way back through the hotel lobby, I heard the desk clerk ask, “How was it? What did you have?”

“Catfish, and it was terrific. Best I’ve had in 20 years.” Truth be told, probably the only catfish I’ve eaten in the two decades, when I last visited the South.

On my way out in the morning, I followed my routine, asking at the front desk, “Anywhere nearby I can get a good espresso drink? Or even a not-so-good one?”

“There’s the Natchez Coffee Brew House downtown, not more than a ten-minute drive and they are open Sundays.”

En route I passed by a couple of old frame houses that appeared to be, or have been, private residences. One was being refurbished, hence not Rural Americana material. The other was very ratty and, surveying it from the sidewalk, I surmised that no one could possibly be living in it.

After helping myself to a couple of pictures of a come-hither side window, I walked back to the front of house, preparing to shoot a beaten-up front window. Just as I had it in focus, the front door opened and who should emerge but an amply proportioned young man, waving his arms.

“No pictures, no pictures.”

“Ah, OK, sorry. Didn’t think anyone was at home.”

I slunk back to the car, and, knowing it would soon be redeployed in Natchez, slid the camera under the driver’s seat. Consulting my HTC Incredible smartphone’s GPS, I summoned directions to the coffee house that had been recommended to me by the Grand Soleil front desk clerk.

In a trice I had found it, located in a small area – maybe six to eight blocks square — that constituted the historic district, which is nice. As for the rest of Natchez, don’t bother.

Snagging a copy of the Sunday Times-Picayune from the street box — $1.50, quarters only – I tucked the paper under my arm, swung the door open and proceeded to the counter.

“Is your espresso machine in working order?” I asked, hoping against hope that the answer would be in the affirmative.

“Yes, it is. Why do you ask?” countered the counter clerk.

“Well, I’ve had a run of bad luck with espresso machines of late, and I was thinking that maybe the odds were with me this time.”

Seeing that people were queuing behind me, I cut the superfluous small talk short and ordered the same drink – or kind of drink – that I had last ingested at the Nashville Starbucks – small (i.e., 12 ounce), lowfat (2%), dry cappuccino to go.

“That will be $3.35, sir.”

I couldn’t wait to fetch the money out of my pocket. Miracle of miracles, a cappuccino was actually being prepared for me. I must be Irish, I said to myself. Indeed, there must be a God, or at the very least a supreme being looking out for us java junkies.

Last night catfish, this morning cappuccino. Life is good.

As I headed out of town – goodbye, Natchez – I drove past a string of beautiful old houses that must have been 150 years old, give or take. Talk about life is good. If you have the money and don’t mind the threat of annual floods and tornados and hurricanes and, not incidentally, lethal mosquitoes, there definitely are worse places to live.

I hopped back onto Hwy. 61. An hour or so later I had crossed the border into Louisiana, due north of Baton Rouge. Wanting to stay off Interstates – not preferred for seekers of Rural Americana photographs – I hung a left onto Hwy. 10, which took me west through Louisiana and back into Mississippi.


rural americana tractor Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images
rural americana bottles Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper images








In the roughly two hours it took me to traverse the distance, I encountered several subjects I deemed worthy of immortalizing with photographs – a prehistoric tractor, an old Plymouth decked out in LSU school colors and a window inside which old glass jars were displayed.

At the same site where the Plymouth and window beckoned, I found a passel of old glass telephone pole insulators, all stuck in the mud. Since no one was around and the building sitting beside them had a sign taped to it reading “For Lease,” I told myself that St. Peter probably wouldn’t be too upset if I were liberate a few for myself as souvenirs. After all, glass telephone pole insulators have not been used for eons and thus are considered collectibles.

Sorting through them one by one, looking for chips and cracks, I sticky-fingered a half-dozen and made a beeline for the car.

rural americana car picture Solo expedition in Dixie proves rich in memories, keeper imagesAfter carefully placing them in the trunk – spacing them so they wouldn’t clink against one another – I closed the lid, asked for forgiveness from God and sped off, leaving the Plymouth in the rearview mirror and hoping that no CSI forensics specialist would pour plaster into the footprints I left as a first step, if you will, toward tracking me down and throwing me in the clink.

Now back in Mississippi, I crossed I-59 and, not long thereafter, saw the sign for the junction of Hwy. 49 that would take me south to I-10, which, in turn, took me to Biloxi/Gulfport (basically one town) on the coast. I knew that there were casinos there – after all, had I not observed the “Grand Casino Gulfport & Biloxi” banner draped on that single-wide outside of Philadelphia? – but I had no idea that, to all intents and purposes, it was Las Vegas on the water … and so windy one needed divine intervention to stand erect for more than half a minute.

The beach is beautiful – miles and miles of white sand – but the water was far less inviting. Thanks to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina six years earlier, the water was still an off-putting grayish color. Then I got to thinking, yikes, maybe the catfish I had relished in Natchez had been plucked from the Gulf of Mexico. In retrospect, the restaurant menu did read “Kat-rina” fillet. Should have raised a red flag, I reckon, but it didn’t.

Now nearing six o’clock and seeing that the sun was about to go down, I started looking for a place to spend the night. I pulled into a Hampton Inn, parked, and, at the front desk, inquired about the rate.

“Eighty-nine dollars,” said the clerk. That was the least I had paid since a $69 one-night-stand at the Quality Inn in Grenada. Definitely had my attention. Then I asked, “Are there any restaurants nearby?”

Answer: “Not really. People eat in the casinos.”

Exit Hampton Inn. Figuring it was the same story at all of the other hostels on the strip, I retraced my steps, heading back through Gulfport toward I-10.

I elected to bunk up at a Holiday Inn, where the rate was $109, but at least it had a restaurant. After downloading the photographs I had taken that day into my laptop, I took the elevator down to the restaurant and had a decent meal – pot roast and mashed potatoes. Not exactly a Southern dish, but it served to please my native- Midwestern palate.

Fully aware that I was to meet the aforementioned Pat at the New Orleans airport the following afternoon, I asked the night clerk how much time I should allow.

“Give yourself an hour and a half. That should be plenty.”

To be on the safe side, I allowed myself two hours. To get myself to Louis Armstrong International Airport I basically retraced the trajectory that had taken me from Natchez to Biloxi.

Not more than an hour later I was on the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, which, I was soon to learn at the Basin Street Visitors Center in New Orleans, is the second-largest inland saltwater lake in the United States, behind Great Salt Lake.

Carefully following the road signage the entire way – didn’t want to get myself lost and have Pat waiting for me, steamed at baggage claim, I saw a sign reading “Cell Phone Lot.”

We had made arrangements for Pat to call me when she got off the plane – excuse me, “deplaned” – so I was fully aware where I was to plant myself while awaiting the come-get-me call.

There was nary a shade tree within a hemisphere of the Cell Phone Lot, however, and by now the temperature was nudging 90. Never mind the Cell Phone Lot, I told myself, and parked the car under a huge oak tree on a side road. There, HTC Incredible powered on, I awaited the call from Pat.

“I’m here at the baggage claim curb,” the voice on the other end said. “Fine,” I replied, “what terminal?” “What terminal? I have no idea.” With this as surefire dead-reckoning assurance, I wended my way through the serpentine access roads to the first baggage curb I encountered. There stood Pat, waving with one hand and clutching her carry-on with the other.

She threw the bag into the trunk, hopped into the passenger seat, and – God’s truth – we kissed. After all, the whole point of the arranged rendezvous in New Orleans was to spend a couple of days celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary.

In the ensuing 48-plus hours, we had a grand time, mainly walking the French Quarter and, on our last evening, had a wonderful celebratory dinner on the patio of Bayona, the Zagat-rated restaurant where we had made reservations weeks earlier.

Twenty-four hours later we touched down at San Francisco International Airport, where we summoned a taxi, which for a mere $120 transported us back home to Lafayette.

In all, a terrific, fruitful, nine-day trip – Nashville to New Orleans – and with literally hundreds of Rural Americana photographs to “prove” it was worth the cash outlay. Oh, what the heck, it’s only money. Memories are what really counts, and they were rich and abundant. Plus a nice, romantic interlude with Pat. Indeed, the good life. Must be Irish.

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