Silent Night, Holy Night

Tires crunched through the snow as the SUV inched along the deserted, unmaintained dirt road.  Slowly, tediously, it negotiated the frozen ruts, and when the road finally ended abruptly in a large semi-circular open area, inched gingerly into what appeared to be a parking space.

But appearances could be deceiving in this land, so far from the forced order of civilization where there was a place for everything, and everything in its place.  The steaming engine sighed and  clanked to a stop, and after a moment’s hesitation the doors opened, releasing two passengers into the snowy, empty and completely silent landscape.

Mosaic at El Santuario de Chimayo

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” my husband asked delicately, after a brief pause during which we took a collective moment to catch our breath and acclimate to the frigid air surrounding us. The cold wind, gentle yet insistent, was alive — creeping with icy tendrils into any unguarded crack or seam in our multiple layers of warm winter clothing. “I mean, I’m not saying you don’t know where we’re going, but there’s nobody else here ~ maybe we should keep driving  and see if there are any parked cars further up? Maybe that guy at Chimayo didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Earlier that day, we had stopped at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small Roman Catholic church in the Sangre de Cristo (‘Blood of Christ’) Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The ‘Santuario’, or shrine, built in the early 1800s, is known as the ‘Lourdes of the Americas’ because of various miracles reportedly connected to it and, more specifically, the sacred dirt found in a small hole in a little room off the sanctuary.

After filling a plastic baggie with sacred dirt and lingering for a good twenty minutes over the rows of crutches, casts and pictures covering almost every inch of the walls inside, we had accosted another tourist and asked him to take our photo in front of the Santuario.  During the friendly conversation that ensued, we mentioned that we were hoping to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass that night in Taos, our next destination. Without hesitation, he excitedly exclaimed that we should attend Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo.

Snapshot of us in front of El Santuario de Chimayo

Taos Pueblo, traditionally known as ‘Tuah-tah’, is one of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos clustered along the banks of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande; villages of the modern Puebloan people who are believed to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi, a culture now more commonly referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans.  These peaceful farmers had never seen a European face until the Spanish descended upon their villages in 1540, forcing all of the inhabitants to convert to Catholicism.

Due to an ingenious adaptability (perhaps stemming from their peaceful nature) the Puebloan people adopted the forced religion while at the same time managing to retain most of their traditional ceremonies, opting to practice one ‘religion’ alongside the other in lieu of choosing between the two.  Despite the survival of the traditional ways, remnants of the Spanish conquest remain: today nearly 90% of the Puebloan people are practicing Catholics, and a Spanish mission still stands near the plaza at each and every Pueblo.

Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo

I was familiar with Taos Pueblo’s Christmas festivities and the various ceremonial dances that were open to the public each year, and knew of San Geronimo, the mission church at Taos Pueblo.  The chance to experience Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo was an opportunity I was not going to pass up.  So here we were on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, in the middle of nowhere; and by the look of it, completely alone in this frozen New Mexico night.

“No,” I replied to my husband, “the guy at Chimayo knew what he was talking about and I know the church is over that way. We came all this way, let’s at least check it out.”

As we approached the Pueblo, one of the oldest continually-inhabited communities in the United States, I thought about how much life it had witnessed over ten centuries’ time.  I marveled that a village built while Europe was still entrenched in the Middle Ages had remained, intact, to this day.  In fact, remarkably little had changed here in the last thousand years; the people who called the Pueblo home still walked in the path of their ancestors each and every day and Taos Mountain, with its holy Blue Lake, watched perpetually over them from its home in the East.

San Geronimo Church Taos
San Geronimo Mission

I took my husband’s hand as we ducked through an opening in the low wall that surrounded the Pueblo and made our way towards the back of the little church, poised humbly on the edge of the plaza.  We crept around the side of the church, flecks of straw in the ancient caramel-colored adobe walls glinting eerily in the dark night.  Crunch, crunch, crunch…our heavy boots methodically covered ground but it was slow going with all the ice, snow and total darkness.

There is no electricity at Taos Pueblo, and the night possessed a mysterious depth I have not experienced anywhere else.  Tipping my head back, I was dazzled by millions of stars, so thick they were practically dripping from the sky in a mind-boggling three-dimensional display.  In the distance, sacred Taos Mountain stood guard over the pueblo; although it was too dark to see it, I could feel its  presence – brooding and silent – at home and alive in the inky darkness.

The church, San Geronimo Mission, was named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of Taos Pueblo, and was originally built by the Spanish in 1619.  Destroyed when the Puebloans rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, it was soon rebuilt on the same site – only to be destroyed once again in 1847 by the U.S. Army during the Mexican- American war.  In 1850 the present-day church was erected near the site of the old church, where it still stands.  Its freshly-whitewashed adobe walls a startling contrast to the hollow ruins of the old mission.  Tonight it stood in darkness reflecting only the dark night sky…cloaked in its thick mud walls, and seemingly unconcerned about the weary travelers outside.

Old Church at Taos
The old mission at Taos

We rounded the corner of the church and it was as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. The faint sound of muffled voices wafted from the front door, and as we approached a glowing light shone softly out, mingling with the scent of incense as it welcomed us, beckoning us closer.  We were ushered quietly into the church and it was as if we had been transported back in time.

The thick, musky-yet-pleasant smell of incense and smoke from the candles, their dim, flickering, golden light, the closeness of the people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rough wooden pews, the smooth adobe walls that enclosed us – and above all the feeling of community sacredness – presented an air of mystery and timelessness.  It’s almost dreamlike in my memory.

Shuffling into the back row, we stood in humble regard through the short yet moving service.  The gentle chanting voice of the priest alternated with voices raised in song.  A feeling of enchantment permeated the small room, and I melded into my surroundings and became a part of the otherworldly atmosphere.  The quiet majesty of the scene before me, the beauty inside this small and unassuming mission church in the middle of an ancient Pueblo, was an unexpected treasure and I took it in with moist eyes and a thankful heart.

When the service ended, we left the church in silence, both lost in our own thoughts. As we stepped over the threshold and into the frigid dark night, the spell was broken and we were brought abruptly back into the present – to the stars and the snow and the sacred mountain before us.  Everything remained exactly as it had been before; as it had been for over a thousand years.

But something inside me had changed; I had been transfixed and transformed by the beautiful experience.  The stars glittered and winked knowingly in  the velvet sky as we silently made our way back to the car.

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New Mexico Posole


Vegas or Bust!

Not too long ago I received a random, seemingly innocent text message from a good friend: “Hey, just wondering – which Vegas chapel did you guys get married in?”

Needless to say, it didn’t take a huge mental leap to figure out something was up…I give full credit to my persuasive texting skills that, after some initial denials and backpedaling, it took me less than three minutes to get her to spill the beans and admit her secret plan. And of course, being just a hop, skip and a jump – OK, about five driving hours – away in Arizona, there’s no way I was NOT going to be there for her big day.

The 74 (Carefree Hwy) to Wickenburg

I love road trips. There’s something about the idea of being on the open road with the world (well, at least the continental U.S.) spread out limitless before you that has always spoken to me. On a road trip it’s just you, whichever year’s road atlas happens to be in your vehicle, and miles of endless possibilities.

When I road trip I usually have a final destination in mind, but the feeling of freedom reigns; around each corner there’s an opportunity to throw all plans out the window, do a U-turn and head in the complete opposite direction on nothing but a whim.

I have to admit, part of me wished I were going to be passing through more interesting and possibly cooler (temperature-wise) territory; the road from Phoenix to Las Vegas is a special kind of scenic – very dry and barren – and after the first couple of times it’s better enjoyed when you have time to stop and explore as opposed to viewing from a speeding vehicle. But a road trip is a road trip. Besides, the sun was shining, my special Road Trip CD was blasting, and it was a Tuesday and I wasn’t at work. What more could I ask for?

Carefree Hwy near Lake Pleasant

My route began on the 74, also known as the Carefree Highway; a flat, straight stretch of road slightly less picturesque than its name, which would take me out of the sprawling Phoenix valley.

I gleefully passed at least five RVs (in my mind the ultimate pinnacle of road trip freedom) before even leaving the Phoenix city limits – each and every one towing a Jeep no less, and each a more fascinating conglomeration of adventure potential than the last.

I nearly bounced out of my seat with excitement at the fifth, which far surpassed all the others; not only was it pulling a Jeep, but the industrious owners had also managed to strap what looked like a small pontoon boat to the top of the vehicle. Ingenious! Out of habit, I risked life and limb craning my neck trying to get a good look at the passengers, as if by simply laying eyes on them I might gain some insight into their plans.

Were they old? Retired? Or maybe an impetuous young couple living their dream and eeking it out along the way with nothing between them and the road but their hulking house on wheels? Their forms were shadowy in the sun’s glare but even so, I spent a few moments daydreaming about the conversations playing out in the wheelhouse before snapping back to reality and the road ahead.

Historic Wickenburg

It took about an hour to get to Wickenburg, a quintessential Western town and the former ‘Dude Ranch Capital of the World’, nestled in the floodplain of the Hassayampa River. The area was originally settled by the western Yavapai along the river they called Haseyamo, which means ‘following the water as far as it goes’. Inhabited in turn by subsequent waves of hunters & trappers, miners, and finally ranchers and farmers, the town was officially founded in 1863 by gold-seeker Henry Wickenburg, discoverer of the famed Vulture Mine, the most productive gold mine in Arizona history.

Dinosaur Brokers?

As I entered Wickenburg, I couldn’t help but notice the huge Smith & Western sign on the east side of the highway. The outer yard of the establishment was filled to bursting with practically life-sized rusted metal dinosaurs and a hodge-podge of other random knick-knacks, all disturbingly at odds with the smaller print on the sign:


My gaze shifted back and forth from the sign to the yard a few times as I passed, trying to reconcile the two. I never solved the puzzle but made a mental note to stop in next time to see what it was all about.

I was on a bit of a tight schedule, so with what has become a bona-fide talent born of many road trips, I managed to snap an acceptable picture of both the ‘Welcome to Wickenburg’ sign and the Smith & Western shop without exiting my vehicle or in fact even stopping (thanks in part to the 35 mph speed limit).

Unfortunately there’s no not stopping for gas. And on my road trips, that’s become pretty much synonymous with stopping for Corn Nuts. In some inexplicable phenomenon, I can go months without Corn Nuts so much as crossing my mind, and then the minute I’m in a roadside gas station on a road trip, they’re all I can think about.

Corn Nuts: The Ultimate Road Trip Companion
Thankfully, they do have Corn Nuts in Wickenburg, and at a very fair price I might add. I took to the highway again, reveling in my new, teeth-cracking distraction until approximately half a bag of Corn Nuts outside of Wickenburg my jaw began to seize up – yes, this can happen with Corn Nuts, it’s only a question of when – and I was forced to find another form of amusement. Right about then I began to take notice of the particularly picturesque street names.

Quiet Hills Road, Echo Hill Drive, Burro Creek Crossing, Cholla Canyon Ranch Road, Chicken Springs Loop, Lower Trout Creek Road, Windmill Ranch Road, Cattle Chute Pass Road, Crazy Horse Road…it went on and on. Are the street names so much more descriptive and interesting out here in the West, or have I just never paid attention anywhere else? Then there are the place names…Rattlesnake Wash, Coyote Pass, Calamity Wash…wow, why hadn’t I ever noticed this before? Could the Corn Nuts be raising my consciousness to some higher level?

Not much happening in Wikieup

I snapped to attention as an oncoming semi veered uncomfortably close as it whizzed by. Route 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman is one of the most dangerous roads in Arizona. Not only are you contending with a two-lane highway with quite a bit of slow traffic and avid passers, you have the added danger of traveling north on this road, when the people coming towards you are often on a return trip from Las Vegas and not necessarily in their right minds.

To compound the situation, I had somehow managed to wedge myself behind at least four semis (based on my latest neck-craning reconnaissance). This created a new diversion as I furtively crept left at every sign of a passing zone, sometimes rebuffed by oncoming traffic but nonetheless slowly but surely managing to pass all 4 before noticing I was on ‘E’ again and having to pull in for gas at Wikieup. As my tires crunched into the station, I looked forlornly over my shoulder as the four semis I had so painstakingly passed sailed by at a steady 50 mph.

A Joshua Tree

Like many of the towns along the 93, Wikieup appeared nondescript and seemed pretty much deserted, but don’t be fooled into thinking nothing of interest happens here: not only is this unincorporated community of about 300 known as the ‘Rattlesnake Capital of Arizona’, it’s also home to the “World’s Largest Machine Gun and Cannon Shoot”. If you just caught yourself thinking ‘huh?’ or experienced even a slight feeling of curiosity, you may not want to view this video which could just leave you even more perplexed.

For miles before you hit Wikieup, as you make the invisible transition between the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, the land adjacent to the highway is dotted as far as the eye can see with eery silhouettes of Joshua Trees, Dr. Suess-like plants that are actually members of the lily family. It’s worth pausing on this stretch of road (aptly named the ‘Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway’) to snap some shots of this strange desert dweller, named by Mormon settlers for the biblical character Joshua, whom it apparently bore some resemblance to. Must’ve been an awkward-looking guy. Fighting the inclination to stop, I managed to get a not-too-bad shot through my open passenger window without dropping below the speed limit.

Nothing, AZ-Population 4

Not too far beyond Wikieup, my attention was drawn to a dejected-looking sign barely holding on above a cluster of dilapidated buildings on the side of the road. Sadly, this is all that is is left of Nothing, AZ, population 4 – a wanna-be pit-stop for weary travelers that never seemed to catch on.

At one time Nothing had boasted a rock shop, convenience store and gas station, and the town sign had proudly declared, “The staunch citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Believe in the work ethic. Thru the years these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.” As I pass, I feel bad for Nothing, and wish the town founders could have had a positive-thinker among them, or at least someone aware of the cosmic laws dictating that naming your town Nothing might be setting yourself up for failure.

Approaching Kingman

Speaking of Nothing, I was about to experience a lot of it until the next real point of interest, the Hoover Dam. I sped along the highway, giving a quick nod to my astrological sign’s namesake, the Aquarius Mountains, shimmering in the distance to my right. Drowsiness began to descend, inspired by the searing & bland landscape, whose monotony was broken only briefly by the approach of Kingman, founded in 1882 while Arizona was just a territory and named for Lewis Kingman, a surveyor for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which passes through the area.

As I neared the vicinity of the Hoover Dam I began obsessing about what lie directly ahead – my first encounter with one of the scariest things I have ever seen: the new bridge spanning the Colorado River above the dam. I was vaguely aware that my palms were getting sweatier and sweatier as I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, anticipation building with every mile.

Scariest bridge in the world
Scariest bridge in the world and the old highway way, way, way down below

On each trip to Vegas over the past several years, as I drove the winding old highway that traversed the canyon’s bottom, I frequently looked up with horror as they slowly built each side of the bridge – apparently planning, by some intricate feat of engineering, to eventually meet in the middle – thousands of feet above.

Just looking at it literally gave me chills, and while driving below its impossibly-high, arching span, I had voiced an internal vow to avoid it at all costs. From what I understood at the time, it was only going to be an option if you wanted to speed up your trip – it wasn’t going to be the only route.

Now, how I had come to mistakenly believe that I would have a choice, I don’t know. But as I got closer I realized there were no detours, no alternate routes…for through traffic to Las Vegas, the new bridge was now the only way across the canyon! As the bridge appeared, my breathing quickened and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. Suddenly, concrete barriers taller than my vehicle sped past on both sides for two full seconds, and then – I was released safely on the other side.

That was it?!? All that buildup, all that trepidation for nothing? As I reached safety, a part of me silently thanked the architect, who must have had an inkling in some corner of his mind how terrifying it might be, not to mention how many accidents it might cause, for travelers to be forced to gaze down from the dizzying heights at the dam below while still trying to keep an eye on the road ahead. At the same time, another part of me (probably the part that rubber-necks at above-mentioned accidents) was also a teensy bit disappointed that I hadn’t been forced to face my fear.

Gateway to the bowels of the earth
Gateway to the bowels of the earth

The one redeeming thing about the new bridge was that that it completely removed the necessity of driving past the former Most Terrifying Feature in the vicinity: ‘The Hole’. To me it needs no further description, but if you’re wondering, it is in fact a diversion tunnel at the end of the dam spillway that had been bored, inconceivably huge and cavernous, into the mountainside next to the dam. Now this is a hole unlike any you’ve encountered before; a hole so immense that just driving over it makes you dizzy and produces a feeling akin to that of teetering on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper.

With that final hurdle behind me, the rest of my trip went off without a hitch – well besides the one I witnessed there in Vegas; the reason for my trip. The wedding itself was small and intimate and beautiful. But that is another story…

Related Posts:
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice
Green Chile and Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque

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Green Chile and Luminarias Day 2: Albuquerque

Christmas Eve Day dawned cold and crisp, and although our thin Phoenix blood had not yet adjusted to the 18-degree weather, we were enjoying the Christmas-y feeling so sadly denied us in the ‘Valley of the Sun’.

Before heading out of Albuquerque, we made a stop at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center – a must if you have any interest in New Mexico’s Native American culture and history.

In a nutshell, there are 19 ‘Pueblos’ (Native American Pueblo villages) in New Mexico: Acoma (also called Sky City), Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan), Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zia and Zuni.

These Pueblos were settled hundreds of years ago, but the exact details of their history vary depending on whom you ask.  Archaeologists claim they’re descendants of a Native American culture that has inhabited the area (as well as parts of Arizona and Colorado) for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.  The Pueblo peoples’ beliefs about their origins differ a bit from archaeologists’ theories, a phenomenon fairly common throughout the Southwest.

Although this difference in points of view can be a point of contention, I felt it was addressed very well in the Center’s downstairs museum, where you can find artifacts and a timeline ranging from prehistoric times to the last few decades, and beautiful examples of each Pueblos’ unique pottery styles and designs.  You can find out more about the Cultural Center, the Pueblos, and Pueblo etiquette at

Unfortunately, no pictures inside the Center, and although some of the displays (especially the examples of weaving and textiles) seem to encourage a hands-on experience, I was embarrassed to find out (a little too late) that there is a strict “don’t touch” policy!

I have to admit I’m glad I got to touch the beautiful woven fabrics before I found out I wasn’t supposed to; it was a really special experience to examine that closely the white leggings, white bridal blankets with four ‘corn’ tassels, one at each corner, and kachina kilts I had seen in countless historical pictures; it’s one thing to see a picture but entirely another to actually lay eyes upon the garments themselves. And most items in the Center date from the 1800s and early 1900s.

Before we left we had an early lunch at the Center’s Pueblo Harvest Cafe, which offered a variety of delectable Native and New Mexican selections.  I went for the posole; like New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile stew, each bowl is a little different each place you order it, and sampling the many varieties will scintillate your taste buds.

Side note:  with posole, as opposed to green chile stew, there’s less of a chance that it will be too spicy to eat – something that has happened to me with many a bowl of green chile stew, as I try it nearly every place we go…a phenomenon my husband cites as a real-life demonstration of the often-stated definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…

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Vegas or Bust!


Green Chile and Luminarias Day 1: Dreamcatchers & Black Ice

Our yearly New Mexico Christmas road trip started out the way it usually does…among a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls from friends asking if we had heard about the Winter Storm Warning.  This year, along with the usual reports of a storm blowing through, came urgent warnings that portions of the I-40 to Albuquerque were closed.  Of course, as always, right along our planned route.

My immediate thought was that everyone must be mistaken; I had checked the weather report a full 10 days in advance for this very reason, and it had been nothing but sunny skies.  Where this freak storm came from, I don’t know but it seems scientifically impossible that a winter storm would blow in every year exactly the day we plan to do most of our driving.  I had a sick feeling in my stomach; after living in Phoenix for 17 years my confidence in my winter driving skills was right up there with my confidence in successfully landing a 747.  My husband was optomistic however, and convinced me to proceed as if the weather were not a concern.

Not a cloud in the sky as we departed the Phoenix area, and aside from some snow around Flagstaff it was clear sailing down I-40 all the way to the Arizona border. We stopped at one of the souvenir shops that dot the I-40 between Flagstaff and Gallup, all remnants of the old Route 66 days (and now mostly ignored by the more pressed-for-time interstate travelers).  Many of them have almost embarrassingly-outdated themes.

This one happened to be shaped like a huge…igloo?  Wikiup?  I am not sure what Native American dwelling they might have been going for, and the hodge-podge of symbols decorating the exterior – standard eagle feathers framed a window directly below a Zuni sun symbol (next to a rendering of petrified wood) – didn’t help the identification process.  On a side note, if this huge structure happens to escape your attention as you whiz by, don’t worry; there’s no way you’ll miss the biggest dreamcatcher you’ve ever laid eyes on, erected right out front!

Inside the Meteor City Trading Post were the usual kitschy offerings one expects to find in touristy establishments in this area; Arizona license plate keychains featuring your name, miniature Kachina dolls, geodes and other polished rocks…alongside some very nice genuine Native American handiwork.  But you have to know what’s what.

Fingering a beautiful wool blanket, I hesitantly asked the proprietress, “How much?”

“Seven ninety-five,” she answered.

“Seven hundred ninety-five?” I clarified.

“No, seven dollars ninety-five cents,” she assured me.

“Um, where was it made?”

“In India,” she replied somewhat sheepishly.  “But when people ask if it was made by Indians, I can say yes!”

Pretty tricky.  And I’m glad I did ask.  But it was nice, and how can you pass up that price, regardless of origin?  I bought it.

We continued on our way, anticipating any weather-related road trouble would come near Gallup and the border, but nada.  Still clear skies.  It got a little cloudy as we pushed east, but needless to say, the I-40 closures had miraculously opened  just hours before we passed through, and aside from some black-ice laden white-knuckled miles between Grants and Albuquerque we made it in one piece to our first-night’s destination.

Ah…New Mexico.  What is it about that state?  My husband and I have been making this journey at Christmas-time for the past six years.  What had started as a one-time trip to check out the many Pueblo villages in northern New Mexico turned into a yearly sojourn – and the amazing thing is we have still barely scratched the surface as far as things to see and do.  Aside from the Native American and Spanish heritage, New Mexico is known for its amazing natural hot springs, beautiful landscapes and especially its art.

This year, we had only a few days so tried to pack in as much as possible.  That first night in Albuquerque we ate at Sadie’s of New Mexico, known for its delicious New Mexican cuisine.  We had seen this little restaurant on an episode of Man vs. Food a few months back, and were especially looking forward to trying the famous stuffed sopaipillas.   After a few nervous minutes driving through a sketchy-looking area after exiting off the I-40, we found Sadie’s tucked away inauspiciously off the main strip, sign not even fully-lit.  Once we approached, our fears were put to rest – it was packed!

After being ushered almost immediately to an available table in the cozy bar area, we were treated to live jazz music in a softly-lit atmosphere, with a blazing Christmas tree in the corner and a huge fireplace filled with beautiful twinkling candles.  We loved the ambiance, but were blown away by the food.

I had the green chile stew (I try it every place we go in New Mexico – it’s always different), which was served with homemade flour tortillas for sopping up the spicy goodness.  My husband ordered the stuffed sopaipilla, which was about the size of a medium pizza!  Needless to say, we gorged ourselves and returned to our hotel satisfied, if not more than a little sleepy!

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Vegas or Bust!