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Tim Hagan
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Tim Hagan
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PostMon Oct 27, 2008 10:01 pm 
This is the first of five reports describing some hikes I made during a month-long trip to the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand state in northern India:

1. Valley of Flowers and Hem Kund 9/22-9/25/08
2. Badrinath, Vasundhara Falls and Auli 9/25-9/26/08
3. Kedarnath and Tungnath 9/27-9/29/08
4. Gangotri and the Source of the Ganges 10/3-10/6/08
5. Yamunotri and Mussoorie 10/7-10/9/08

Introduction

The primary purpose of the trip was to visit and photograph the four ancient Hindu temples that make up the Char Dham pilgrimage in northern India: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. The plan also included side-trips to the Valley of Flowers, the Sikh temple at Hem Kund, and several other places of historical, spiritual, or scenic interest. We ended the trip with a pilgrimage of our own to Sir George Everest's House near Mussoorie.

The plan I drew up was largely based on information gathered during my first trip to northern India in 2006. With only a few minor changes, it worked perfectly.

The Perfect Plan
The Perfect Plan

Three days after returning from the Sierra High Route, I left for India with my friend Kim. We flew out of Seattle on September 17th and arrived in Delhi two days later. Our trip seemed to get off to an inauspicious start when we missed our connection in Chicago and got rerouted through London. However, this delay allowed us to enjoy a few pints of Exmoor Gold Ale at Heathrow before continuing our journey and did not affect the overall plan at all.

We were greeted at Delhi airport by Sameer, the excellent driver we had when I visited India two years ago. We had quite an exciting (enjoyable but scary) seven-hour drive north to Dehra Dun, dodging the usual assortment of vehicles, animals and pedestrians, and with the usual excessive horn-honking. Beyond Delhi we followed a less busy road alongside the Ganga Canal. It was a pleasant drive through the countryside past occasional corn, sugar cane, and rice fields. Intermittent rain indicated that the monsoon season was not quite over. We celebrated our arrival at the hotel in Dehra Dun by drinking three large bottles of beer ... each! Then we crashed. Sometime later, Kim woke me up, in a panic, saying we had overslept. "It's 11 o'clock and Sameer is waiting for us!" Then I noticed it was dark outside. "It's 11 PM, you idiot, go back to sleep!" His wristwatch and internal clock were still on Seattle time. The next day we had a short drive to Rishikesh, Yogurt Capital of the World (or something like that).

The following day (9/21) we endured a ten-hour journey to Joshimath. The road was in such bad shape, with lots of wash-outs and potholes, that our average speed was about 25 kilometers per hour (15 mph), which became our benchmark for estimating driving times during the rest of the trip. It is a twisty, winding mountain road for much of the way, with sheer drop-offs to the Alaknanda River. We had several near misses (or near hits) with on-coming vehicles, which never seemed to move over quite far enough, but somehow Sameer squeezed by every time. Frequent road signs dispensed wisdom worthy of Burma Shave: "No race, no rally, enjoy the beauty of the valley", "Mountains are a pleasure only if you drive with leisure", "Hurry makes worry", "Speed thrills but often kills", "Better late than never", etc. I was exhausted when we reached Joshimath and I wasn't even driving! We stayed in the very basic government-run GMVN Tourist Rest House.

9/22/08 - Govind Ghat to Ghangaria

There is a one-way "gate" system on the road beyond Joshimath that requires an early start. We set off at 6:30 a.m. for the 21-km (13-mile) drive up the spectacular gorge of the Alaknanda River to the small town of Govind Ghat (1830m/6000ft) where the trek to the Valley of Flowers and Hem Kund begins. With the help of Sameer, our driver, we bought Sikh head scarves and went into the Sikh gurdwara (temple) to seek a blessing for a safe trip. (We don't believe in this stuff, but it doesn't hurt!)

Kim and I started up the trail at 8 a.m. It was the same familiar rocky route that I had hiked in 2006. The path is paved for most of the way and gains about 1200m (4000ft) in 14 km (9 miles) as it follows the Hem Ganga River. The numerous Sikh pilgrims we met along the way were very friendly. Many of them ride mules up the trail or are carried in dandies (wooden litters carried by four men). We stopped at several dhabas along the way for tea and snacks.

We arrived in Ghangaria (3050m/10,000ft) at 12:30 and booked three nights in the first decent-looking hotel we came to. This turned out to be a big mistake. We immediately jumped into our sleeping bags for a nap but were woken by thunder and torrential rain at 4:30. Later, when it got dark around 6:30, the ridiculously loud generator was fired up. I went down for a typical Indian dinner of dal, vegetables, roti and rice, and on returning to the room I read in the guidebook: "The new Hotel Priya is currently the best place to stay, but it's not very good and has a noisy generator." Oh well, what can you expect for Rs 300 ($6) a night?

Inside the Sikh gurdwara at Govind Ghat where we sought a blessing for a safe journey
Inside the Sikh gurdwara at Govind Ghat where we sought a blessing for a safe journey
The suspension bridge over the Alaknanda River at the start of the Valley of Flowers/Hem Kund trek at Govind Ghat
The suspension bridge over the Alaknanda River at the start of the Valley of Flowers/Hem Kund trek at Govind Ghat
A dhaba (tea stall) on the trail to Ghangaria
A dhaba (tea stall) on the trail to Ghangaria
Waterfall on the other side of the valley, from the trail to Ghangaria
Waterfall on the other side of the valley, from the trail to Ghangaria
Hem Ganga River from the trail to Ghangaria
Hem Ganga River from the trail to Ghangaria
Trail to Ghangaria along the Hem Ganga
Trail to Ghangaria along the Hem Ganga
Sikh pilgrims on the trail to Ghangaria and Hem Kund
Sikh pilgrims on the trail to Ghangaria and Hem Kund
Giant beehives suspended far above the trail (about 2 km before Ghangaria)
Giant beehives suspended far above the trail (about 2 km before Ghangaria)
Approaching Ghangaria - 1 km to go
Approaching Ghangaria - 1 km to go
Hotel Priya, Ghangaria, notable for its incredibly noisy generator
Hotel Priya, Ghangaria, notable for its incredibly noisy generator

9/23/08 - Valley of Flowers

The Valley of Flowers was "discovered" in 1931 by Frank Smythe and his climbing companions while returning from a successful ascent of nearby Kamet, the highest peak yet climbed. He wrote: "To us the Bhyundar Valley will always remain the Valley of Flowers. It is a place of escape for those wearied of modern civilisation." He returned in 1937 and wrote: "Others will visit it, analyse it and probe it but, whatever their opinions, to me it will remain the Valley of Flowers, a valley of peace and perfect beauty where the human spirit may find repose." The flowers are at their best during July and August. However, this coincides with the monsoon, when the roads are at their worst and it is virtually impossible to get there. My plan was to arrive as soon as possible after the monsoon, which normally ends by mid-September, when the roads are barely passable and the later flowers are still in bloom. This was two weeks earlier than my visit in 2006.

The "alarm clock" started chugging away a 5 a.m. The morning was clear and the stars were out. At breakfast, the waiter wiped the table with a rag that was dirtier than the table but the food was good: aloo parantha, omelet, toast, and tea.

We set off for the Valley of Flowers at 6:30, walking through town and negotiating a mule-jam at the upper end. The trail crosses the Hem Ganga above Ghangaria and climbs a short distance to a junction. The right fork continues to Hem Kund. To the left was the deserted check-post at the start of the Valley of Flowers trail.

Beyond the check-post the path crosses a rocky stream and continues through a short shady forested section, then drops down to a good bridge over the river issuing from a huge gorge below the Valley of Flowers. The trail zigzags up through forest on the far side and then traverses around above the river towards the Bhyundar valley. There is one nasty slide area where it goes through a large wash-out. The trail continues climbing to a very large side stream crossed by a rickety metal bridge. (There are huge concrete footings here for a future bridge.) On the other side is a signpost and map where the Valley of Flowers officially begins at 3500m (11,500ft), about 3 km (2 miles) from the check-post.

The trail turns eastwards at this point and levels out somewhat, climbing only 100m (300ft) in the next 5 km (3 miles) before petering out in a bog. For some unfathomable reason, the path has been built up and paved with irregularly-placed rocks, which makes for very difficult walking, besides being hard on the feet. Since you are constantly looking where to step next, you can't enjoy the scenery as you walk. As one guidebook says: "Please never try to divert your attention towards any scenery or howsoever sublime beauty, charm or attraction, as the practice may prove harmful and you may tumble down …. Walk while you walk & stand while you see." (from "Call of Uttrakhand"). Near the upper end of the valley was an "unimproved" stretch which was a delight after the previous torture.

Since the Valley of Flowers is well off the pilgrim path, we saw very few other people. Most of the larger flowers had gone to seed but there were plenty of smaller ones, including quite a few I didn't see last time. Besides the flowers, there are spectacular views of the surrounding peaks, many of which are over 6000m (20,000ft). There is also a short side-trail to the grave of Joan Margaret Legge, a Scottish botanist who died here in 1939.

We stopped at the check-post on the way out to pay the entrance fee of Rs 350 ($7) each. Aside from a few signposts, there are no facilities whatsoever in the valley, so they must be using the money to "improve" the trail, which would be a disappointment. I think they should have left it alone.

We went to the Himalaya Restaurant near our hotel for a late lunch at 1:30 and got back to the room about 2, just as it started pouring with rain. Somebody's God was smiling on us today!

Valley of Flowers sign at check-post
Valley of Flowers sign at check-post
Rules & Regulations
Rules & Regulations
Gorge below Valley of Flowers
Gorge below Valley of Flowers
First view of Valley of Flowers
First view of Valley of Flowers
Tricky bit on Valley of Flowers trail
Tricky bit on Valley of Flowers trail
Rickety bridge on Valley of Flowers trail
Rickety bridge on Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers
Valley of Flowers
Snowy peaks above the Valley of Flowers
Snowy peaks above the Valley of Flowers
Waterfalls above the Valley of Flowers
Waterfalls above the Valley of Flowers
Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers trail
Upper Valley of Flowers
Upper Valley of Flowers
More snowy peaks above the Valley of Flowers
More snowy peaks above the Valley of Flowers
Upper Valley of Flowers
Upper Valley of Flowers
Heading back down the Valley of Flowers
Heading back down the Valley of Flowers
Peaks at the head of the Valley of Flowers
Peaks at the head of the Valley of Flowers
An "improved" portion of the Valley of Flowers trail
An "improved" portion of the Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers peaks
Valley of Flowers peaks
Upper Valley of Flowers
Upper Valley of Flowers
Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers trail
Joan Margaret Legge's Grave
Joan Margaret Legge's Grave
Joan Margaret Legge's Grave
Joan Margaret Legge's Grave
Lower Valley of Flowers
Lower Valley of Flowers
Washout on Valley of Flowers trail
Washout on Valley of Flowers trail
Valley of Flowers check post – Thanks!
Valley of Flowers check post – Thanks!

I identified the following flowers using http://www.flowersofindia.net/. I could be wrong but might be right (or pretty close anyway).

Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)
Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)
Himalayan knotweed (Persicaria wallichii)
Himalayan knotweed (Persicaria wallichii)
Showy Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis spectabilis)
Showy Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis spectabilis)
Milk Parsley (Selinum wallichianum)
Milk Parsley (Selinum wallichianum)
Himalayan Whorlflower (Morina longifolia)
Himalayan Whorlflower (Morina longifolia)
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis)
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis)
Unknown (Sedum?)
Unknown (Sedum?)
Himalayan cinquefoil (Potentilla atrosanguinea)
Himalayan cinquefoil (Potentilla atrosanguinea)
Edelweiss (Leontopodium jacotianum/alpinum)
Edelweiss (Leontopodium jacotianum/alpinum)
Nepal Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis nepalensis)
Nepal Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis nepalensis)
Unknown
Unknown
Rose Carpet Knotweed (Bistorta vaccinifolia)
Rose Carpet Knotweed (Bistorta vaccinifolia)
Unknown (Campanula?)
Unknown (Campanula?)
Violet Dandelion (Cicerbita macrorhiza)
Violet Dandelion (Cicerbita macrorhiza)
Himalayan Geranium (Geranium himalayense)
Himalayan Geranium (Geranium himalayense)
Small-leaved Trailing Bellflower (Cyananthus microphyllus)
Small-leaved Trailing Bellflower (Cyananthus microphyllus)
Unknown (Anemone?)
Unknown (Anemone?)
Unknown
Unknown
Glandular Saxifrage (Saxifraga caveana)
Glandular Saxifrage (Saxifraga caveana)
Showy Inula (Inula grandiflora)
Showy Inula (Inula grandiflora)
Himalayan fleabane (Erigeron multiradiatus)
Himalayan fleabane (Erigeron multiradiatus)
Diverse Leaved Senecio (Jacobaea raphanifolia)
Diverse Leaved Senecio (Jacobaea raphanifolia)
Fading Himalayan Aster (Aster albescens)
Fading Himalayan Aster (Aster albescens)
Violet Himalayan Catmint (Nepeta connata)
Violet Himalayan Catmint (Nepeta connata)
Unknown
Unknown

9/24/08 - Hem Kund

Hem Kund was "discovered" in 1930 and identified as the place where the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) meditated in a former life. It was described in his writings as a high-altitude lake surrounded by seven peaks. It has since become a popular Sikh pilgrimage site.

The "alarm clock" woke us again at precisely 5 a.m. We had breakfast and set off at 6, walking through town and up past the trail junction with the Valley of Flowers. The pilgrim path to Hem Kund was mostly well-paved, with only a few rocky and muddy stretches. We met many friendly Sikhs along the way. Too many of them ride mules up the trail. As a consequence, the path is sometimes a disgusting mess of mule muck. The stench was overpowering in places. It's hard enough to breathe at 10,000 feet without inhaling that stuff.

It took us under three hours to climb the 1150m (3800ft) to Hem Kund at 4200m (13,700ft). We even stopped for tea at a dhaba along the way. The last 200m (700ft) of trail were covered in snow and ice which made for some slippery going. It was pretty cold, but the sun came out, warmed things up, and melted a lot of the snow. (Note: Some sources give the altitude of Hem Kund as 14,200ft. My GPS registered 13,700ft.)

Emulating the Sikh pilgrims, Kim went for a dip in the frigid waters of the lake, possibly in the hope of washing away one or two of his sins. After he got dressed we went and got some free chai to warm up. One fellow pointed out the seven peaks far above the lake, each flying a flag. It must have taken some effort (or a helicopter) to plant them up there since they didn't look like very easy peaks to climb.

We met an English woman who said prayers would begin at 10 o'clock in the huge gurdwara (temple). We were welcome to attend as long as we removed our shoes and wore something on our heads. However, after another round of tea, plus a bowl of spicy yellow rice, we decided to head down about 10, by which time the upper part of the trail had melted out. We met more friendly Sikhs on the way down. One asked us how much farther it was to the top. When I said, "Two hours" he replied, "May God help us!" which cracked everybody up.

We arrived back in Ghangaria about noon, had lunch at the Himalaya Restaurant again and returned to the hotel. The now familiar afternoon thunderstorm arrived on time at 2 p.m. The dinner bell (generator) sounded at 6:30.

On the pilgrim trail to Hem Kund
On the pilgrim trail to Hem Kund
Peaks above the Valley of Flowers
Peaks above the Valley of Flowers
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Dhaba on the Hem Kund trail
Dhaba on the Hem Kund trail
Sikh pilgrims on the Hem Kund trail
Sikh pilgrims on the Hem Kund trail
Upper Hem Kund trail
Upper Hem Kund trail
Gurdwara (temple) at Hem Kund
Gurdwara (temple) at Hem Kund
Sikh pilgrim at Hem Kund
Sikh pilgrim at Hem Kund
Gurdwara at Hem Kund
Gurdwara at Hem Kund
Kim contemplating the plunge into Hem Kund lake
Kim contemplating the plunge into Hem Kund lake
Brrrrr!!!
Brrrrr!!!
Hindu Temple at Hem Kund, known by Hindus as Lokpal
Hindu Temple at Hem Kund, known by Hindus as Lokpal
Hem Kund reflection
Hem Kund reflection
Gurdwara at Hem Kund
Gurdwara at Hem Kund
Sikh pilgrims at Hem Kund
Sikh pilgrims at Hem Kund
Free tea and rice
Free tea and rice
Heading down the trail from Hem Kund
Heading down the trail from Hem Kund
Endless switchbacks on the Hem Kund trail
Endless switchbacks on the Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
Hem Kund trail
The only way to fly
The only way to fly
Lower Hem Kund trail
Lower Hem Kund trail
Ghangaria
Ghangaria

9/25/08 - Ghangaria to Govind Ghat

The "alarm" failed to go off at 5 but we got up anyway. We quickly packed, had breakfast, settled our bill, and left at 6. It was another clear morning. We had an uneventful three-hour hike down to Govind Ghat, where we were met by our driver.

River descending to Govind Ghat
River descending to Govind Ghat
Holy cow!
Holy cow!
Hathi Parbat
Hathi Parbat
Sikh pilgrim
Sikh pilgrim
Lucky Midway Restaurant
Lucky Midway Restaurant
Unknown peaks
Unknown peaks
Trailside sadhus will pose for a small fee
Trailside sadhus will pose for a small fee
Govind Ghat
Govind Ghat

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Tazz
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PostMon Oct 27, 2008 10:33 pm 
Thankyou for sharing  up.gif

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bobbi
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PostMon Oct 27, 2008 10:34 pm 
wow!  what a trip!  i love your photos..lots of diversity.  the one flower photo, himalayan knotweed has a caterpiller on it. too cool up.gif

your TR is long but it's late right now so i'll read it later.

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Jennifer S.
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PostMon Oct 27, 2008 10:35 pm 
Incredible! I love the Valley of Flowers trail in particular. Looks like an amazing trip.

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EastKing
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PostTue Oct 28, 2008 12:08 am 
Amazing photos! Terrific trip! Great TR and photos! up.gif

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marta
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PostTue Oct 28, 2008 9:29 am 
Thank you so much for taking the time to post about this beautiful area. I really appreciate posting the flowers. We love to travel and botanize areas and your report is inspiring.

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Quark
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Quark
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PostTue Oct 28, 2008 5:50 pm 
Tim;

Wonderful writeup, gorgeous photos.  Thank you.!

So did Kim ever jump into Kem Hund lake?

This was great  embarassedlaugh.gif
Tim Hagan wrote:
I read in the guidebook: "The new Hotel Priya is currently the best place to stay, but it's not very good and has a noisy generator."

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"...Other than that, the post was more or less accurate."

Bernardo, NW Hikers' Bureau Chief of Reporting
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bobbi
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PostTue Oct 28, 2008 7:17 pm 
i read it and i want to go.......do you know if women can hike safely there?

what a wonderful trip.  ready to read your next TR.

i love how the flowers look like ours...just a bit tweeked and with the word 'himalayan' added on.

thanks.

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"Today is your day!  Your mountain is waiting.  So…get on your way!" - Oh, the Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss
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Tim Hagan
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PostThu Oct 30, 2008 12:34 pm 
Quark wrote:
Wonderful writeup, gorgeous photos.  Thank you.!

Thanks!

Quark wrote:
So did Kim ever jump into Kem Hund lake?

Yes, that's him in the next photo ("Brrrrr!!!"). He stayed in long enough to dunk himself several times and said afterwards that he didn't breathe the whole time he was in there. This being my second trek to Hem Kund, I figured I'd earned enough merit without having to jump into a freezing cold lake.

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Tim Hagan
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PostThu Oct 30, 2008 12:45 pm 
bcfc53 wrote:
i read it and i want to go.......do you know if women can hike safely there?

I don't see why not. Everyone we met while hiking were very friendly. As long as you act in a respectful manner and use common sense there should be no problem.

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Hikingqueen
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PostWed Nov 05, 2008 2:01 pm 
All I can say is WOW! Amazing! Thank you for sharing your trip. I wish I had more time off from work.

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Scrooge
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PostWed Nov 05, 2008 7:29 pm 
Good read, Tim. Might be the definitive "trip" report. ....... The photographs ought to be illegal.        wink.gif

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PostFri Nov 07, 2008 7:36 pm 
Himalaya majesty
Wonderous and spectacular!  I have not heard of this place before.  If gods or God allows, perhaps I can make the pilgrimage there one day.  I am very taken by the great scenery and spectacular geology, the run-up of continental plates and uplift.  I have been working in landscape design for some while and have a lifelong interest in plants.  Your photos reveal that there are many plants that may be introduced into the trade in some future time.  The blues are remarkable and seem to be a dominent theme in that Land.  The Nepal poppies have been a big hit for some (and a problem for others) in the NW.    A shame that it is so difficult to arrive at the Valley of Flowers when plants are at peak bloom.  You did well...I am impressed you were able to arise and depart on the trail so early each morning!  You were obviously wise and returned before those daily storms.  Many thanks for the photos and report.  I will read each one with equal enthusiasm.

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JungleLover
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PostMon Jun 21, 2010 10:52 am 
I aplolgize for necroing this thread, but I just found my way here by way of it, which had been linked to in a long running IndiaMike forum thread about VOF and Hemkund Sahib and wanted to say Thanks for the pictures and the excellent trip report.

Cheers,
Dave

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Jason Hummel
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PostMon Jun 21, 2010 11:29 am 
Thanks for the writing and inspiration. One of the top reports I've ever read on here (and I'm only a 5th of the way). You have a nice style of writing and I immensely enjoyed this.

Oh, like the 'holy cow' photo  up.gif

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