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Bayou Beltway : Two Road Trip Destinations in Good Ole' Louisiana: Shreveport and Natchitoches

Take a road trip through Louisiana's Bayou.

If Shreveport in Louisiana feels an awful lot like Texas, it's because people from Dallas and Fort Worth come here to play--hard and often. It's just 189 miles (barely a trip by Texan standards) from DFW to this capital of Northern Louisiana, which lies conveniently just across the states' borders. Lying at the edge of No Man's Land (where no authority laid down the law between 1803 and 1845), and not far from a town in Texas called Uncertain (they were uncertain whether they were in Louisiana or the Lone Star State for a long time), Shreveport has always had a bit of the Wild West about it, something Texans really appreciate. And this part of Louisiana has plenty of oil, too!

Texans can reach Shreveport best on I-20 east of Dallas, passing through Gladewater (the antique capital of East Texas) and dozens of commercial rose fields along the highway. Just south of Marshall on US 59 is Carthage, home of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Tex Ritter Museum. And a few miles south of Longview on US 259 at Kilgore is the East Texas Oil Museum, where a 1930 Christmas present in the form of a gusher changed life in these parts forever. Open daily except Mondays, on the Kilgore College campus, Highway 259 at Ross Street, phone 903/983-8295.

Today, people from all over drive in to gamble at Shreveport's five riverboat casinos, one of which, the Horseshoe, claims implausibly (in print) that its "slots pay out an average of $8 million per day...more than any other casino in the state." If you're the gambling type, you can negotiate room prices at the Horseshoe Hotel and take them up on their offer of a $5.95 breakfast special or $6.95 New York Strip late night special in the Oak Creek Cafe and Grille. Avoid Jack Binion's Steak House, where the menu sports steak at $32, $38 and $42.

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If you're smart and don't want to lose money at the casinos, there is plenty to do in this capital of the region state authorities call a Sportsman's Paradise. You can watch the local baseball team, the Swamp Dragons (otherwise known to most folk as alligators) or pay $45 for an all-day canoe rental at Norris Canoe Outfitters, PO Box 5626, Bossier LA (physical address Highway 80 East), phone 318/949-9522. You could go out to Louisiana Downs to watch horseracing for just $3, only $1 for children and seniors. Free seating (after you pay the admission) is available each raceday on three different levels, in fact, and reserved seating can be had for just $2 more. The season is from late June through early November. Phone it at 800/551-7223 or 318/747-RACE. The address is PO Box 5519, Bossier, Web site www.ladowns.com.

Finally, you can also watch stock car (March through November) and drag racing (year round), or even hockey (November through March). Ask at the local Visitors Bureau at 629 Spring Street in Shreveport, phone 318/222-9391, for details.

On your own, visit the great outdoors for fishing, swimming in the lakes, boating, and picnicking at the five spots listed in a Visitors Bureau leaflet, "Gaming & Playing on the Red River."

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Shreveport Highlights

The most important fact to learn about Shreveport's geography is that it has a sister city, Bossier, which sits on the east side of the Red River, and which threatens to eclipse its former rival in rate of recent growth. They even have their own airports, Shreveport's commercial one to the southwest, the mighty Barksdale Air Force Base practically in downtown Bossier.

Visiting Barksdale, the Air Force base to which President George W. Bush flew on the day of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., used to be a highlight of seeing Shreveport. But the visits ended on September 11, perhaps to be resumed (said spokesperson, Buck Rigg) when a security fence can be built enclosing the museum area and separating it from the base itself. (Formerly, you could walk out the museum door and directly to a flight line of retired airplanes, including those from World War II, then onto the airfield itself.)

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From Shreveport, I could see B-52s taking off for unknown destinations. When visits are resumed, you'll see memorials to 17 Congressional Medal of Honor winners, all from the 8th Air Force in the period 1942-45, as well as 25 aircraft from a Russian MIG to a B-52, retired as late as 1992. Phone the museum at 318/456-5553 or go to the Web site, www.8afmuseum.net.

River cruises are fun, with tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays taking about an hour and costing $8 for adults, $2 for children 12 and under. You'll pass under four bridges, view blue heron and the kingfisher, as well as, possibly, alligators, white egrets, snakes, and turtles. The boats depart on the Red River from the city center, phone 318/424-3576.

America's largest park dedicated to roses (over 40 acres) is the American Rose Center, just west of Shreveport a mile or so. Open daily April through October, the center is strewn with winding paths, brooks and thousands of roses in over 60 gardens. Don't forget now, 2002 has been designated The Year of the Rose by Congress, so get out there and celebrate! From November 23 through December 30 (except Christmas Day), you can see Christmas in Roseland, with story tellers, choirs, Santa Claus, carolers and cloggers, for $10 a carload or $3 per person. There will be a huge display of electric trains and railroad scenes, plus one million lights as part of the displays and animated scenes, accenting the Windsounds Carillon tower, Japanese Tea Garden, Hardtner Chapel and more. This has been named one of the Top 20 Tourist Events in the Southeast USA for 12 consecutive years. Contact the Rose Center at 8877 Jefferson-Paige Road, Shreveport, phone 318/938-5402, Web site www.ars.org. Admission is $5, less for seniors and children.

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A fine little collection of cars is available at the Ark-La-Tex Antique & Classic Vehicle Museum (and Shreveport Firefighter's Museum), in a former car salesroom in the heart of downtown. Note the antique cars and old firefighting equipment, but also check out the tiles for the original showroom, made to order to promote the automotive industry's charms. You may also notice that several of the cars come from a Sammy Vaughan of Uncertain, Texas, who was certain enough about liking this place for his cars to be put on display. Adults pay $5, seniors and children less, kids under six free. Closed Mondays. 601 Spring Street, phone 318/222-0227.

Without doubt the best fine arts museum in the area is the R. W. Norton Art Gallery, on 46 landscaped acres of its own. Free to the public, the gallery houses collections of American and European paintings and sculptures, and is especially noted for Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. There's also the work of Rodin and Rosa Bonheur and pottery by Josiah Wedgwood. The azalea garden (with more than 10,000 plants) is open throughout the year. The museum can be visited daily except Mondays. Contact the gallery at 4747 Creswell Avenue, Shreveport, phone 318/865-4201, Web site www.softdisk.com/comp/norton.

Kids will especially enjoy the Sciport Discovery Center, a newish building with over 200 interactive displays as well as the inevitable IMAX Dome Theater. General admission is a high $8.50 for either the museum or IMAX, not both (both cost $14.50), children 3 to 12 and seniors less. You can contact the center at 820 Clyde Fant Parkway, Shreveport, phone 877/SCI PORT or 318/424-3466, Web site www.sciport.org.

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For something really weird, visit the Touchstone Wildlife & Art Museum, where Mr. and Mrs. Sam Touchstone have on display quite a lot of dead stuffed animals from all over the world. Some of the exhibits are quite intriguing, and yes, there is a gift shop. You can safely ignore the religious leaflets about the End of the World, but do have a look at old clippings about Bonnie and Clyde, local folk heroes of sorts. Contact the museum at 3386 Highway 80 East, Bossier, phone 318/949-2323.

Shreveport and Bossier Lodgings

The Isle of Capri has seen better days (it was once a Hilton), but provides spacious double rooms for as little as $39 on weekdays, $69 on weekends. There are 224 guestrooms, and facilities include an outdoor pool and a restaurant. The hotel is connected to one of the casinos down on the Red River, with the same name. You're close to a highway interchange, but rooms are relatively quiet. Contact it at 3033 Hilton Drive, Bossier, phone 800/221-4095 or 318/678-7642, fax 318/425-4617, e-mail sid_crump@islecorp.com, Web site www.isleofcapricasino.com.

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The spanking new Microtel just opened in late summer, and charges only $50 to $60 for its comfortable rooms (queen bed, two people). You get a free continental breakfast (coffee, orange juice, and a fresh bagel or muffin). Each room has cable TV with ESPN, CNN and one free movie channel, plus a desktop workspace and a dataport phone. There are 100 rooms and suites. 2713 Village Lane, Bossier is the address, phone 888/771-7171 or 318/742-7882, fax 318/742-7891.

At the Fairfield Inn, a double room goes for just $65 to $75, and you get a free continental breakfast as well as free local phone calls. Some rooms are non-smoking. There's an outdoor swimming pool and sun deck, as well as a fitness room. Contact it at 6345 Westport Avenue, Shreveport, phone 800/228-2800 or 318/686-0102, fax 318/686-8791.

The Baymont is part of a relatively new chain, and if you pick up one of their brochures at the Visitors Bureau, you can get $10 off one room for one night (look for the special notation on the leaflet). Otherwise, regular double rooms run $75 to $110. There's an outdoor pool and a fitness center to help you relax. Included in the price is a complimentary breakfast buffet in the lobby, including fresh fruit, juices, cereal, muffins, bagels, and more. Phone 800/301-0200 or 318/742-7890, fax 318/742-7891, Web site www.baymontinns.com.

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Dining Out in Shreveport or Bossier

Carriere's describes itself as Italian, so you can get a regular spaghetti marinara with garlic bread for just $2.95, or a breakfast frittata (potatoes and onions) for only $1.95. Their country breakfast ranges from $1.95 to $3.95, depending on how much meat you can stuff down early in the morning. Because this is Louisiana, this downtown Italian cafe also has po-boys (stone oven baked) from just $3.50 (ham and cheese) and up. A 10-inch pizza is $7.95. The atmosphere (and service) can best be described as funky, and you get plastic utensils, not "expensive" metal ones. Contact them at 418 1/2 Milam Street, Shreveport, phone 318/5425-1547.

Darrell's is open for breakfast daily from 6 AM, but serves that meal anytime during the day. Its special weekdays only from 6 to 10 costs just $3.99, including two eggs, sausage or bacon, grits, hashbrowns and biscuits. Lunch specials cost just $5.35, and include green salad or slaw, choice of two vegetables and a choice of cornbread or rolls. Each day has different specials, with choices like fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, hamburger steak with onion, fried catfish fillets, roast beef, calf liver, etc. Dinner specials include a giant chicken fried steak at $8.95 or smaller version at $6.99. Each dinner special is served with a salad or slaw, one vegetable and choice of potato. The decor is 1950s, but everything is clean and neat. If you like retro, you'll love Darrell's. Located at 1964 Airline Drive, Bossier, phone 318/741-0901.

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The Pete Harris Cafe is practically an historical shrine, delivering soul food to the community for over 20 years now. Its specialty is seafood (Pete's Favorite, shrimp with bell peppers and a secret sauce over rice, costs $11.40), but if you don't want to spend that much, another house favorite, Scrap's Delight (spaghetti and smoke sausage in a secret sauce) runs just $6.75. Creole and etouffe dishes are on hand, as is half a fried chicken (served with rice and gravy or potatoes) at $5.50. A whole catfish dinner runs $7.75, and the home baked pies are to die for. 1355 Milan, Shreveport, phone 318/425-4277.

At the Crescent Landing Catfish Restaurant, called "the best in town" by the Shreveport Times, you can get a "Fish Hungry" fried catfish dinner for just $8.99, including bean soup, hush puppies, cole slaw, pickled tomatoes, and fries. A chicken breast goes for $5.49, and comes with the same sides as mentioned above. Lunch entrees range from $3.99 for hamburger steak, which includes three side orders. Be warned, those with allergies, the menu says, "For your health (sic), foods are fried in peanut oil." Contact it at 7601 Pines Road, phone 318/686-4450.

The Country Tavern specializes in barbecue, with a scrumptious light combo platter for just $9.99. You get a choice of two smokehouse meats (turkey breasts, beef brisket or spicy sausage), with two side orders, bread and sauce. Add another $1 and you get ribs! Delicious sandwiches start at $6.99. Contact it at 823 Brook Hollow Drive, Shreveport, phone 318/797-4477.

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Natchitoches, Easier Seen Than Said

A microcosm of America can be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of spots around the USA. But it's safe to say that only in Northern Louisiana could you find a plantation owned by an ex-slave, a catfish restaurant owned by an Indonesia admiral and a town whose bricked streets were saved by determined ladies from the Historical Society lying down in front of the bulldozers. The area abounds with character, and a disproportionately large number of its residents are, um, characters themselves.

Ms. Maxine Sutherland, a volunteer at the Melrose Plantation near town, was one of the ladies who stopped destruction of the historic, brick-laid Front Street, back in 1954. She continues to receive visitors at the plantation, telling me that "when my husband asked me why I spend so much time at Melrose, I said I may as well die here as anywhere else." This is, after all, the town about which Steel Magnolias, the Broadway play and movie, was written (by a former resident).

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Don't try to pronounce the name of Natchitoches until somebody clues you in. It's pronounced Nack-a-tush, and don't ask why. Visitors mauling the pronunciation long ago gave rise to the town's slogan, "Easier Seen Than Said." It's the truth, believe me.

Natchitoches Highlights

This historic town sits along one bank of the Cane River and the lake formed from its being dammed up years ago. When the river changed course, the town, older even than New Orleans (as the area has been settled since 1714), became a backwater, and the community's commercial loss at the time is our blessing today. (A similar situation made Bruges, in Belgium, equally well preserved into modern times.)

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"Nack-a-tush" has a small enough historic district to walk around, easily, but a convenient way to see it is to take one of the daily tours in a trolley bus. It visits all the landmarks as well as the filming sites from Steel Magnolias. Taking one hour, it costs $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $5 for children 3 to 12. Phone 318/356-8687. There are also one-hour boat tours on Cane River Lake, costing $9 for adults, less for seniors and children. Daily trips run at 11, 1, 3, 6 and 7, and depart from the dock right on Front Street, phone 318/356-8687, Web site www.canerivertours.com.

Don't miss the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store on Front Street, a genuine old-fashioned shop for hardware, housewares, dry goods, wooden toys and gifts. Operating since 1863, it's at 758 Front Street, phone 318/352-2525.

Natchitoches celebrates its 75th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights this year, from November 30 through January 6, with more than 300,000 lights and at least 70 displays along the very scenic Cane River Lakefront. In addition to the lights, there are programs every Saturday, as well as a carnival from November 28 through December 10. For more information phone 800/259-1714 or visit the Web sites www.christmasfestival.com or www.natchitoches.net. There are Christmas by Candlelight Home Tours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays between December 5 and 15 this year, $15 per person.

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Of the several plantations south of town, the two most important are the Melrose and the Magnolia. Freed by a French planter in 1780, Marie Therese Coincoin (b. 1742) developed a small plot he gave her into the large Melrose Plantation, where she owned slaves herself. In the late 1890s, the prosperous farm was sold to the Henry family, and during their ownership it became a Mecca for artists and writers, housed and fed by Cammie Henry during the depression years. Among those sheltered here were William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Alexander Wolcott, and Sherwood Anderson. A special Writer's Cabin was built for solitude and creating works of art, but well within the sound of the dinner bell. At The African House, a slave fort and provision building, the walls of the upper floor are entirely covered with creations by Clementine Hunter, Louisiana's most celebrated primitive artist. (Grandma Moses would appreciate her style.) The plantation is open from noon to 4 daily, and there is a 90-minute guided tour. Admission is $6 for adults, less for seniors and students, free under age 12. The plantation's phone is 318/379-0055.

At Magnolia, there's a 45-minute guided tour (you can get in only on a tour) and they are open daily except Sundays from 1 to 4. This place is a National Bicentennial Farm, one of only two west of the Mississippi. Built in 1896, the mansion has 27 rooms, including a Roman Catholic chapel. You can also view an original cotton press still in place and working. You must make advance reservations to visit here on weekdays, but weekend tours are open to the public at 11 and 2. The location is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, 4386 Highway 494, Natchez LA 71456, phone 318/352-0383, fax 318/352-4549, Web site www.nps.gov/cari.

In Natchitoches Parish (equivalent to a county in other states), there are over three dozen historic black churches, some dating back as far as 1866 and 1867. You an get a handsome free booklet guiding you around to these spots, free of charge, at the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau, on Front Street in the heart of town. Phone them at 800/259-1714.

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In May and October, four tribes in the area have their annual powwows. Two are Cherokee, one is Choctaw, but all found themselves trapped by European expansion in "No Man's Land," the area between the USA and Spain between the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the annexation of Texas in 1845. The first weekend of May, the Choctaw Apache Tribe meets in Ebarb, near Zwolle (318/645-2588). At the same time, the Clifton Choctaw Tribe meets in Clifton (318/793-4253). On the third Saturday in October, the Adais Caddo Tribe has its powwow-wow in Robeline (318/472-8680) and on the last weekend of that month the Four Winds Tribe gathers in Leesville (337/537-0277).

For a really strange experience, you can get lost in The Maze, a ten-acre labyrinth (it's patterned after the American flag) claiming to have "miles of pathways." Open October 5 through December 30, annually, daily except Mondays. South of town off Highway 1, well-signed. Adults pay $6.50, kids 6 to 11 pay $4, children 5 and under enter free. Contact them at 318/671-1436, Web site www.cornfieldmaze.com.

Historic Lodgings

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There are 23 Bed & Breakfast inns located in the historic district, with 110 rooms between them. You'll be part of the town's historic culture if you stay in one of these, and you'll be close to where the action is.

The first B&B in Natchitoches, and the best in the moderate price range is Fleur de Lis Inn, 336 Second Street, phone 800/489-6621 or 318/352-6621. Located in the National Historic Landmark District, it charges $65 for a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, $80 for one with a king. (Weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, the price starts at $100.) Harriet and Tom Palmer have owned the Queen Anne-style house (built in 1903) since 1993 and are hosts to repeat guests in the five period rooms, each with bath. Full breakfast (such as a "Louisiana breakfast casserole" with sausage, crab or ham, homemade biscuits and strawberries) is included in the price. Adjoining is a guest house with apartments sleeping up to four persons, prices ranging from $125. Their Web site is www.fleurdelisbandb.com.

Jefferson House has just four rooms with private bath, and is right on the Cane River in the historic district. Double antique-filled rooms run from $75 to $95. Plantations style breakfast included. Contact them at 229 Jefferson Street, Natchitoches LA 71457, phone 800/342-3957 or 318/352-3957, e-mail jeffhousebandb@webtv.net, Web site www.jeffersonhousebandb.com.

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Green Gables was built in the 1890s but has been a B&B since 1992. There are two rooms in the main house, a cottage out back (all have private bath), with rates per room of $85 and up. Full Southern breakfast is included. No children or pets, no smoking. Lauren Louis Kollar is the resident owner. Contact her at 201 Pine Street, Natchitoches LA 71457, phone 318/352-5580, Web site www.virtualcities.com/la/greengables.htm.

The Queen Anne is located at 125 Pine Street, also in the historic district, owned by Lloyd and Cathi Howell. Some of the rooms have clawfoot tubs in the bath, all have a coffee maker, and there is free bottled water, soft drinks and wine on hand. A full gourmet breakfast is served in the Victorian dining room and is part of the rates, from $85 to $130 per room. Contact the Howells at 888/685-1585 or 318/352-0989, e-mail lhowell@cp-tel.net, Web site www.queenannebandb.com.

The Judge Porter House has five rooms, each with private bath and looks really Southern, with a two-story wrap-around porch (called a gallery hereabouts) and a canopy of live oaks. There are four guest rooms in the main house, each with phone, TV and VCR. Prices range from $85 and up per room. Out back is a Guest House which costs more, of course. Contact Todd Working at 800/441-8343 or 318/352-9206, e-mail judgeporter@judgeporterhouse.com, Web site www.judgeporterhouse.com.

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If you can't get into one of the B&Bs, second best is to settle in at a chain motel out on the highway. They all charge between $50 and $70 rack rates for two people, less if you have some kind of discount, such as AAA, AARP and the like. In alphabetical order, they include Best Western (318/352-6655), Comfort Inn (318/352-7500), Days Inn (318/352-4426), Hampton Inn (318/364-0010), Holiday Inn Express (318/354-9911), Microtel Inn & Suites (318/214-0700), Ramada Inn (318/357-8281) and Super 8 Motel (318/352-1700).

The Natchitoches Dining Scene

At the Pioneer Pub you can dine well and at a moderate price, with a salad for lunch running just $4.95 or a "100% ground chuck" burger $5.75, the latter served with homemade pub fries. If you want more at dinner, crawfish etoufee or gumbo cost just $9.95, a delicious 12 oz. catfish filet fried southern style (served with choice of potato) $12.95. There are more than 20 different draft beers on tap, too. There's live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You'll find it at 812 Washington Street, on the edge of the historic district's lakeside Front Street, phone 318/352-4884.

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At Merci Beaucoup (this was French territory, after all), a sandwich at lunchtime will cost as little as $4.95 (chicken salad on croissant, with potato ships) and 45 cents less if you want just bread instead of the fancy roll. A Natchitoches Meat Pie will run $7.25, served with dirty rice, salad and hot French bread. Open noon to 5 PM only. Located at 127 Church Street, phone 318/352-6634. Ask for Johnny Wayne or Rose Cox, owners and operators. (They have a neat gift shop right on Front Street, too.)

At Dominic's, 805 Washington Street, you will find traditional Italian food, including spaghetti dishes from as low as $5.99. But this is the South, so you can get New Orleans style muffuletta sandwiches from $5 or a po-boy at $5.99 (with Italian sausage). Contact it at 318/354-7767.

Lunch and dinner at Pirogue's are served daily, featuring an All-You-Can-Eat Fried Catfish Strips meal, offered with french fries and coleslaw, for $11.95. It's out on the highway, but it's worth the trip to get crawfish etouffee or shrimp creole for lunch at $7.50, served with white rice and access to the salad bar. Fried chicken goes for just $5.95. Dinner prices for the shrimp creole and crawfish etouffee are $10.95, again with access to the salad bar, and bread. Po'boys cost $7.95, catfish $9.95. Highlights are the seafood buffets Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as a Sunday lunch buffet. Contact them at 5695 Highway 1 Bypass, phone 4318/356-8200.

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Way over in Many, on the huge Toledo Bend Lake, is the Big Bass Marina, where a retired Indonesian admiral (or colonel, or both) and his daughter (plus an American son-in-law) serve up their traditional Asian cuisine, with main dishes (such as Rundan, spicy beef stew with rice) running just $7.95. Of course, they serve fried catfish at $12.95 and chicken or chicken-fried streak at $8.75. Their breakfasts start at $3.95 for two eggs, pan sausage or bacon, toast or biscuit. Big Bass Marina is at 363 Big Bass Lane, Many LA 71449, phone 318/586-4721. There are also rooms to rent, from $50 up. The locals like to brag on the 76-year-old owner, who flies around in his plane when he's not out fishing, they say.


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