HOW WE TOOK THE SUMMER OFF

When we decided that we were going to buy a bus, we had a lot of questions. First off was the size. How do you get around in a giant bus? How do we title and insure it? We started reading about buses online and learned quite a bit, but we needed to go look at some in person. It had been years since either of us had set foot in a school bus, and we didn’t know what to expect. We found a dealer in Tampa who carried quite a few retired school buses and went to check them out. After spending a few hours in the lot we found what we thought was the ideal setup. It was a mid 90’s Blue Bird, with a standard truck hood and Navistar 7.3 diesel. This bus was known as a half size, about 28ft long, and it had a wheelchair lift in the back. We thought the large handicap door would prove useful for getting larger items in and out, and the length seemed just right. I even felt comfortable behind the wheel, as it was so similar to other large trucks I have driven. We negotiated the asking price down to $4200 and promised to return the next weekend with cash in hand.

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Unfortunately, we were too slow. The bus we had picked out was sold before we could come back with the money. We were sad, but the hunt continued. Our time was running out, the lease on our house was up at the end of May and we needed to be out. I scoured Craigslist and EBay every evening after work, bidding on a few buses only to be outbid at the last minute. Then one night after I should have been in bed I found our bus. It was listed on the Georgia craigslist, hidden deep in the lists without a proper title. I was dubious but I clicked on the link. I was greeted with the glorious sight of a classic Blue Bird; it’s quad headlights winking at me. I studied the grainy photos in the ad, and fired off an email to the seller. I crossed my fingers, and the next morning I found a reply email waiting. The seller was the football coach at the small private school in Damascus, GA, and while being an incredibly nice guy could hardly tell me anything about the bus. I arranged a meeting for the weekend, and Saturday morning Lindsey and I took off on the 6 hour drive north. We met with the coach and had a look around the bus. We were immediately surprised by the size; it looked smaller in the ad! We measured and found it was indeed a full size 40 foot bus, much more than we had anticipated using. But as we explored further we realized the white factory paint was in pretty good condition still, the interior paint was excellent, and it had the large sliding windows, that seal and latch so much better than regular school bus windows. I also discovered it had a really nice 4 cylinder Yanmar diesel factory mounted midship to run the AC system. We took it out on the little country road for a test drive, it was my first time driving a forward control vehicle like this, and it took a little leap of faith to pull out on the road. The bus was surprisingly easy to drive, and felt good going down the road.

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After pulling back in to the school we summoned up the courage and agreed to buy it. The school didn’t know much about it and didn’t really know what to ask, so we tossed a few offers back and forth and finally agreed on $2,000. That’s right, we only paid $2,000 for this giant bus, which was running and driving pretty well. Lindsey and I quickly unloaded some supplies we had brought, checked the oil in the engine and transmission and topped up as necessary, cleaned the mildew off the drivers seat and steering wheel, cleaned all the mirrors and windshield, and chased away some spiders and wasps that were hanging around. We set off on our adventure home, a 6+ hour drive back to Mount Dora. Along the way I got to figure out what all the buttons and knobs did, how to open the air powered door, and of course, how the air horn sounded. It was an uneventful drive back down south with Lindsey leading the way in our Jetta. I am so happy that we found our bus, it is perfect for us. Sometimes it would be nice to have a shorter vehicle but having all the space we do can’t be beat. It is an All American body, but it has factory white paint, and doesn’t have any school bus lights on it. That combined with the interesting seating layout and large sliding windows leads me to believe this was some sort of charter bus when it was new. It makes the perfect base for a bus conversion; we absolutely love all the windows and have no plans to remove any of them.

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At the time, I was working for a company that ran a couple of farms in the area (the reason we moved to FL) and my boss kindly agreed to let us park the bus on one of the properties. That is where we dropped it after bringing it down from Georgia, fortunately it was only a 5 minute drive from our house, so it was quick to get back and forth while working on it.  There it sat for the next 7 weeks while we worked on stripping the old interior and building it back up. I was fortunate enough to have an understanding boss who let us do the conversion on the property, which really solved a lot of problems for us as our house had a little driveway on a tiny residential street.

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One of the main questions we are asked when people hear our story is ”how do you afford it?” and when we explain that we bought the bus for so little, and didn’t spend much more on the conversion then they begin to understand. We built our interior out of mostly second hand lumber and supplies I got from work for free so that really helped cut down on the expenses. We dismantled an old horse corral which provided us with a ton of lumber, and we also collected a few pallets which we broke down into individual pieces. There was a store down the road from our house that sold overstocked building supplies, so we got our slightly beat up laminate flooring and old stainless sink from them at blowout prices. We also had a free place to park it while we worked on the project, which is a huge help.

Once we decided that we wanted to move back to Oregon we knew that we wanted to spend the summer traveling the country. We were already good about saving money, and we were (and still are) living debt free so there wasn’t anything to eat into our savings. We increased our savings in preparation for the trip, and started selling off anything we didn’t need. Furniture and household things were sold until the house was empty. Our cars and my dirt bikes got sold off to add to the savings pot. Now our only vehicle is this giant antique bus and our little dual sport. We sat down together and worked out a budget, which is mostly for fuel. We included a large allowance for brewery and restaurant visits, as that is one of the things that make us happy in life. What is the point of living if you aren’t happy?  Our biggest expense is obviously fuel, our bus will get anywhere from 7 – 10 MPG depending on speed, terrain, and wind so it isn’t the most economical vehicle, but it isn’t bad for a house on wheels. While we were working out our budget I estimated that we would be driving about 10,000 miles on this trip, so we planned accordingly.

Finding free camping and parking has been another huge asset to this trip. Beyond the standard free overnight Wal-Mart parking, we have been using a couple websites to find free places to stay with great success. The first is www.boondockerswelcome.com, which is a great website that links fellow RV travelers together who offer free parking on their properties, and the other is www.harvesthosts.com, where agricultural businesses offer free parking at their farm, winery, produce store, etc. These sites have helped us stay on budget, and have introduced us to some really amazing people and places. If you are traveling by any sort of RV or bus I highly recommend checking these sites out.

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I also get asked frequently about needing a special license to drive the bus, the short answer is no. If it was still a commercial vehicle I would be required by law to have a class B license but we were able to change the title in Florida to a motor home title, so anyone with a standard drivers license can operate it. It does take a lot of getting used to, remembering how much room is between the axles and how far the back hangs out. We are also able to insure it as a motor home, although it can be a struggle to find a cooperative insurance agency.

Bottom line is, if you have a crazy idea to do something like move into an old bus, it isn’t hard. There are a few difficulties to overcome but nothing worth getting worked up about. We have seen families online with 3-4 kids who still manage to live comfortably in a bus the same size as ours. If you have the motivation, saving money is pretty simple. Cutting back on expenses in order to save for a trip is easy to get the hang of. We plan on keeping our bus for a long time to come. We have big plans to remodel the interior into a more permanent living space, including a large solar array, real plumbing, and a wood burning stove. Home is where we park it!

 

 

 

HOLLAND, MI

We stayed 8 days Michigan, and when we weren’t exploring the UP, we had the pleasure of camping out at our friend Allison’s house on the edge of town. Our stay with Allison and her family was a great time that felt like a vacation from our vacation. It was a lot more than just a place to park; they really took care of us and made us feel at home. It was great to catch up with a good friend, and her parents, Keith and Pat, went out of their way to make our stay comfortable. Our time in Holland and the surrounding area also involved much fine food and drink, as you might expect!

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But first, a little bit about the town of Holland. Holland is in the southwest region of the state, and sits along Lake Michigan. As the name suggests, it’s a Dutch town and proud of it. Windmills are prevalent, as are tulips when the season is right. Unfortunately we missed Tulip Time, which is a celebration of Dutch culture that takes place every May. If you are looking for skyscrapers, you’ll have to drive 20 minutes east to Grand Rapids. But there is a nice view from the 6th floor of the Seminary Library, where Allison works, as it’s the highest point in town. The dunes on the lakeshore can be seen out to the west. The surrounding area is mostly farmland and small towns.

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We visited two breweries with Allison downtown, the most popular being New Holland Brewing, which is very big and has a full restaurant. The other, Our Brewery, is still new but seems to do well for itself. A third brewing company, Big Lake Brewing, is in a different part of town that isn’t as quaint but their beer holds its own. Our Brewery caught my attention with their unusual selection. Our flight consisted of a Burnt Caramel Quad, Ginger Beard (perfect for Steven!), Careless Whisper IPA, Chocolate Vienna Lager, Vanilla Milk Stout, and a Curry(!) Cider. While slightly skeptical (there were a lot of creative options to choose from), we were very pleasantly surprised. Especially by the Chocolate Lager, which had the depth of a stout.

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Our taster was followed up with dinner down the street at New Holland Brewing. They make excellent beer and food and have something for everyone. They have a selection of beers called the Hatter Series, which includes many beer styles, all with a different mad hatter on the bottle. Steven is partial to the White Hatter, the white Belgian style wit bier. Besides the hatters are many other fine options, as well as their own distilled spirits, but it’s hard to leave room for that when there are such nice beers to be had. We made good use of the patio seating while we were there.

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One day while Allison and Keith were at work, Pat took Steven and I on a little field trip. She took us in her car to see the Saugatuck Dunes on Lake Michigan. You have to walk a little ways through the forest to get to the beach, so we had a nice mini hike out there. Afterwards we got a driving tour of a couple little tourist towns and a stop for lunch at Saugatuck Brewing. What makes Saugatuck really unique is that they offer brewing workshops where you can come and learn to make your own batch of beer, leave it there for a week or so to ferment, and come back when it’s time to be bottled and taken home.

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We drove through some scenic country until we came to Virtue Cider in Fennville. They are a relatively new company brewing many kinds of craft cider with almost all local apples. The owner is the former owner of Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, so he brings quite a bit of brewing experience to the cidery. We got a chance to taste everything they have bottled currently, and our favorite was The Mitten, a bourbon barrel aged cider. It has sparked some inspiration in us for future homebrew ambitions. One of the guys there saw Steven taking photos of the place and offered to show us the “cellar” where they hold all the fermenting tanks. It was pretty cool to see! The building is mostly underground to keep everything at an optimal temperature.

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We washed that all down with some good old-fashioned fresh pressed apple juice at Crane’s Pie Pantry on the way home. Pat took us the back way on the return trip so we got to do some more sightseeing. I loved seeing all the old farmhouses and little cottages, to the point of Steven’s chagrin I think. It sure felt special to be chauffeured around for a day.

Tuesday found us relaxing at the house and working on the blog until evening came around and we all went out to Big Lake Brewing. We sampled some beers there and ordered a pizza from next door. They had a lot of darker beers, which was a change of pace from all the summer beers we’ve been drinking. After dinner, we headed down to the Holland State Park on Lake Michigan to catch the sunset. There’s a beach there, with a lighthouse and a pier. We had a funny experience as we walked out onto the concrete pier and found ourselves in the midst of a surprise proposal. The term “surprise” is relative I guess because it was pretty obvious what was going on. It was a very young couple and it was pretty cheesy, but it was fun to see her family trying to hide out of sight while she walked past us and of course said yes with a million eyes burning into the back of her head. Awkward! Even though it was a cloudy sky, the sunset cast a beautiful pastel light on everything and once again, Michigan proved to us how wonderful it’s summers are.

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On Wednesday, Steven, Keith, Pat and I took a trip to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners. It was a huge place with several large barns full of classic cars, motorcycles, and even some campers! We also found a double decker bus, and immediately saw the possibilities for a conversion. That would be a fun project for a little house. There were so many cars and things to see, it was an impressive collection. I think Steven and Keith each took hundreds of pictures. Allison had to work, but she didn’t mind missing the museum so much. She was more interested in our next stop, Bell’s Brewing in Kalamazoo.

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Steven and I were introduced to Bell’s when we moved to Florida, as we learned about all kinds of craft beer west of the Mississippi that doesn’t make it out to the Northwest. We were looking forward to trying some more of their beer with lunch, and were really blown away. We had a flight of six samples, and loved each of them. They have a really wide range of offerings, everything from their flagship summer wheat beer to a couple Belgian styles, a sour, darker high gravity beers, and IPA’s, to name just a few. When we finished lunch we stopped in at their store for some goodies. It’s pretty neat that they sell home brewing equipment there too.

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But the fun didn’t stop in Kalamazoo! Keith had something planned for us that evening, a little thing he likes to call a Bike and Brew. We went back to the house to pick up Allison and load up our bikes, and we set off for Grand Rapids. Our destinations were Founders Brewing and Hopcat. There was a nice paved bike path from a park into the city, so the 8 miles in didn’t feel bad. Founders is becoming an expansive brewery, I’ll be curious to see if we find it back home. They are known for their extremely drinkable All Day IPA and the Breakfast Stout. After a quick taste there we continued on a couple blocks to Hopcat. Hopcat is a cool hangout with lots of taps and a couple of their own brews. We all had burgers and the aptly named and very addictive “crack fries”. As we finished up, we couldn’t help but notice the sun dipping lower and lower, and we still had another 8 miles to get back to the car. So with no excuses to lag behind, we kept up the pace on the way back. I may have taken the liberty of exercising my vocal cords as well as my legs, just to keep myself going. Sorry, guys… We had a great time, and Steven and I have decided to try to make biking to breweries a habit. It feels good to work for your beer a little bit.

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We enjoyed one more day at the house on Thursday getting the bus cleaned and reorganized, ready to get back on the road. Allison took us downtown one more time that evening, and then we had a delicious meal of homemade pizza. Michigan was such a great time, and we are so grateful for everything the Van Liere’s provided. It feels like I gained an extra set of parents over the week. I’d love to go back and experience another summer camping trip on those incredible lakes. We were sad to leave it behind us, but it was time to trade out sand dunes for mountains out West. Michigan, we’ll miss you! Until next time.

UPPER PENINSULA, MI

Ever since we heard about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some years ago, we’ve been eager to see it. It was first described to us as “basically Canada”. The Upper Peninsula (the UP) is the northern section of the state that in the past has frequently been forgotten on maps and verbal discussions of the more widely recognized lower half (the Mitten). We had planned a long weekend camping trip with Allison to see what it was all about.

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After arriving in Holland and spending some much needed time tidying up the bus and getting batteries all charged back up, it was time to leave on our big camping trip. This is the trip we have been planning for a while, and the reason we didn’t spend as much time in some of the other states. Allison had taken Friday off, so we were all set to depart Thursday evening when she got home from work. The bus was loaded with food and gear for our UP adventure! And we couldn’t forget to bring along some Bell’s Oberon, the official summer beer of Michigan. Setting off from Holland around 5 PM, we headed north toward Mackinaw City, our stopping point for the night. As we were driving, Allison and I had been looking up places to park overnight, and hadn’t turned up much of anything. We figured it would be another Wal-Mart night for us, until we decided to try a place called French Farm Lake, which supposedly had free camping. It didn’t look like much on the map, but we had to go check it out. Arriving in Mackinaw City we got a great view of the Mackinac (still pronounced “Mackinaw”) bridge as the sun went down, we turned off the highway and found the road leading to French Farm Lake. This road was a decent gravel road, although a little narrow for the bus, so we pushed on farther into the woods. Soon the road turned to sandy dirt and got even narrower. We threaded the bus through the trees looking for a spot big enough to pull off and set up camp. It was quickly getting dark and hard to see in the forest along the lake. We found a spot that looked like it would work, but we needed to turn around to get a better approach angle, so we continued down the road in search of a wide enough area to turn around. A little farther down the road ended at a small turn around where several grizzled locals were pulling small fishing boats out of the water for the night, they all stared with amusement as they watched us come cruising up in the giant bus, and turn around in the small sandy area. At last we were pointing the other direction down the narrow dirt lane, and drove back up to the spot we had seen. Fortunately Allison and I were able to use flashlights and help watch all the corners as Steven made a strange 3 point turn and squeezed up into the trees, we had made it to our camping spot for the night! So much better than another parking lot stop. We set about making a small campfire and putting together some hot sandwiches and soup for dinner. Relaxing around a fire with a cold can of beer was a great way to end the night and start our camping adventure. While we sat quietly and enjoyed the evening sounds we heard a loon singing his mournful call out on the lake. It was then that I realized we had arrived. This was the place to be.

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Waking up the next morning to a view of the sun on the little lake was great, it’s nice to have a bedroom with so many windows! After cooking some delicious eggs in the cast iron skillet we set about cleaning up camp, preparing to continue our trek into the UP. After taking photos and climbing the small dune next to our campsite we fired up the bus and began the process of extracting ourselves from the trees. Again it was very nice to have 2 extra sets of eyes to help maneuver through the trees and back out onto the road. From there it was a piece of cake to find our way back out to Mackinaw City and head for the bridge to the UP.

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Ask anyone familiar with Michigan about the UP and they will tell you it’s one of the greatest summer destinations in the country. Ask someone in the UP about it, and they will tell you it is the best place on Earth, period. Residents of the UP, or Yoopers, are very enthusiastic about their stomping grounds. And they have many reasons to be proud! Entering the UP is like entering another country, and it all starts with the Mackinac Bridge. It’s a long suspension bridge that provides a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. When you get to the other side, you’ve made it to the Upper Peninsula. We stopped at a bridge overlook to snap some photos.

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Our next stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park (rhymes with phenomenon). It didn’t take long to get there, maybe an hour and a half. So we had plenty of time to get settled at our campsite and go exploring. We loved all the hilarious looks we got from our fellow campers with their tents or fancy RVs. Our neighbors next to us had a nice rig, complete with two scooters and two folding bicycles, and they made sure not to engage with us. Their loss! But other campers around the park were more interested, and told us they thought the bus was awesome. We beamed with pride.

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The Upper Falls viewing area was four miles away from the campsite, and it was a bit late in the day to start an 8 mile trek, so Steven took turns giving Allison and I rides on the motorcycle like a true ladies man. There was a large shopping area and brew pub at the Upper Falls parking area, all very commercialized and busy. We avoided it and continued down the path see the water fall, and understood why it is sometimes called the root beer falls. There are tannins that leach out of the trees into the river, giving the falls a reddish brown hue that tumbles 50 feet into the foamy water below.

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When we returned to camp, we took a walk around to see the smaller Lower Falls, got slightly lost in the woods, then got back just in time to purchase some firewood from a local vendor that drives around the camp in the evenings. Michigan has had a problem with the Emerald Ash Bore, which if you listen to Science Friday on NPR, you might have heard of it! It’s an invasive bug that destroys trees and is easily transported via firewood. Therefore, you are not allowed to bring your own firewood to camp and must purchase it on site. (That was something we were asked about at each border crossing, too).

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Finally it was time for pizza! After successfully baking a cobbler some days ago in the tiny camp oven, I was fairly positive we could make some tiny pizzas too. They turned out beautifully; talk about luxurious camping. It rained a little bit while we made dinner, but luckily it dissipated and did not ruin our s’more ambitions. However, there was a wild critter that was determined to take advantage of the situation. There we were, full of pizza and wiping the melty chocolate from our chins, when there was a faint rustling sound behind us. No matter, we were parked up against the woods and there were leaves all over the ground, and lots of chipmunks. Pretty soon there were more rustling sounds. This still did not alarm us. After a few moments the rustling came once more, this time louder than before. I stood out of my chair, “OKAY GUYS. What is going on?!”

The sounds got more frantic as I walked the short couple of feet back to the picnic table where our bag of sweets was sitting. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but Steven came running with a flashlight and we followed the scrambling sounds. Peering down the slope into the trees, we saw a pair of eyes twinkling in the beam of the flashlight, and a pair of tiny black hands gripping an ENTIRE BAG of marshmallows! We all came to one conclusion: there’s going to be a very sick raccoon in the woods tomorrow morning. Sure enough, we recovered the empty bag the next day, and laughed again at the creature’s boldness.

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Saturday found us on the road again, driving towards Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We decided to brave an unpaved back road that went along Lake Superior. It turned out to be a good decision, as the road was wide and had an excellent spot to pull over and check out the rocky beach. The water was cold and the rocks were beautiful, we put a few in our pockets to take home with us.

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We bumped along until we came back out to paved roads and into Pictured Rocks. The National Lakeshore runs for 42 miles along Lake Superior and is home to waterfalls, sand dunes, and beautiful cliff formations. We packed some sandwiches into our backpacks and hiked to the Au Sable dunes, first down to the beach, then up into the sand for a picnic lunch. We really enjoyed sitting up there in the extra fine sand, looking out over the water. We watched fog roll in, slow at first then seemed to speed up as it reached the shore, obscuring the water completely and washing through the tree tops over us. The temperature instantly dropped as the cloud enveloped us. It was a really cool feeling.

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After lunch, we kept on moving, stopping to see the log slide overlook down the road. The log slide is on the side of an extremely steep dune where loggers used to slide trees down to the lake. The fog created a ghostly feel as we stood on the edge an saw nothing but white before us, water droplets forming in our hair. We moved on from there to the western edge of the park at Miners Castle. Miners Castle is the name for the cliff formations that have been eroded over the years by the lake, leaving behind strange indents and caves. Of course we couldn’t see a thing with the fog, but we were able to hike the half mile to Miners Falls, which was neat. I hadn’t expected to see so many spectacular water falls on this trip!

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Our stop for the night was at a boondocker’s house, right on the edge of Lake Superior. I think it’s hard to find a place in the UP that doesn’t have amazing scenery. Jean and Wes were happy to let us park in their driveway for the night, and we were grateful. We had a relaxing evening in the bus full of tacos, beer, and Allison’s beautiful banjo playing. The next morning we were delighted to see that the fog had burned off, and we stood at the edge of the yard, taking in the view.

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Seeing that the fog was gone, we planned on going back to Miners Castle before heading home. But there was one other thing we had to do first: get pasties for breakfast. Pasties are a UP tradition, and are popular in England as well. It’s a round pastry stuffed with meat and root vegetables and seasonings. We went to a shop down the road called Muldoon’s, where they made the pasties fresh (and had vegetarian ones!). We each scarfed one down on the way to Miners Castle, and put some extras in the fridge for later. When we got to the lookout, it was clear as ever and we were blown away by the stunning beauty of it all.

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