Down… But Not Quite Out…



Location, location, location – and on November 23rd 2015 I had it! I wanted to get in the car and drive right then, but Thanksgiving loomed large, and it was going to be a major family gathering. And of course, family comes first.

At the end of the month and into December, the snow began to fall in earnest. But as Christmas gave way to the New Year I wondered whether a quick dash might still be possible. Then the Randy Bilyeu tragedy took us all by surprise, and the notion of searching for treasure while others searched for a missing comrade seemed inappropriate to the point of callous.

A little of the gilt and sparkle was rubbed off the Chase by Randy’s disappearance, but the puzzle still remained to be solved. Gradually, we searchers gave ourselves permission to talk about the poem again, and I had to make a decision. If I were to head out, even while the snow was thick on the ground, I stood a chance of being able to make it to my spot over frozen ground, whereas if I waited until April or May I risked getting bogged down in snowmelt mud. So why not just sit it out until the summer? It wasn’t just a burning impatience that led me to make the decision to go (although that was certainly a factor), but the inconvenient truth that my wife and I will be emigrating around the end of May, and so our window of opportunity is tiny. That was why I decided to give it a shot in mid-March. It would turn out to be an expensive and foolhardy decision.

Val and I loaded up our trusty Subaru (veteran of previous searches over crazy terrain) and pointed the hood eastward. It’s a two-day drive from our home, and while the journey was uneventful, fresh snow in the passes and plummeting temperatures gave rise to a little anxiety. Val was tolerating my search obsession – just – but she worried, justifiably, about our physical condition and ability to deal with hazardous conditions.

The afternoon we arrived at our motel was sunny and crisp. So, after stocking up with provisions, I suggested we do a reconnaissance trip to locate the winding forest trail that would lead to our spot. All seemed to be going well. Where there was snow, it wasn’t too deep; and where there was mud, it was frozen near-solid for the most part. By using GPS and a carefully prepared set of waypoints, we found the turnoff that would take us to the chest. It seemed doable. Nearby, we spotted a road grader. Its significance eluded me at the time.

1-The Trail

Appearances can be deceptive

Up bright and early the following morning, we were greeted by a cloudless sky and a temperature only just above zero. I tried to chip off the previous day’s frozen mud that had collected in the Subaru’s wheel arches and was fouling the tires, but it had set like concrete. It took a half-hour of chipping and prying to clear sufficient space to apply the Autosocks that were to help us achieve grip on the final stretch. Chains were to be a last resort. We checked our supply of food and water, blankets, extra outerwear, tools, shovels, flashlights and cameras… and then we hit the trails.

2-Sun on Snow

Perfect conditions?

Having scouted the day before, we knew we could get up to the turnoff, and so we did, with just a brief moment of indecision when we weren’t sure if we’d taken a wrong turn. We hadn’t. But for some reason I wasn’t feeling my usual nervous excitement at getting close to a search location – more a sense of emptiness. Perhaps I knew, deep down, that now was not the right time to be doing this.

Keep your socks on!

Keep your socks on!

Ready to roll

Ready to roll

At the turnoff, we fitted the Autosocks (a great invention – so much easier to use than chains) and headed into the woods. The first couple of hundred yards were fine, but then the tracks from other vehicles got deeper and the central hump of snow correspondingly higher, until we began to bounce from side to side of the ruts. A drop-off appeared on the driver’s side to aid concentration!

 Heading up

Heading up

A little deeper

A little deeper

Listing to port

Listing to port

And then we were stuck. Worse, we were lodged at a steep cant.

Getting an angle on it

Getting an angle on it

It was a nail-biting moment, but after ten minutes of shoveling we were clear again. It was then that Val made a really sensible suggestion: “Why don’t we turn around now?” She spotted a small patch up ahead that was free of snow. It probably wasn’t quite wide enough to execute a turn, but I also wasn’t quite ready to quit, and to my shame and ultimate folly I ignored her, muttering some lame excuse or other, and plowed ahead – literally.

I could sense that the car was struggling now, and up ahead I noticed a split in the trail where there was sufficient room to maneuver. I could even park up and try to hike the remaining three miles on snow shoes, although I was leery of attempting that in such extreme conditions and with a slipped disc that sent shooting pains of indescribable ferocity down my right leg. And anyway, right now we had momentum and an uneasy sense that things might be okay if we could just keep moving forward.

We lurched around a hairpin, shuddered another fifty yards or so, and ground to a halt. Forward gear, reverse, forward again – none of it made the slightest difference, except I felt the back of the car sink another few inches.

Down she goes!

Down she goes!

After a few more rounds of this, we ended up with two wheels on opposing corners not even touching the surface. The car was resting on a platform of around twelve to eighteen inches of solidly packed snow, while the wheels spun uselessly in the ruts.

That sinking feeling

That sinking feeling

Outside the air was pure, the trees bore their burden of snow in perfect serenity, and everything felt pristine and as it should be – except for us. Here we were with our mud-splattered Subaru, tools, shovels and chains scattered around – noisy intruders with no place being here. A fox came to check us out. He stood, unafraid, with his orange-brown coat vibrant against the stark white backdrop.

Where the air is clear

Where the air is clear

We're the interlopers

We’re the interlopers

He'd seen enough...

He’d seen enough…

Ten o’clock turned to eleven, and eleven to twelve. Val, to her undying credit never uttered those four little words: I told you so. Uncomplaining, she worked alongside me, shoveling snow and inserting improvised chocks. We jacked up the car, added chains, rocked the vehicle back and forth, and tried brute force, sending up a fountain of snow and grit. But by now the wheels were spinning inside the Autosocks, and my heart was pounding like a jackhammer, unused to the exertion at considerable altitude.

Learning lessons!

Learning lessons!

By nearly one in the afternoon I knew it had us beat. Even if we could have got the Subaru rolling back down the hill, we would not have been able to negotiate the hairpin in reverse without skidding into a wall of snow.

No going back

No going back

We needed outside help, something every guy hates to ask for. I reached for my phone. Every now and then, it would offer a couple of bars for a few tantalizing seconds before snatching them back, only to tease us again, but this time with a different carrier. Eventually, I managed to get through to our hotel, and had the surprised receptionist give us the number of a local tow company. It was Saturday afternoon. I crossed my fingers that someone would be on call, and that the signal would hold – not to mention the battery, which was showing a cute little heart over the relevant icon.

Of course, it crossed both of our minds that our own hearts might give out on this adventure. Val, who displayed such calm dignity throughout the ordeal, said later that she had been resigned to whatever happened, and I remember thinking fleetingly that I didn’t really want to die of hypothermia – it seems so acquiescent. But if that scenario had come into play, there would only have been one person to blame… As it was, we didn’t need to worry. A couple of calls later and we had arranged to walk the mile or so back to the trail junction to meet the tow truck driver, partly because I had serious doubts that he’d be able to get up the trail with a heavy rig. As I could only walk slowly and in spurts it took a while to cover the distance. My limping became more pronounced and painful, and I told Val to go on without me if the truck couldn’t get to us, since I would need to stop and rest my back every couple of hundred yards. Fresh prints in the snow told us that the bears were beginning to stir. My bear spray was at the ready.

We made it to the rendezvous point. I don’t think either of us has ever been so glad to see a guy with a truck! Differentials locked, and the two of us alongside the driver, the truck made it all of twenty yards up the trail. There was no way it’d be able to get to the Subaru. We abandoned our steed for the night, riding back to town in the truck – an hour’s journey over dirt roads that were turning to slippery mud in the afternoon sun. On the way, we chatted with the driver – a great guy and a vet who had served all over the world – and he told us that under normal circumstances we couldn’t have made it anywhere near our forest trail at this time of year. But because the snowpack was lower than normal and they’d continued to plow and grade the road, the easy conditions on the lower slopes had lulled us into a false sense of security.

Back in town, we handed over our car key to the service station owner, who arranged to send up a team with ATVs in the morning, and promised they would be able to bring our vehicle down.

Sunday morning dawned clear and noticeably warmer. We waited… and we waited. Around noon we received the call – yay! Our car was at the service station, and we were now infamous for having gotten our vehicle stuck in one of the highest places the mechanics had ever had to work! Any further and they wouldn’t have been able to get there, even with ATVs.

Apparently, to rescue the Subaru, they had to jack the car up high, attach cables slung around trees, and spin the car on its axis. Then, with an ATV fore and aft, they drove in fits and starts back down the trail, pausing every now and then to dig it out again or give it a helping tug with an ATV. It was a major job, and we were substantially poorer as a result. But, as we told them in a roundabout way, they were our guardian angels that day, and without them (and a signal on our cell) things could have ended very differently. We thanked them profusely.

The lessons are obvious, but on the plus side, we met some great people, saw some fabulous scenery, and enjoyed a real Western adventure. My wife has told me that we aren’t doing this again – and if our flight schedule out of the country has anything to do with it, we won’t be. But flights can always be rescheduled… no?



109 thoughts on “Down… But Not Quite Out…

    • Cholly, you are absolutely right! I have the most amazing wife, and it’s at times like these that I realize I don’t do enough to show that appreciation.

  1. Great Story Voxpox! So glad you made it out safe and are wiser as in “always listen to your wife!” 🙂 When I first started reading I thought this was one of Dal’s adventures then I saw the car and thought maybe he got rid of Esmerelda 🙂 lol Please be carefull everyone and think twice before you head out into the snowy mountains!

  2. Hello VOXPOXS. I thoroughly enjoyed your story. It had me on the edge of my pants. I’m so glad the ending went the way it did, rather than what could have been. Quite the memories you and Val have made for yourselves. Hope your flight out of the country goes smoothly for you. 😉

  3. Wow Vox. I’m amazed. Have we learned anything from Randy’s loss. I have to say that I agree with your wife. And “IF BY CHANCE” she let’s you come back be sure she is with you and then you “LISTEN TO HER. ” I’m very glad your both, OK.
    Maybe it was Randy telling you to stop there or you’ll be out of reach???

  4. voxpops – yours was one of the 2016 search stories I was most eager to hear. Your posts were some of the most provocative out there. Sorry you didn’t get to see it through, but glad you and Val are home safe and sound.

  5. voxpops –

    Really – are you kidding me…………I always thought in all your postings – you had a lot of common sense. Hummmmmm…..

    I don’t need to tell you how this could have ended.

    I truly enjoyed reading your story and do want you to know – that I think the real spot cannot be entered during this time of year. Oh, just my little tid bit of the day.

    Glad your safe and have a treasure of a wife – who you’d better start listening to – and saying Yes Dear – your right.

    • inthechaseto, all I can add is that I think the idea of this being my final opportunity got the better of me. I should have know better. One thing I did do was to send FF my coordinates and tell him that if he didn’t hear from me by a certain time, something might be amiss.

  6. Oh no! You had such high hopes. Im sorry it ended this way. You sound like a positive upbeat person and your wife must be amazingly supportive for not rubbing it in hy saying I told you so.

  7. Its takes a very strong woman to put up with this. I would have strangled you back there,where Val suggested you turn. 🙂
    Making memories whether successful or not,is what it’s all about.
    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Those photos look like an area I searched. I was in a rental and almost got stuck, but stopped before getting stuck as I was alone and did not wish to really ruin a rental. Glad you made it out safely.

    • Sometimes a “co-pilot” and there suggestions help us see how little we need a second opinion. Since jmbguidry had no “co-pilot” they were able to reach into the deep reaches of the brain and say. “Heck I’m not going to dig this out by myself.” I know I will turn around from a situation faster when I am by my self than when “someone” is telling me to turn around. signed, Pure Male

    • I think that once you’re in a predicament like that, melanie, if you approach it in much the same way as solving the clues – i.e., methodically and weighing up the different options, you don’t have much mental energy left for freaking out. I will admit to a sinking feeling, though…!

  9. Glad you both made it out safe and sound. Your wife is a priceless gem… and like mine, only strives to see her man happy. I thank my lucky stars on a regular basis…

  10. Good grief Voxpops! Glad you both made it out safely. Chasing f’s treasure sure can make people do some wild and crazy things… Thanks for sharing your adventure. Loved seeing the fox too. 🙂

  11. Your Auosocks forms an 8 pointed Chaos Star. Oops!

    Astrological Origin
    The roots of the eight-pointed stat symbolize the four corners of space. The eight lines are symbolic of north, south, east, and west; and time as well with the two solstices and two equinoxes.

    I’m glad you had fun and met some good people along the way.

    • You’re absolutely right, Frank, but at least we had provisions, sleeping bags, blankets and extra clothes,as well as spare fuel. The worst aspect was not being able to walk far due to the back problem. But, in the end, between us we could have gotten ourselves out of there.

  12. Voxpops, What a great story… the pictures were awesome! Do you mind saying what state you were in and a general area? Glad to hear that you actually were prepared for spending the night, and that you let ff know your co-ordinates, just in case. I used to drive a Subaru Outback which I loved. But now I drive a Toyota FJ Cruiser (higher clearance) for treasure hunting on the forest service roads. If it ain’t the snow you have to worry about, in New Mexico, it’s the mud and loose sand. I’ve never been stuck (knock on wood) but I have pulled out other people. I hope you get to check your spot again…I understand your desire and need to know. Be safe.

    • Thanks, cynthia! I’ll let you guess from the terrain and weather where I was, but I hear you when it comes to clearance… The biggest failing of the Subarus for off-road use is ground and wheel clearance. Otherwise, they’re like mountain goats!

      • Vox That’s why they make snowmobiles. So glad you made it out safely. You can rent them you know. Your wife must really love you, so whens the divorce. 😉 Seriously though, glad everything turned out ok.

  13. “A little of the gilt and sparkle was rubbed off the Chase by Randy’s disappearance, but the puzzle still remained to be solved.”

    Vox, I agree with both of these statements wholeheartedly and I’m glad you made it out safe. I know you thought you had it, but all the games aside it’s just a box filled with pretty things that you can find in a museum. It’s not worth anyone’s physical or emotional well-being. I’m not going to criticize you too much, but please, no one else try anything like this.

    I recall you mentioning that you thought you had lat/long coordinates. I don’t think anyone else thinks they have that. So trust me, if it is there it’ll be there until you pick it up on some warm snow free day.

  14. Glad to see you made it out safely. I’m glad the wife factor finally kicked in. With a herniated disk, I can’t imagine you trying to hike what appears to be uphill in snowshoes. My wife and I are outdoor nuts with hundreds of hours on snowshoes.
    We dropped four of the kids’ off at grandma’s house and took our 13 month old to check out our search area on Valentine’s. There was about 6′ of snow all around. We hiked for 4 hours in and 5 hours out (about 2/3rds the way to our search area which is several miles from the start). We are used to this kind of stuff, the trail is not hard by any means, but we were exhausted the first 3 hours into the hike out. We made it out, our legs sore (for days). My wife’s toes are still bruised to this day from the snowshoes. I love snowshoeing but I’m not going out again until June. I think everyone should wait until summer. Along with myself no one wants to be another victim and second, it doesn’t seem all that fun and glorious to imagine or find the treasure with blankets of snow around. If I were to ever find the treasure I want to be able to see wildlife and smell the beautiful forrest smells. That is my ideal vision of finding the treasure, not in the snow.

    • I, too, love these places in the summer, med_evac. I’m working toward one final attempt, if I can possibly manage it.

  15. “Your effort will be worth the cold”
    🙂 lol. Ha ha ha. I would NEVER search in the snow, because I know I would never get out of the car. I can surely say y’all are “Brave. You wrote a awesome story. Try again this summer when it’s “Warm”
    😉 😉 😉

  16. I’ll say it looks like you are either on the western slope of Colorado north of I-70 or in WY. Thankfully for me, it looks nothing like my search area, so I don’t think we will cross paths… unless I am wrong and you are right and I figure that out before your big move. Happy hunting and good luck Vox.

  17. Hi, I had to lol at this one. I had a very similar experience this month. Only I was alone and there were NO cell service bars. On my way up this road to nowhere, I prayed to God, Jesus, St. Michael, St. Francis and just about every dead friend and relative I have to afford me protection from, well everything. I got high centered in the parking area at the trail head I wished to embark upon. I realized it would be fool hearty to even try the hike since the snow was 3 to 4 feet deep at that location and I still had 2,000 feet to hike up from there. So, to make a long story short, I brought a snow shovel with me and I used it. I knew that no one would be coming to rescue me, the road had been plowed by some loggers and they had actually left a pile of snow blocking the road just after the turn off I was parked in. How long had it been since anyone had been down this road anyway? All winter? Well, I shoveled and I shoveled and just as I was about to collapse, I looked up to see something red way down the road. RED? What could possibly be red out here in this winter wonderland? Then I hear the sound of a big engine. Here comes these 3 guys in a big red pickup. Not only did they get me out, these 3 guys owned the only tow truck service within 50 miles of this place and this was their tow truck fully equipped with a winch on the front. As they say, “God watches out for children and fools”, I’m 56. If I had cell service, these were the good men that I would have called for help, only it would have taken them over an hour to get to me. What do you think the odds of that happening are, a billion to 1 maybe?


  18. Voxpops, thanks for sharing your adventure and glad to hear u r safe…Next time plan your trip in Sep its safer and most beautiful time of year

  19. Wow! Beautiful country! What a story! So happy you are safe! Now I’m worried about my trip to the mountains tomorrow, hopefully it’s not quite as deep.

  20. Vox enjoyed your story, very well written and loved the pictures. Glad you and the wife made it out.

    I agree with you, “God watches out for children and fools”. Well, at least some of them anyway. Mother Nature could care less; best not to get in her way. If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough.

    Not sure I would have tried a slope like that, and one of my trucks is equipped with mattracks.

    • Tracks would be great, Goofy – a snowmobile would be even better (I could have bought one with what the trip ended up costing!).

  21. voxpops

    From your description, you could have entered the “acrobatic car axis-spin while suspended from the trees” into the Chase “best videos” contest.

    Thanks for sharing–the thrill was obviously in that chase. :o)

    • You’re right about the thrill, Sourdough. One day I’ll write up all the thrills I’ve had in this amazing chase – and there have been a few. It’s an opportunity for us city-dwellers to live on the edge a little (but not too much…!).

  22. Always remember and never forget Forrest says: Wait until Spring and be wise and safe. Glad you and your wife got out and live to chase another day. God Bless be safe and continue in your search. That sounds like something I would do. Good luck!!!!

  23. Live and learn great story tho 🙂 I learned the hard way too I’ll never go in snow again Hope no one else does either to dangerous

  24. VOXPOP…interesting story and of course, memories for you and your wife.

    Too bad you weren’t able to search when you first had it (11/23/15). It was still Fall and you may have gotten up that steep cant…or not!

    Spring is here, but like Not Obsessed mentions above…some places are still getting fresh snow. I’m fortunate to have seen an unusual…almost magical Winter with almost no snow. Somehow we dodged the bullet as the snow line was either 50 miles north or south of us.

    Glad you got home safely. No regrets…and yes, family comes first.

  25. Great story Voxpops, You and Val sound like a Good team. Yes plane schedules can be changed and i am hoping you two get to go on another search in warmer weather. Loved the pictures, Will call you Foxpop and Val in the beauty of Nature and the call of the wild.
    Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories

    • Thank you, sally2. I can’t begin to say how much I have to thank my wife for. All too often I take her for granted, but she has given me everything worth having in our time together. It’s at times like these when it hits home just how much she is the bedrock of our relationship.

      • You are very Welcome Foxpops, I am sure you are her bedrock too. I love it that she was right there with you shoveling, not complaning and never saying the i told u so, that is what makes a good relationship, team work and friendship, then comes the love. The Fox was the icing on the cake. As much time as i have spent outside in my life time, i have never seen a fox that close.

        • You know, at one point the fox was only about 30 feet away. He (or maybe it’s female?) just stood there looking at us, showing no fear. I wish we’d been able to capture that moment – it was a beautiful animal.

          I’ve seen foxes in British backyards – they tend to hang around urban areas more and more – but nothing so majestic as this creature.

          • They are very sly. We had them play with us in Alaska on numerous occasions. Thats a beautiful picture.

          • I have been lucky enough to see wild mountain goats while hiking in yucca valley, Cal, and also a huge desert tourtoise or turtle, but the Red Fox is not only Majestic, to me it is almost Mythical. I hope you get to go back there and he is sitting waiting on you.

  26. Good old Colorado gave us a blizzard .here in Denver metro area,etc.had to dig out to middle of street in neighborhood, some pictures, but don’t know how to put on here.lots of people have no power.pray they get power soon where all got hit with this stuff. Colorado ,one day beautiful warm weather, then a blizzard . that’s colorado.please take mr
    Forrest advice.wait until around in this state during winter ,you never know about the weather.

  27. I enjoyed your adventure and I’m so glad you and your lovely wife made it out safe and sound. I do hope you get another search in before you move.

  28. Voxpops,
    Great job sharing your story. I was on the edge of my seat. Sorry you weren’t able to finish your search, but glad you both got out safely. When time & distance are an issue, it’s hard to be patient. We can all relate a little. Stay safe & best of luck on your move!

  29. Yes a really good story. It’s dangerous and cold in the Rockies this time of year. Your lucky you had someone to help you shovel.

    • I checked into renting a Jeep Wrangler, but decided it would be pretty costly. As it turned out it was a false economy – it would have been way less expensive than burying the Subaru!

  30. Hi Vox and Val,
    Just read your story and was stunned! I am so glad you are ok. Thank you for being brave enough to share your adventure. I personally had to step back from the chase a bit with recent events affecting me more than I thought they would. I really hope that everyone who is searching for the treasure will take a moment to consider the riches they already possess. The idea, IMO, is to enrich our lives with the experience not to endanger ourselves or our loved ones. I have, on numerous occasions, endangered myself and others and for what? Money fame and notoriety will never be a substitute for the ones I love. I think Randy’s loved ones would agree that a chance of finding treasure is not worth the pain his disappearance caused. I will be taking a very different approach to the chase this spring and am starting to get excited about searching again. Thanks again for sharing and good luck on your future endeavors here and abroad.

    • Thanks for your kind and pertinent comments, Blazeone. No, it isn’t worth endangering lives. I should point out that, despite my stupidity in allowing us to get stuck, we had the means of surviving for a night or two, and could have walked out of there (albeit a lengthy trudge to the nearest ranch) if all else failed. That’s why we called it a day at 1:00pm while we still had 6 hours’ light left.

      On the other hand, where would be the fun in just helicoptering in to a spot to retrieve the treasure without a small element of risk and a large helping of wilderness?

      I think it comes down to being prepared for whatever conditions you might find, and knowing what your exit options are.

  31. I think the Fox was Forrest disguised?? I love Foxes…. what other animal is beautiful, smart, sleek, agile and sly…

    I was stuck in the Snow here in California…not far off a main road. A waved down a FED EX driver that was cruising by.. he hooked some traps up to my truck and pulled me out… A cool guy! I wrote a letter to FED EX thanking him and the Company for saving me..

    • Well I am impressed that you could get Fed-ex to rescue you! It took them 7 days to deliver my overnight package last week. Maybe it was because they were pulling people like you out of the snow. 🙂

  32. Vox, I know you stated over the winter that you would give it one last go and if things didn’t work out you would publish your solve. Are you going to publish your solve now?

    • No, because I haven’t checked the spot yet. I’m trying to sort out the logistics of getting there just before I have to leave the country, or failing that, getting someone else to go for me.

  33. Just wondering if F emailed you back after receiving your coordinates…”to NOT go in the winter!” ?
    Glad you made it out ok. I don’t think ANYONE wants to go thru another emotional SAR mission!
    Everyone…be safe!

    • No email from FF, Donna. But we were prepared to camp out if we had to, or walk to a house for assistance. The biggest risk, to be honest, was a heart attack from shoveling!

      As I pointed out above, we had tools (including a saw), clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, food, extra gas, flashlights, matches, whistle, compass, GPS, walking sticks, snow shoes, backpacks, and so on.

      The worst aspect of getting stuck was the humiliation of knowing that I made a stupid error of judgment, and having to admit it to everyone who helped us out! Yes, there was a small element of risk, but we knew how to handle it.

  34. You and I were on the same destination…. I was stopped by the three angels in quads. If you were in the wood, not the meeks and past the browns heading up the mountain to the place to look down then we have to go back when the weather is not only nice but the ground is hard and dry.
    My angels were covered in mud from head to toe, they had spent all morning digging their vehicles out of the deep deep squishy reddish mud. The lady with the group assured me that my little Ford would be swallowed whole. Bless them for the suggestion to try again another day.

    Kindred spirits all are we. Thanks to Val for not saying those words and remembering the journey is the prize, the treasure just pays the tolls. Karen from Detroit but teaching in Gallup , NM

  35. Glad you’re safe, Karen! When you find yourself in trouble, you so often meet the most wonderful people – it restores your faith in humanity.

    Good luck for your return trip – après le déluge!

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