Socialite to Pioneer in 3500 Miles

by | Adventure, Inspiration, Living Well

My grandmother was born 1/11/11 – 1911, that is – one hundred years ago today. She didn’t live to meet that milestone, she passed away just a few months ago. But in those just shy of 100 years, she led a remarkable life.

I wanted to write a biographical blog post to tell her story today, but it’s too much.  She went from being very active in Detroit’s social scene, to being a pioneer in a (then) remote area of Alaska, active in Territorial, and later, State politics as the wife of a politician, and even running for State Legislature herself  – all this was done while running an active farm, raising her seven children, and managing the office of my Grandfather’s dental practice, as well as the family’s Medical/Dental Supply business.  That deserves more than one blog post.

Instead, I’ll use her 100th birthday to kick off the first of a series of posts about my Grandmother.  In this first one, I’ll let her tell her own story of her first trip to Alaska.  A few years ago, she let me copy some of her personal papers with the idea that I would post them online, making them available to the rest of the family.  It’s taken me until now to do anything about that.

So here she is, Doris McKinley in her own words. I just added a title and a couple photos. It’s a long post, so grab a cup of coffee, kick your feet up, and settle in for a story of the rugged North.

The Alaska Highway is an overland route connecting the United States with Alaska through Canada. During the summer and early Winter of 1942, United States Army Engineers blazed the original road through 1,523 miles of unbroken wilderness. They put over a project of road building in eight months never duplicated in history, and considered by experts impossible in less than two years.

Their record is as glorious as that of any combat unit fighting on the front, for here, too, men suffered and died in a battle of the wilderness so that America might be made safe. These men endured mud, rain, fought hordes of voracious mosquitoes, and lived at times on subsistence rations with the constant threat that their precarious supply lines might be broken and they would be isolated in the wilderness.

On their heels or sometimes in step with them, came the United States Public Roads Administration with its civilian contractors and road workers, using the Army road as a base and making it into a highway as fast as they could. During the next summer the road was made into a permanent wilderness gravel highway, wide enough for two or three vehicles to pass with ease.

The present route was selected from the point of view of military strategy, intended mainly to serve as a link between various airports strung northward across Western Canada to Alaska. A tourist route would have been laid closer to the Canadian Rockies.

It stands as a symbol of friendship between nations unparalleled in history. The name Alcan, an unofficial designation, was subsequently changed to Alaska Highway by agreement of the two governments. It starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, a village at the end of the Railroad line 300 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, and terminates at Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of 1,523 miles.

lee and doris in 1948

Doris and Doc (Lee) McKinley

My husband, Lee, made this trip to Anchorage in October with our 12 year old son, Blake, and Frederick York, a young laboratory technician. They drove a Hudson pickup truck and expected to be able to have certain heavy supplies shipped by boat from Seattle. However, shortly after they arrived there, it became apparent that the West Coast Shipping Strike would not end soon. So, three weeks later, Lee took a plane to Seattle and then East to Detroit. He was most enthusiastic in his first impressions of Alaska and insisted that I drive back with him.

I hurriedly collected clothing for Arctic wear. At Peter’s Sportswear Clothes Shop I found a down-filled jacket, parka and leggings, and fleece lined gloves and stadium boots. The leggings were most comfortable which I wore in place of slacks. They are cool enough in the heated cab of the truck and warm at 40 degrees below zero.

This time we drove a Dodge one-ton express truck. Our neighborhood garage men had put forth great effort to hurriedly build a strong frame of 1″ pipe over the truck  bed. This was covered with large tarpaulin and tied securely. On the running board we carried four, five gallon army gasoline cans, and acetylene torch and new axe.

We left home at 9:30 A.M. Monday, November 18, 1946. Our route was Highway 12 to Chicago. Then Minneapolis and the fourth day we arrived in Fargo, North Dakota. We enjoyed three perfect Autumn days, cool and bright, then ran into sleet and snow.  In Fargo, we placed the truck in a garage where booster springs, airplane tires and fire extinguisher were installed the following day. We now felt we were properly equipped.

Leaving Fargo Saturday morning on our way to Montana, we drove through the wheat prairies with their great elevators in every village. At the Immigration Center in Coutts, Alberta, we spent two hours making arrangements to travel through Canada. Stopped overnight in Calgary, and arrived in Edmonton Tuesday afternoon, November 26th.

Our instructions at the border had been to see Mr. Eveleigh of the Control Board at Edmonton. He looked over our credentials and checked our list of extra supplies – tire irons, jack, air pump, extra tires and tubes, patching supplies, flashlight and extra batteries, extra electric wire and friction tape, fan belts and spark plugs, extra gasoline and oil containers, general repair tools tow chain and numerous other articles.

I was eager to see the shops in Edmonton so took a few minutes while Lee was having the truck serviced. I was certainly surprised to find that stocks of warm winter clothing were as meager at Hudson’s Bay Company as they were here. The stores generally are fine, modern buildings with good merchandise.

It was 4:30 when we slid past the outskirts of Edmonton and into the prairie Northland. We were on concrete until we passed the airports several miles out, where the road became black-top. Then this, too, ended and we settled down to a straight-away grind over typical Canadian prairie road. This was not the endless wheat-field prairie we had traversed south of Edmonton. We were now headed into the flat, bush country of the North. For the most part it consisted of miles of spruce, aspen, birch or willow – low woods country, broken occasionally by farm clearings niched into the wilderness. The deep silence of the north spread about us.

One of our tires began to soften but we made it to a hotel in the small village of Colinton. The lobby was a typical small town loafing place but the upstairs rooms were clean and warm, however there was no running water.  All lavatory facilities are scarce and most hotel stairways bear a sight, “Lavatory for use of Room Guests Only.” They open the door as a special favor and not as a general accommodation.

We left Colinton before daylight the next morning at 7:00 A.M. and drove eight miles to the charming town of Athabaska with a population of several thousand. We ate at a Chinese restaurant an excellent breakfast – 1/2 grapefruit, 3 boiled eggs, bacon, well-buttered toast, coffee and jam. Such meals became a habit and I’m sure I gained several pounds.

Shortly afterward we saw a beautiful eight-point elk, grazing by the road in a clearing. He quickly bounded back into the woods.

In the afternoon, we were much interested in the conveyances these people had rigged up for transporting the school children. One was a well scaled, small cabin, with windows and door, set on bob-sleds and drawn by a horse. Smoke was issuing from the chimney. The children seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the ride and we took pictures of them.

We lunched the next day in a crowded hotel dining room in the village of High Prairie. As we left, we did not take the main road to Dawson Creek through the town of Grand Prairie. Instead, we were advised at the Control Board to take the shorter route cross country.  It was a lonely road where we seldom passed a farm or vehicle. For the most part, we drove straight as a die through long stretches of unbroken forest. The roads were not too bad at this season, because they were frozen and covered with a few inches of snow, but as they are mostly dirt, they may become impassable during prolonged rains.

We welcome a break in the flat landscape when, late in the afternoon we descended into the valley of Smokey River. Beside the road a man was working underneath a car. We stopped, as one truck never passes another without inquiring into the nature of the trouble and offering aid. It is the rule of the road. Lee suggested that probably there was water frozen in the gas line. The couple had been there three hours and his young wife was very cold. We moved boxes, boots, fruit and cookies and made room for her to ride into the next town with us and we promised to order a wrecker. The three of us drove on and enjoyed and excellent dinner in the hotel.

Through the swinging kitchen door we could catch glimpses of the big family in the kitchen. There appeared to be several generations from great-grandfather to a young baby, about a dozen in all. Inasmuch as we were eating a little early and were alone in the dining-room we were the object of much giggling and snickering. The girls were constantly eyeing us through the peek window. Meanwhile our young guest told us that her family were tractor farmers living near Grand Prairie. Her husband and four brothers work over 2,000 acres in wheat. They have no stock. During peak seasons she drives a tractor, but does not enjoy it. They were on a few days holiday to see Dawson Creek. As we were leaving the dining room the husband walked in. He had followed Lee’s suggestion, found and repaired the frozen fuel line and to our consternation had missed the wrecker!!

As we descended the steep train to the ice covered Smokey River, we met an old Army truck. Two very young boys had driven down from Fairbanks on their way home to Seattle. They said the road was “rugged” especially from Dawson Creek, and we warned them of a very steep grade they would descend which was not at all marked. As we left they shouted, “Seattle, or Bust.”

The public ferry at Smokey River was tied up for the season and Mr. Eveleigh at Edmonton assured us that the ice was safe for a ten-ton truck. Nevertheless with some misgiving we prepared to drive across. I decided to walk. We were sure that if the truck made a successful crossing it would be safe enough for me. On reaching the other shore we looked back and saw, not too far away, water lapping against the ice. We were most thankful to have this part of our journey behind us. This is the only winter crossing.

In Canada many farmers use bob-sleds for transportation. The drainage ditches are their private drives in winter. At one crossroad three sleds met and we were amused at the traffic congestion, and the sign, “Caution, Horse-drawn Traffic.”

Along the shore of Lesser Slave Lake extends an area of perhaps ten miles that boasts one of the largest concentrations of mink farms in the world. Over a million dollars worth of pelts are marketed each year from this region. On farmer showed us his farm. Conditions for raising mink are ideal, he said. Fish, their principal food, are easily seined from the lake. They are chopped up and fed with meal to these little animals. Their small pens of chicken wire stand off the ground and Campbell’s soup cans nailed to the back walls serve as a watering fountain. Only breeders are fed  over the winter as Spring born mink are pelted in the late fall and sold on the open market.

After two days of solitude and silence, it was a thrill to see the lights of Dawson Creek. While the road was under construction, Dawson Creek mushroomed into a bustling town, but now the place has taken on the semblance of a modern community of several thousand population and a military post of some size. It is not marked by the vice and vulgarity often found in boom towns. Civil and military authorities kept things in hand from the beginning. In this way Dawson Creek grew rapidly but decently in order to function as a feeder for America’s northern life line.

We left the next morning after receiving our pass. We were off at last on the great Alaska Highway!

The road was straight and at least 50 feet wide. We drove at our speed limit of 35 miles an hour, enjoying the motion over its smooth surface after having pounded 50 miles over rough dirt road. Our maps showed us that we had passed the 55th parallel, which is farther north than the Aleutian Islands. We were now opposite Siberia and about 1,700 miles from Anchorage, which was our ultimate destination.

A small monument placed in the center of the main intersection at Dawson Creek is marked “0” Zero mile. Each mile thereafter all the way to Fairbanks is posted with the number of miles distant from this marker. A place is referred to on the Highway as at 531, meaning five-hundred-thirty-one miles from Dawson Creek.

At thirty we came to the Great Peace River, half a mile wide. Spanning it was a suspension bridge which was a truly magnificent structure. As we looked at the long, gray steel and concrete achievement, we thought it a fine monument to Canadian and American cooperation and goodwill. Until this bridge was completed the Peace River had been the greatest single obstacle to the northern migration.

Our first stop was a Blueberry Royal Canadian Mounted Police Post. We registered and a check was made of the essential supplies ordered in Edmonton. Had any been missing it would have been necessary to turn back 100 miles to Dawson Creek. The lunch room was a log gasoline station and living quarters. Three police officers were eating pork chops at the counter.

There we met a family of four waiting to eat. They had come down from Fairbanks and were returning to Seattle in their truck on which a cabin had been built. This is the only practical way to move a family over this highway.

At 191 we stopped for gasoline and were informed that dinner was ready. We entered a very nice lunch room. The high backed benches were covered with red leather and the tables with plastic. It was run by two white haired ladies, one very sweet motherly person and the other a bit more sophisticated. The latter was wearing a sequin cap and a black dress suit. She nervously darted from the window as she tried to serve us, fearful that he had been forgotten. The driver of an oil tanker, who was to take her to an airport where she could get a plane to Skagway and Seattle, had not come when we left.

Our waitress told us that sometimes they get water from a spring 22 miles away. In this country they never serve a glass of water, but after taking the order immediately bring coffee and fill the cup as often as it empties. They served a good dinner of sausages, boiled potatoes, frozen peas, prunes and cake and delicious bread from the Dawson Creek bakery.

Much of our driving was done in the dark. Near Edmonton darkness closed in about five o’clock and as we traveled North it came progressively earlier. It was dark when we started again. About four miles out of Ft. Nelson, a large Army Camp, we discovered a low tire. Drove on in and found a man who was willing to fix it, however he was constantly heckled by a young soldier and the result was, we found later, the patch went onto the tube but not over the hole!

It was Thanksgiving Day, so having time on our hands, we ate again, good lamb chops and bad coffee. We were advised they had no room for us to sleep. The next stop, Summit Lake, was 92 miles away. Although we were very tired, there was nothing to do except drive on!

Doors are never locked in this country so upon arrival at Summit Lake, Lee walked into the gasoline station. He found six cots in the bunkroom occupied but said, “We are going to sleep anyway.” Bedrolls were unpacked and laid on the greasy floor between a rack of Mobil oil cans and the lunch counter. We took off our coats and shoes as quietly as possible, slipped into our sleeping bags and rested quite well. Next morning the proprietor did not seem surprised at seeing us, but had not heard us come in.  Later his wife and daughter served a good breakfast. Before we left I asked if I might have water to wash my hands. She hesitated then said, “Well, yes” and produced and aluminum wash basin with warm water. I thoroughly appreciated the luxury. Lee was not so lucky. Summit Lake is at an elevation of 4,250 ft. It is surprising to know that the route never reaches a higher altitude although it crosses the continental divide.

After leaving Muncho Lake going North, the scenery was magnificent. The Highway ran for miles along the lake whose rocky shores had been blasted in order to provide a road bed. The lake is so deep, more than 100 feet right at the shore – that filling was impossible.  At the time we were not aware of its great depth. I doubt if we could have been more careful, but we could have been more worried.

As we neared the Yukon border, we came to a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post. It was a typical small general store. We ate a good supper at the post where we were served by a young, neatly dressed Indian girl. Noticing several new school books, I inquired about them and learned she was doing her schoolwork by correspondence. At the counter sat a trapper and our cook was jokingly begging a ride on his dogsled. Meanwhile, an attractive, well-groomed young woman came in with two boys, perhaps seven and nine. They wore well cut clothes of good quality, hair was nicely cut and combed. It was difficult to fit them into the community, but later we decided she must be the manager of a new fifty room hotel which is near completion.

The evening drive to Rancheria was rather uneventful, just more snowy landscape and ice covered road. We never ceased to be grateful for the splendid clinging power of our airplane tires. Of course we drove very slowly and hundreds of miles in second gear. This stopover was operated by Doris and Bud Simpson. We were greeted by the cheerful Mrs. Simpson. Yes, she had room for us! She remembered my husband and the boys on the previous trip. They had been among her very first guests. While we enjoyed warm sweet rolls and coffee, she told us of her four small children, seven, five, four, and two years. The oldest boy was taking second grade by correspondence. I marveled at her ability to care for her family and serve meals at any time.

The kitchen at the end of the dining room was of comfortable size housing a large cook stove behind which stood a hundred gallon water tank – a luxury in these parts. Here we found a private shower, the first and only one between Dawson Creek and Anchorage.

Mr. Simpson came in from the power house work shop carrying a desk he had just finished.

We wanted an early start the next morning so that we could stop at Whitehorse. People along the highway generally do not stir before eight, but the Simpsons graciously had breakfast for us at 6:00 A.M.

I asked her how it was to live so far from neighbors, and how she managed her work. She enthusiastically replied, “I like it, and do enjoy talking with the travelers. Each morning I bake a batch of pies, usually put on a large roast and cook a kettle of potatoes with the jackets on. Then when someone comes in I can prepare a dinner in ten minutes.” Mr. Simpson is a wonderful support, when she is extra busy he comes in and helps with any part of the work. A week before she had cut her hand and he did all the baking, bread and pies, too.

These people were a real inspiration. The tremendous difficulties they had to overcome in running such a business two hundred miles from a source of supplies were amazing. Yet, they kept their fine sense of balance through it all.

We started in the dark the next morning much refreshed by the good rest, excellent food and hospitable atmosphere at Rancheria.

Much of this road, even in mountain areas, was built over the dangerous muskeg swamps. Muskeg is flat, undrained land, more or less swampy and covered with a deep growth of moss of the spagnum variety. Year after year this moss grows, rots, sinks and decays and other moss grows on top of it. The swamp often supports a growth of stunted spruce. It is interesting to consider the terrific difficulties of building a road over such terrain. Often the original road had to be abandoned because it became a bottomless morass after army engineers with bulldozers had scraped off the tundra moss, which would have prevented the subsoil from thawing the the Spring. As long as the insulating moss was intact, tractors with wide tracks could travel across the muskeg, being careful to take a different route each time. Their passage usually broke the surface of the muskeg and created an impassible morass.

They economized on the gravel fill by first laying down spruce boughs on top of the muskeg and then dumping gravel over the boughs. The mass was pushed down until it lay on the solid ice beneath. Thus the spruce boughs and gravel acted as insulation giving the frost line a chance to rise and to freeze the top into solid ice. The road needed no surfacing, then, except ordinary care. Such a road is not built on a swamp, but on frozen subsoil.

The bridges were a constant source of wonder to us. The larger ones were fine steel and concrete structures and the smaller ones concrete culverts. It was surprising to see such strong evidence of our civilization in so great a wilderness.

We came to a junction of the Normal Wells Road leading off to the North. This road crosses 570 miles of some of the wildest north country to the Mackenzie River basin, where a dozen oil wells were already delivering over 2,000 barrels of oil a day. Oil so pure the Diesel engines use it without refining. The Norman Wells Road was primarily built to service a pipe-line which carries crude oil to Whitehorse where a large refinery has been built. A high-pressure gasoline line runs along the Alaska Highway in both directions from Whitehorse, which will eventually bring economical motor fuel to this great region.

Our next stop was Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. In the heyday of the gold stampede, Whitehorse was second only to Dawson and today bids fair to become again the crossroads of the Yukon, for trails, railway, waterway, highway and airways now converge there. The largest airport on the route to Alaska is located in Whitehorse.

The old part of town still preserves some of its pioneer picturesqueness, with many of the original log structures still standing. The main street leads down to the old red painted railway station, the narrow gauge tracks of which run along the Lewes River. The population of Whitehorse, once in the hundreds, is now rapidly expanding into the thousands. Prices have sky-rocketed in spite of attempted controls.

It was most interesting to see on Lewes River the large side-wheeler river boats which were tied up. In Summer the boats run down the Lewes and Yukon Rivers past Dawson and beyond the Arctic Circle, then to the Tanana River and south to Fairbanks. I am told this is a most picturesque trip – the Land of the Midnight Sun.

About 100 miles from Whitehorse, we came to the junction of the Haines Road, an important lateral of the Alaska Highway leading to the Port of Haines on the Pacific Ocean. We had discovered another tire with a slow leak and limped into the Haines Settlement. Their services were listed as store, meals, gas and oil. It was bitter cold and past meal time. They were rather unfriendly and did not wish to prepare food and had no compressed air. We did buy five gallons of gas at 75 cents a gallon, and then started on for the MacIntosh store six miles away. Temperature was now 30 degrees below zero.

We knocked at the door of a good looking rather large log house. A sharp voice from the inside called, “Come in, Come in and shut the door.” We meekly stepped in and saw the back of a woman bending over a washtub on the floor beside the stove. A baby’s head peeked around her black slack-clad legs. When she finally had the baby out of the water and could turn around, we saw a remarkably agile, white haired woman. After the baby was ready for bed we inspected the upstairs and found three cots with wonderfully thick mattresses and plenty of wool blankets.

Mrs. MacIntosh then bathed the second little girl, a very sweet five year old, who in a most charming manner accepted her rather biting reprimands. Mrs. MacIntosh was caring for the children while their mother was in the Whitehorse hospital. The children’s parents live on a Government Experimental Farm and are very poor. Both the children sadly in need of warm clothing. The baby wore a red sweater over her thin pajamas because her only wool shirt had to be washed. Mrs. MacIntosh was distressed that she had wet a couple times that day and had to be put to bed while her clothes dried.

The little girl was wearing a pair of Mrs. MacIntosh’s black wool stockings and they laughed about the heel showing above her shoe-tops. I am still haunted by their need for warm clothing!

I was surprised to notice the bookcase contained many of the classics and other good literature until, later, she told me she had taught 25 years in United States schools and colleges.

As she prepared our supper she related her life history. Her husband, as a young man had acquired this property, 180 acres, while in the service of the Northwest Mounted Police. Since he died, seven years ago, she has lived alone doing all her own work. Two years ago she built this home, by herself, except for the service of a man who put up the timbers and the roof. There were five rooms and complete bath. The Winter before she started the house she constructed a match stick model to scale.

Her kitchen was truly modern with built-in cabinets and a double sink.

She is a United States citizen and when she returned alone to the Yukon, after her husband’s death, the Mounted Police were very much opposed to allowing her to come in, saying it was impossible for a woman to live alone in this country. She determined to show them in spite of the fact that her nearest white neighbor then lived in Whitehorse, 120 miles away.

It was very fortunate we carried the acetylene torch for the next morning our motor would not start until it had been warmed by its flame.  We have later learned it should have been left running night and day during extremely cold weather.

The Glenn Highway Cut-off from the Alaska Highway to Anchorage proved to be a narrow mountain road with very sharp turns and steep grades. We watched a high wind play on clouds near a mountain across a wide canyon. We were traveling around this mountain and could see it about two hours. The wind whipped the cloud until the edges were feathery and finally we saw two rainbows reflected from two parts of the cloud. The cloud was midway up the mountain so the mountaintop showed above it.

We were anticipating this stretch of road with some uneasiness as it is frequently snowed in. We had had satisfactory reports of its condition at Tok Junction, otherwise we would have driven on the Fairbanks and shipped the truck by train to Anchorage.

This last stretch must have been built at great speed for one place the grades were so very steep that we were forced to use second gear in spite of the fact that the hills were no more than three or four lengths of the truck. It was like riding a roller coaster.

The sun came up at about 9 o’clock and we saw it go down over a mountain at 2:02 P.M. Our lights were on at 3 o’clock.

About 4 o’clock in the darkness we came to a dilapidated truck, stalled. A rag had been fastened over a broken window by the driver’s seat and the driver, a typical sourdough, was bending over the engine.  When we asked if he needed help he said, “No, but I wish you would look in at a fellow 15 miles down the road. He is drunk and has a flat tire. His motor is running, but if it stops, I’m afraid he’ll freeze. I shook and shook him, but could not wake him. He has 16″ stuff (meaning tires) and without patches I could not help him anyway.”

It was snowing and we kept a close lookout for the car which was a Buick Sedan a young man was driving down from Fairbanks to Anchorage. He had made the trip without stopping for rest so, when his tire went down without spare or patches, he fell asleep. We had 16″ wheels on our truck and while in Fargo had bought the 10 ply airplane tires, so our original supply was still intact. Lee sold him a tube and helped to change the tire. The fellow had no flashlight so really needed our headlights. His gas was low and we supplied him with the contents of one of our five gallon cans.

As we drove into Palmer, the wind turned into a gale. We stopped at a shack gas station and bought his last three gallons which proved to be the last three gallons in Palmer. While Lee was paying the bill a gust of wind lifted the truck and vibrated it. I jumped out and clinging to the gas pump made my way into the station. Lee said the truck is a safer place and took me right back.

A wire across a street had become loosened in the storm. It hung low enough to be caught by the truck frame. As Lee looked back he saw sparks fly from the building and the lights go out. We returned and found the lights were on and all seemed normal.  However, we had had a real fright.

Later as we stepped outside the lunchroom, I dropped my glove. The wind whisked it away and I ran after it, but it was gone! My precious new wool gloves!

Our Fairbanks friend drove up and said he could not buy any gasoline in town, so we shared our last can with him and we started the last fifty miles to anchorage. Now we were traveling through the famous Matanuska Valley farming area but the night was so dark and air so full of snow that we saw little except road.

The Highway took us through Richardson Field, the Army Air Base 3 miles from Anchorage. It is of tremendous size. We saw the large hospital and other administration buildings. All were widely separated as a precautionary measure in time of conflict.

We drove into Anchorage at 11:00 Monday Night. We had been fifteen days from Detroit.

Note: Once they arrived in Anchorage, they received the urgent message that the family had anxiously been trying to contact them for several days. My mom, Karen, then 2 years old, was in the hospital with pneumonia. Worse yet, the sulpha drugs that had been administered did not clear up her lungs, and she was having an allergic reaction to that medication.  Grandma took the first flight home to take care of her baby.  Mom recovered, of course, and it wasn’t long before the entire family was moved up to Alaska, but that’s another adventure for another post.


Doris McKinley with daughters Judy & Karen

More posts about the McKinley Family.

Judy Schwartz Haley


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