A Week In The Woods

From Monday to Thursday evening of last week, I was in the woods. No wi-fi, perilously spotty cell service, and all the fallishness I could ask for.

(And Ali didn’t mind it, either.)

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We rented a cabin at Oak Mountain State Park, which is close enough for Chris to commute to work, and the children and I never left the park.

It was glorious.

We didn’t abandon our school – that’s the beauty of homeschooling – it can be done on top of a picnic table by a lake.

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We didn’t do a full load of subjects, but our 20+ miles of hiking and half-dozen canoe trips made up for that.

(Science! Physical Education! Field Trips!)

(Some people enjoyed the canoeing more than others.)

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I attempted to make the week have an ‘80s vibe – I told the children that they could roam on their own around the cabin area. I gave them boundaries, flashlights, and instructions to GO. EXPLORE. Be children.

With the exception of sound: remember, children, it’s called Tranquility Lake for a reason.

Oak Mountain Fall Trip 2017 IMG_4657blogYou can see those flashlight beams on the other side of the lake. As children are supposed to be.

They didn’t really do a good job of all that – they tended to still stay close to me like the flock of geese that twenty-teen children are. But I tried. And I shook them from me a couple times, at least.

My parents came and joined us for a day and night, and with them, as always, came adventure. As they are much more experienced at having eighties kids than me, I totally trusted my dad to row Ali right up to a fairly steep dam and spillway to peer over the edge.

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But the more exciting part of that canoe ride was when Dad and Ali spotted a speedily moving object in the water – and began chasing it.

They chased it, it disappeared. They discussed “Could it be an alligator??”

It appeared across the lake, and they chased it again.

Finally, they got close enough for grabbing. It was a very fast-moving fishing pole.

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After a few swipes and misses, Ali was able to grab it before it swam off again – but it fought back.

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Ali almost dropped the pole once – it was pulling seriously hard.

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But whatever The Monster of Oak Mountain was, it broke the line and left Ali as the proud owner of its former fishing pole.

Oak Mountain Fall Trip 2017 IMG_4755blog(We suspected a large turtle…but monster is also totally believable.)

After the Loch Ness excitement, Gramamma helped the kids forage in order to make The World’s Best Fairy House Mansion.

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There were beds and tables and lampposts and salads and chicken and water and…

I mean seriously. Some Fairy stumbled across this estate and I’m sure assumed she’d died and gone to heaven. This project definitely counted as “Charity Work” on the school log.

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One of the things I most love about staying at Oak Mountain as opposed to visiting (it is, after all, only 30 minutes from my house) is the ability to night hike.

Oak Mountain closes at sunset. When we visit, I’m usually sweating about making it out of there – because I’m pushing it to the last minute to get pictures of the sunset that signifies that I’m about to get locked in.

But if you are staying at Oak Mountain, gates are not an issue. So every night after dinner (I took along a huge pot of soup and grilled cheese makings and that’s what we ate all three nights because soup and grilled cheese are always good in a state park no matter how many nights in a row you’ve eaten it), we’d go on a hike together. I got amazing pictures of these hikes, like this one:

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Okay, Chris fared a little better in his nocturnal photographical pursuits:

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It was, admittedly, slightly creepy the first night as we walked around the lake, hearing impossibly loud plops in the water. Too far of a drop for turtles…too loud for snakes…too loud for frogs…we never did figure out what we were scaring into the water, but whatever it is, I’m sure it was a fishing-pole-stealing type of monster.

But those hikes became the highlight of our days – we’d all get flashlights or headlamps or both and head out into the completely silent forest, crunching on the leaves and blissfully soaking in the crisp November air. Plus, it gave Chris another way to enjoy his time there, since he was still going to work. (He also got up early and ran, so he felt a decent amount of state-park-relaxation in spite of going to work.)

The kids spent our days split between a little school, a little canoeing, and a lot of hiking.

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Oak Mountain has so many trails (over 60 miles, plus a bunch of unmarked trails), so no matter how much we hike out there, there’s always more to see and explore.

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Somehow in her foraging, Ali seemed to have stumbled across The Elixir of Perfect Hair – it certainly wasn’t clean or even tangle-freehair, but somehow it looked like this – in the MIDDLE of a hike.

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GAH. The magic of youth.

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The kids recovered from our walks with a little coffee drinking and a lot of card playing. They might’ve transitioned to adulthood last week.

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And Chris and I spent our evenings and mornings staring at the lake and enjoying the silence of sleeping, thoroughly-worn-out children.

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On our last day at the park, our cousins came out in the morning for a hike, and our friends came out in the afternoon for a hike. The energy levels provided by having friends to hike with was unbelievable – despite hiking so much in the prior days, Noah was sprinting excitedly up the mountainside when he had his cousins to hang with.

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They brought along their massive puppy Macro (still not full-grown), which made it all the more exciting. That dog walks like a lion.

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My only complaint about the week was the lack of sun. The temperature was lovely, but the fog made our hike up to the beautiful lookout a bit…anticlimactic.

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With a lot of angling and waiting for clouds to thin, the best shot I got of the fall foliage below was…

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But the kids didn’t seem to mind. Snacktime still happens on the top of the mountain whether you are enshrouded in fog or not.

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In between hikes, we frantically packed up our cabin and checked out, then met our next friends at the demonstration farm,

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…which is the residence of the nicest, most fantastically depressed donkey you will ever meet.

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He will really help one understand the casting decision for Eeyore.

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The demonstration farm also has ponies, a pig, two peacocks (that sadly weren’t in bad moods and so didn’t show us their magnificent feathers), and a herd of extremely frisky and escape-minded goats.

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Lest you miss him in the corner of the picture, this guy was their lookout while they purloined their sweet ride. He was chosen for his stellar ability to look nonchalant.

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We’ve done the whole feeding-the-goats thing before, and it was frankly frightening. You buy a bag of food, and your reward is getting immediately stampeded.

Frankly, you walk up to the window where they sell the food and you’re likely to draw attention.

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However, the farm made a massive improvement since our last visit – they now have a fenced off area from which you can feed the animals in safety.

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That’s right. At this farm, the humans go in the zoo and the animals come visit them. It’s the way things should be, really.

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After our animal needs were filled, we set off on two last hikes.

The first one included Oak Mountain’s fabulous bird trail (where they have rehabilitating owls and birds of prey in large cages tearing apart bloody mice but you don’t feel so bad for the mice after you read the bird’s back-stories on how they ended up there),

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Through the woods, during which the kids went through the bottom of this tree stump and ended up in Narnia, as one does,

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And, on our last leg of hiking, down to Peavine Falls.

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It was the perfect ending to our week of fall, which was just long enough, as I was quite ready to be back in my own bed, with my own shower, and my own refrigerator. And maybe a bit of wi-fi.

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But not before I booked us the same trip for next November – only next time, we’ll be staying the full seven days. Because I might be a little addicted to this season.

The Secret Life of a Happy Hiking Heart.

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My children, particularly the youngest, have a propensity to whine when I tell them we’re going on a hike, which is a once or twice a week occurrence, especially in the fall. But forced hiking is the mother of invention, and my children are never as brilliant as they are when the mood hits them to turn a hike into a video game.

They created their favorite game a while back, titled “Super Bonus Power-Up”, but last week they advanced and perfected it so drastically that it deserves recording. So that all children in all the world can learn to enjoy forced hikes.

In the past, this game has consisted on them running up to trees, slapping them, and saying “Super Bonus Power-Up!” to get extra energy for the hike. Using a rather rudimentary version of Parkour, they would bounce off the trees, therefore giving them the magical feeling of being more energetic.

But the Super Super Bonus Power-Up game really amps up the imagination volume.

Here’s how to play.

First, determine what recurring trail markers and features are available.

On this particular hike (our first time to hike the beautiful trails at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve), the children noticed that there were blazes, or trail markers,

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Trail posts,

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And an extra special and unique trail find, diamond signs that seemed to not have much use except to greatly add to our game.

Blog 171005x Turkey Creek Nature PreserveIMG_3770Are they to let bears know that the delicacy of hikers are available in this area? No one knows.

The blazes replaced trees for energy boosts – no longer could any old tree give you a power-up – you had to slap a blaze.

The signposts were extra super power-ups – because obviously.

And the diamond signs became Mystery Boxes.

(It was so Mario up in there.)

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Mystery boxes were extra valuable – too valuable even to fully comprehend.

Me: “What’d you get in your mystery box?”

Noah: “I don’t know – it’s a mystery.”

Noah realized he couldn’t reach all the Mystery Boxes, so he began collecting large acorns, or, as he told me, Bombs. Throwing bombs at a mystery box multiplied the amount of mystery treasures you could receive. This created the need to stop every now and then as he counted slowly to ten while throwing acorns at the poor sign, but totally worth it.

(He did try once to throw a bomb at his sister to slow her down, but she quickly clarified that bomb-to-other-player combat was DEFINITIVELY against the rules.)

So then he tried The Force.

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But she seemed immune, I’m sure due to her superior gaming morals.

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For this particular hike, I further forced them to carry the backpack of snacks and water (as I was carrying my camera backpack.) They swapped it every half a mile. To incorporate it into the game, Noah named it the “Ten Pound Slowdown.” It’s a rough penalty, but you just have to roll with it.

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We made it to the top of the hill, where we found a lovely pollinator garden in which to have our snacks and water.

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(And for me to stop and take a few pictures – my own personal favorite hiking game.)

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After our snack and drinking of most of the water, Noah jubilantly exclaimed “The Ten Pound Slowdown just got reduced to the Two Pound Slowdown!!”

Talk about raising your experience points – everyone loves it when they earn lighter armor.

Their game became so fantastic that they both thanked me multiple times for me bringing them on the hike, and were shocked at how fast it had gone by.

But pictures don’t do their enthusiasm justice. Here’s a bit of terrible video I made for my Instagram Story that day, including a slo-mo stomping of a particularly power-draining puffball mushroom.

So. If your kids need help turning their video games into actual reality (or if you do – because who among us didn’t dream of entering into our Nintendo games??), my children are available as trainers and counselors. But if you ask them to take you on a hike, expect at least a little whining on the front end.

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When a Tropical Storm Comes Knocking.

Continued from here

So the Tropical Storm.

Let’s first be clear: the Actual Tropical Storm Cindy made landfall on Thursday in Louisiana. She may have been weak, but the woman could cover some land mass. As such, her torrential rains started Monday night in Florida. That was when I discovered the downside of an extremely tall beach house: the wind whistling through the rooftop. It was so loud and so whistly and so constant and so fantastically annoying that I could still hear it through my super-tropical-blocky foam earplugs, and it was not at all pleasant. I cursed Cindy and her noises.

Day Five: Tuesday.

After a terrible night’s sleep, I woke up super early and checked the radar. There appeared to be a break in the rain, and if I didn’t get up and ride a bike or run before it was raining for multiple days, my body would not be happy. And since I despise running in the rain, I decided the best choice would be to see if I hated biking in the rain just as much.

The break in the rain didn’t *actually* exist. But I can now decisively say that I do not hate biking in the rain. It was nearly…exhilarating.

…Other than the sandy mud that flew all the way up to my hair.

IMG_8633That’s my back. It looked like I’d rolled around in a newborn baby diaper.

The day definitely acted as a rain delay to our vacation. But the best benefit to a longer vacation is that when a tropical storm comes through and halts the outdoor fun for a couple days, it’s not at all stressful because everyone needed a break from the sun by then, we knew we’d have more sun on the other side, and I’d made the kids a gorgeous schedule to delete all arguments about what they watched and who picked while they binged endlessly.

IMG_8836This was the ending tally. It’s slightly embarrassing how many tv hours they logged in a week. But also impressive.

Chris was intelligent enough to send an extra Roku, which we hooked up in their bedroom so that us adults could busy ourselves guiltlessly binging The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt downstairs, a luxury that never seems to occur in real life.

Day Six: Wednesday.

The Tropical Storm continued its beat-down of us. We played games with the kids and continued our separate Netflix binging for the first half of the day. The rain eventually abated for a minute and the children happily sprinted to the pool, where our rental neighbors were also headed with a giant blow-up Pegasus. Thank goodness they were happy sharers. One cannot ignore a giant Pegasus in the pool.IMG_8682

There was quite a debate about whether this was a Unicorn or a Pegasus, but anyone who has ever watched My Little Pony knows that if you don’t have a horn but do have wings, you’re definitely a Pegasus. (And Ali was quick to tell us that if she’d had a horn and wings, she would have been an Alacorn. These are important life facts.)

Chris returned that afternoon, and us adults went out for a double date. The radar didn’t look good for our meal, yet the harried hostess indicated we’d be sitting on the porch.

Chris, ever the planner: “Umm, what if a storm comes in? It looks pretty bad…”
Hostess: ”Oh it won’t – it’s looked like that all week.”
Chris, trying to show her his phone: ”But my radar…”
Hostess, not even looking up: ”It’s fine.”
Chris: ”But what if it does?”
Hostess: ”Then we should be able to accommodate you.”

Her “should” didn’t sound promising.

We had no cell service on the back porch, which was good because it kept us from refreshing our radar all evening. But we didn’t need an app to know what was headed straight for us.

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It was fun to watch until it wasn’t. At which time we grabbed our plates and sprinted inside, blocking the hallway as our waiter ran our credit cards and we tried to figure out how to box our food with far too few hands.

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But beach storms are the best. So the soggy fish was a totally reasonable price to pay to watch this come ashore.

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Day Seven: Thursday.

Despite the fact that this was actual landfall day for the Tropical Storm, our weather mostly cleared up. However, there were still double red flags, prohibiting water entry. I assumed that dipping ones toes in was still okay, as I’d seen some kids do directly in front of life guards. So we headed down to the beach, setting up next to a tidal stream to add extra water opportunities for the kids.

But our beach patrolman was having a Paul Blart Mall Cop kind of day and made sure that we all knew that the water was not allowed to touch any part of us – including those runaway waves that came up much farther than expected. If you wanted to walk along the beach, your toes better not be touching water.

And so the kids busied themselves as kids do: Digging Holes deep enough to find their own water sources.

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That night, Chris and I took an “alone date”, enjoying the sunset from a pier right as a loud and kitschy pirate dinner cruise went by. It was infinitely more romantic in photograph than it would have been to be on that boat.

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We also found this fantastic roosting spot right before the sun went down, which happened to be near a stand of trees with at least five giant Heron nests and giant Heron babies screaming for food. Mom life is tough – especially for Herons.

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Day Eight: Friday.

As checkout was at 9am the next morning this was our last double-family day of vacation, we attempted to live it up in all the ways, but the children, they were exhausted. They had no energy left for beaching or pooling or really much of anything. Which was good confirmation that a week is absolutely a perfect amount of time to vacation.

I did manage to eke out a few photos – that was all we got.

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It’s been a long time since we took their first group beach picture nine years ago. And it’s way more fun now than it was then.

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Since our kids had had enough of the beach, Ashley and I went on a walk without them. It was the most fascinating beach walk ever – so many creatures had washed up from the tropical storm, including quite a few of these gorgeous Blue Button Jellyfish,

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And thousands of the most disturbing sea creature I’ve ever seen in person, the Sea Cucumber. They moved in slow and oozy ways that made your skin crawl, and one of them actually spit at me. Ashley thought the first one we saw was a shell, washing along in the water, so I reached down to pick it up. So yes, I’ve touched a Sea Cucumber.

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…Yet I still highly recommend post-Tropical-Storm beach walks to everyone.

Day Nine: Saturday.

We did not tell our children that we were adding a day and a half onto our vacation until we’d finished packing up and were ready to load the car. We knew that they were exhausted and that nothing is as much fun without friends, so we were not surprised, nor were we disappointed, when this was their reaction:

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EVEN THOUGH we were staying at a brand new hotel with a lazy river.

So we were oh-so-strategic about our arrival. We took our bags up to our room and plopped the kids in front of cartoons. Chris and I read books quietly on the balcony until each child had come, individually, to tell us that they’d really like to check out the lazy river.

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Two hours and hundreds of laps later, they were screaming that it was the best day ever.

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We had moved east by an hour an a half, to Navarre Beach, to a brand new SpringHill Suites hotel. It had been open five days, and was quite gorgeous.

While I sat in the shade and watched my family circle the pool, I had the pleasure of being next to an older couple who had taken it upon themselves to judge every last millimeter of the hotel. Because it was such a delight to eavesdrop, I pulled out my phone and logged their comments in my notes app to share with you.

SpringHill Suites Navarre Beach, a Review by Cranky Old People.

Cranky Old Woman (C.O.W.): “WHY don’t they have umbrellas by the pool? It’s just insane!!
Cranky Old Man (C.O.M): “I know. There is far too little shade.”
C.O.W.: “What IS this thing?? It looks like a bomb!!”
C.O.M.: “Maybe it’s an ash tray?”
C.O.W.: “No – you can’t smoke out here so that’d be ridiculous.”
C.O.M.: “I don’t know what it is.”
C.O.W., turning to me: “What IS this thing?”
Me: “It’s a light.”
C.O.W.: “Oh I think you’re right but doesn’t it look like a B-52 bomb from World War II?”
Me (mumbling to myself): “I wasn’t around back then…”
C.O.W., to my child: “Oh MY! Be careful getting out of that pool! It’s so slippery out here. Isn’t it ridiculous?”
C.O.M.: “Let’s go get some food from the restaurant.”
C.O.W.: “Okay. Let’s do that. How do we get in there? Do we have to go IN the hotel and then OUT again and then IN the restaurant? Surely not. Oh my goodness I think we do. That’s just ridiculous.”

Poor couple. It’s so awful to be subjected to a hell hole like this.

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Once they went inside and my secondary entertainment was gone, I headed out to the beach for a walk, and to see if any interesting Tropical Storm treats had washed ashore at this beach.

Shockingly, it was brimming over with giant hunks of sand dollars and gorgeous shells. I ran back and convinced my family to join me on the beach for a treasure hunt (it’s not easy to pull kids out of a lazy river), and as suspected, they loved it.

The new hotel had a giant sandbox play area from which we borrowed a bucket and a wagon. Noah focused more on sand dollar pieces,

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and Ali watched the surf for the most colorful and whole shells.

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The entire beach wasn’t like that – just pockets, and it was exciting to try and catch the prettiest shells. In the end, we had a sizeable collection that totally looked like we’d just ripped off a gift shop.

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Despite their earlier inability to have ANY MORE FUN, the kids gleefully lazy-rivered late into the night. Never trust children when they say they’re tired. They have at least 12 more hours of fun in them.

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Day Ten: Sunday.

We did the beach and shell collecting and lazy river all over again until it was time for our late checkout, and then we finally cleaned up, packed up, and came home.

And, even though the Tropical Storm never gave me a single spectacular sunset while we were at the beach, she did give me one on the way home, at the perfect timing for me to pull off and photograph it with Clanton’s butt peach water tower.

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Thanks to that sunset, I was able to finish our vacation in the most Alabama-way-home-from-the-beach Cliché way possible – Ali holding up the peach.

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Best Day Ever.