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No grocery, $5 haircuts - and the Bush ranch

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2001


The White House bills the president's month-long retreat to his Texas ranch in Crawford as his "home to the heartland" tour. Some reporters jokingly call it "home to the wasteland."

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True, Crawford is little more than a crossroads on a drought-stricken prairie, bereft of even a grocery store. From afar, it's hard to imagine why the president of the free world would spend so much time in the middle of nowhere and in temperatures that, in August, intimidate even the local scorpions.

But up close, nowhere becomes somewhere - a place with a distinct identity and culture, and despite the jokes, a place with its own sense of beauty. Drive out Prairie Chapel Road to the Bush ranch, and you'll wind along a serpentine route that cuts through a kaleidoscope of color: grass as blond and soft as a chamois; fields turned under to reveal rich, dark soil; pastures dotted with black angus and green oak.

Laura Bush calls the couple's secluded, 1,600-acre ranch "a haven." The president, ribbing reporters who might have preferred to be covering Bill Clinton on Martha's Vineyard or even one of his father's bass-fishing trips, explained himself this way last week: "I know a lot of you wish you were in the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air. But when you're from Texas - and love Texas - this is where you come home."

Certainly this is how people in Crawford - population 705 and growing - feel about this town too small to rate placement on a rental-car map. They may themselves go on vacation to Cozumel or Canada, but they always come back to this place with road names like Cattle Drive and Covered Wagon Trail.

Some folks here can trace their families back to the original German immigrants who founded this agrarian settlement in the late 1800s. Jamie Burgess, who runs a farm and a new gift shop called "The Red Bull," says her roots go back at least seven generations. Bill Sparkman, the local barber, has been shaving and cutting in the same shop for 41 years, long enough to master the tight-around-the-ear look. On Sundays, residents attend one of five local churches - most of whose congregations consist of one or two extended families.

While the surrounding landscape evokes a stark beauty, the town itself is not going to be mistaken for a Frank Gehry project. It's a disparate collection of houses, from double-wide trailers and bungalows in need of a paint brush, to Victorians and brick showplaces. A triple silo and feed store take up two corners at the main crossroads. A gas station-restaurant sits across the street.

Nearly everyone says they're here because of their family roots, and they stay because of the small-town friendliness, because of the land, and because of the quiet: The traffic is sparse enough that none of the kids wear bike helmets. The schools are good - among the top-ranked in the state. They, along with a quarry, provide most of the local jobs.

"In Texas, you gotta love it or leave it, and if you leave it, you usually come back," laughs Tommy Smith, who grew up here and works at a bakery in Ft. Worth - at least 90 minutes away.

The talk of the Fina gas station

Hanging out one morning on the cafe side of the Fina gas station, Crawford's equivalent of Starbucks, Mr. Smith talks dreamily of the Bush ranch. "I'd love to be out there," he says, referring to the slightly rolling prairie, canyons, creeks, and oak groves that the Bushes purchased in 1999. "That's what we live for out here."

Specifically, he means hunting and fishing, and, indeed, the ranch has a pond stocked with bass for the First Fisherman. Deer are also abundant in the area, and in a sign of good neighborliness, the president lets one of the locals hunt along his property line without being harassed by the Secret Service.