CRAWFORD, TEXAS — 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."
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.
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.
Located seven miles from Crawford center - which ends just seconds after you drive through the town's lone blinking traffic light - the Bush ranch is hidden from view and access. Orange signs posted along the narrow road warn "No Stopping," "No Standing," "No Parking," and when people do try to stop, there's not much to see except a pop-up security barrier at the gate.
Bush's newly built home itself is a simple low-slung structure of local limestone, designed to catch the strong breezes and provide optimal views. It also includes a swimming pool, which the president calls the "whining pool" because his daughters put up such a fuss about having it.
While the administration is often criticized for its environmental record, the Bushes are practicing "greenies" on the ranch. They recycle rain runoff and waste water, and have a geothermal heating system.
Mrs. Bush has been restoring wildflowers and native grasses to the grounds. No stairs exist because the first couple wants the home to be easily accessible to their parents, and, eventually, to themselves, since they plan to retire here.
Like President Reagan, this chief executive loves the privacy and wide-open spaces of his ranch. He visits every weekend he can, and The Associated Press calculates that by the time he returns to the White House in late August, he will have spent nearly two months of his young presidency in Crawford.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of Americans believe four weeks is too long for a president to be away from Washington. Keenly aware of the image of a slough-off president - the Washington Post calculates that Bush has spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route - the White House refers to this as a "working" vacation. The president has planned about two trips a week to spread the gospel of "heartland values." Last week, much of his time was taken up with the televised announcement of his stem-cell decision.
Still, there's no doubt the president is enjoying considerable down time. He's gone on long, early morning walks with his wife, golfed with friends at a nearby course in Waco, fished, and jogged through canyons on his land - where he's also building a nature walk. Bush professes to not mind the Texas heat, which is less suffocating than the humidity of Washington, and says being outdoors keeps him a "balanced person."
For those reflective moments, the man often ridiculed for lacking intellectual depth is quick to share his summer reading list: "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick, the bestseller "John Adams" by David McCullough, and a mystery, the title of which is a mystery.
Although Bush can't claim to have Crawford roots like his neighbors, he has a considerable amount in common with them. He shares their values of faith and family. It's also a dry town - Bush drinks no alcohol.
Not surprisingly, local residents voted overwhelmingly for Bush, a phenomenon that's likely to continue, particularly if the president starts to follow the ups and down of the local Pirates sports teams. Everyone else here does.
"We don't have any problem with understanding him wanting to be here for three or four weeks," says Mike Murphy, pastor at Crawford's First Baptist Church. "If people were to come and see how easy it is to slow down and really realize some of the more important things in life - faith, family, community" - then they would understand the pull of the ranch on the president, he says.
Still, some residents harbor ambivalence about their new celebrity neighbor. They are proud of him, and business is growing as a result of the first family's presence. But Crawfordites are an independent lot, and some resent the intrusion of the media and Secret Service.
"Some young people, and older folks, never wanted the town to change in any way, shape or form," says Robert Campbell, the mayor and self-described only Democrat in politics in town. "That's a pipe dream."