Chief Hideout

It's an open secret: U.S. presidents and their guests stay at nearby Camp David, but the rest of us retreat to Thurmont

October 12, 2008|By Emily Badger | Emily Badger,Special to The Baltimore Sun

THURMONT - George Wireman called this town the Gateway to the Mountains when he wrote a local history of it in 1969, and it seems like ever since then, that's what everyone here has called it.

"If you stand anywhere on Main Street and look west," Wireman, now 87, said, "it looks like the road is running right into the mountain."

It runs past the Thurmont Bar & Grill, past the old gun shop that's now a cafe, past the hobby store with all its miniature trains and past the row of gracefully aging townhouses before it veers left and then straight up into Catoctin Mountain Park.

The mountain, 65 miles northwest of Baltimore near the Pennsylvania line, looks over Thurmont,giving the town both its backdrop and its identity. It is the main geographic landmark in a less populated corner of the state framed with foothills, small valley farms and covered bridges. And it is the source of Thurmont's unique claim to history.

Somewhere up there - exactly where, no one who knows will say - is Camp David.

The presidential retreat, once called the "secret White House," isn't identified on the National Park Service map of the mountain and conjoining Cunningham Falls State Park. Try quietly asking the ranger on duty in the visitor center five minutes from town, and she will lean conspiratorially across the counter and match your whisper with a wry smile.

"I ... can't ... tell ... you."

Granted, the camp's existence is no longer a secret. That same visitor's center sells copies of a book titled The President Is at Camp David. Other signs are more cryptic, such as the one posted on Easter weekend last spring warning that certain park roads and hiking trails were closed because of the presence of the Secret Service and certain people under Secret Service protection.

President Bush, it turns out, was on the mountain. But 65 years after Franklin Roosevelt began discreetly coming here, Bush's famously frequent visits are just as low-key, largely unnoticed by hikers in the park and uncommemorated in the town below. It is an unusual - and welcome - reception for a head of state accustomed to trailing entourage, press corps, critics, aides and gawkers alike.

Here, there is nothing but silence and black birch trees.

The setting speaks to the need of even the most powerful man in the world to shed his blazer and walk in the woods (or bike there, as Bush likes to do). Camp David is the most everyman retreat of Bush's hideouts, without the compound walls of Crawford or the stuffiness of Kennebunkport. Civilians are welcome here. Or, at least, welcome in the rest of the park.

"I think they'd be surprised to know how rustic it is," Laura Bush said in 2006 of her private corner of the park.

For that reason, the president is probably experiencing just about the same secluded reprieve here as would any day-tripper from the congested city - give or take a peace accord. Otherwise, same naps, same picnics, same scenery of sprawling forest and rock formations.

The Thurmont locals, a mind-your-own-business sort, don't get too worked up over Bush's arrival. It's not that they don't know he's in the neighborhood - they just don't think much of it. And it is the same in the visitors' center. The point is no longer that the camp's existence is a secret, but, rather, that denying its exact location allows world leaders to play like common campers.

"One thing that I like that stands foremost in my mind: Thurmont has never taken the opportunity to commercialize Camp David," Wireman said. "What happens up there, we realize that that's a place for privacy and relaxation, and we like it that way."

The camp, in return, is unobtrusive, with unwitting hikers more likely to bump into a generic trail closure sign than a menacing Marine with an automatic weapon.

For a while, the residents of Thurmont were the only ones who knew the camp existed. Just as they took pride in keeping that fact to themselves, they reacted with casual glances when Jackie Kennedy came down the mountain to window-shop.

"We didn't make no big deal of it," Wireman recalled. "She was just another citizen in Thurmont. That's what we considered her."

Such sightings are rare now that heightened security largely keeps the president on the compound, and now that a permanent Camp David chapel has settled the need to come down into town for church. But the locals still know when the president is up there.

"We can always tell," said Richard Little, a retired teacher who used to own a coffee shop on Main Street. "The jets fly around all the time. Two jets."

Little once wrote a letter to George W. Bush inviting him down for coffee.

He kept the response - sorry, the president's schedule was packed - on the counter stuck to the back of the plastic frame that listed his menu. No one but Little could see it there - "for political reasons," he explained with a smile.

The town's politics aren't always in line with the man up the mountain.

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