When I received a phone invitation to go on a hike with President Bush through the Giant Sequoias in California during the summer of 1992, my initial reaction was, “Right, who is this, really?” I could name any number of wonderful friends who would make such an “official” offer while doubled up with mirth and glee – eager to hang any appearance of gullibility over my head for a lifetime. “Honest, this really is the White House Press Office,” asserted the caller, seeming somewhat put out that I would even question the legitimacy of the invitation.
As it turned out, I really was to be one of only six outdoor journalists selected to join President George H.W. Bush for a short hike and then a few quiet moments and a private audience prior to his signing a July 14, 1992, proclamation to preserve the Sequoias (“quiet” and “private” in a president’s case means any group gathering of under 100 people – not including Secret Service.)
“Honey, I have been invited to go on a private hike with President Bush,” I proudly proclaimed to my wife that evening after dinner.
“That’s nice dear.… Did you remember to call the dentist today?”
My wife’s lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, I knew that such an honor, being given the chance to walk with President George H.W. Bush in the forest, called for nothing less than my very best backpacking T-shirt — one without holes and stains of course, and my cleanest pair of hiking boots. Secrecy, for obvious reasons, shrouded the visit. I had been told to drive to Bakersfield, Calif., where our chosen group of journalists would get instructions as to where to rendezvous with drivers who would then escort us to the president and the designated hiking trail. I wondered if a president has to stand in line like the rest of us for a permit? Probably not.
Secret Service were everywhere at the hotel. Not that they necessarily wanted you to notice. After all, they were wearing nifty disguises that were their version of what the press should look like, complete with khaki vests, comfortable shoes, and nattily pressed slacks. The major difference between them and the real press pool, however, was that the bulges in their vests were a little more deadly than the Nikons and tape recorders we were all toting.
The phone call came through late that night detailing final instructions for our morning hike with President Bush, complete with inexplicable static (were there official ears listening in?). At 6:30 a.m. we climbed into two Isuzu Troopers – hmmm, driving in a Japanese vehicle to visit an American president when everyone was clamoring “buy American?” Interesting election-year strategy! Still, we arrived at the first checkpoint without incident – perhaps explaining the vehicle choice.
There, the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) finest greeted us, complete with no sense of humor – apparently a requisite if you are to provide security for the president. The other requirement, as I quickly discovered, is to have no apparent idea what is going on. It took the better part of five minutes to explain that we were journalists, invited to hike with the president, and that the invitation had come from the White House Press Office. The USFS officer had to get on and off his radio numerous times before, finally, waving us through to the next checkpoint. And so it went.
A California Highway Patrol officer who had obviously practiced his saunter and was going to milk his moment for all it was worth staffed checkpoint two. Still, two minutes to walk all of 20 feet seemed a bit much, and if he is reading this (and you know who you are), lose the shades; they look too cliché and Officer Poncherello from CHIPS television fame you ain’t. After a minute or two of consultation, and still more radio calls, we were waved down a dirt road to an operational headquarters at the parking lot of R.M. Pyles Boys Camp.
There we received even more of the same. Blank stares from Secret Service, USFS, and a litany of local law all of whom operated under the same code for the day – everything is on a need-to-know basis, and we have no idea what it is we need to know regarding your visit. Finally, after 30 minutes of standing around wondering what was next and if the president was going to come and go without us, someone who knew who we were finally arrived. We quickly piled into the Isuzus and drove back to the CHP officer at checkpoint two who had, in the space of just over 30 minutes, forgotten he had ever seen us.
I’ll say this much for him though – he did have a great saunter. Mr. CHP was yet another in a starring cast of security officials who were told to leave all thinking to someone else higher up the food chain. That person arrived in just a few minutes. He was Secret Service from his head to his jockey shorts – shades, short hair, chiseled looks, and lips that were trained to remain straight and never reveal any emotion (these guys just have to be a thrill-a-minute at social functions). He waved us on.
After several more checkpoints, we arrived. Immediately our small herd of outdoor press were hustled through a metal detector (it remains the first and only time I have ever experienced that at a trailhead) and had our gear checked for weapons. I did not recall seeing my camera bag, which was handed to a security officer as I walked through the metal detector, ever being opened, scanned or peeked into before it was handed back to me. Finally, our gathering was led down the trail for a short bit before being told, somewhat firmly, to “wait here” for the president’s arrival.
Author Tom Clancy once said that the Secret Service owned the night. It looked as though they owned the trees, the trail, and the daylight skyline as well. In fact, though I would not swear to this, it did appear as if some of those “trees” and “boulders” in the Freeman Creek Grove were watching us through riflescopes. This was certainly not the weekend to have planned a casual picnic with the family in Sequoia National Park.
Just when things seemed to be going according to plan, we experienced a minor group panic, led of course by the previously calm presidential aide. “Where’s Pat!?” Apparently, my good friend and renowned outdoor humor writer, Patrick McManus, was no longer with our assembled clan. I would swear that at the same time the collection of officials and officers surrounding us collectively gasped and began scanning the trees and trails for anything that resembled a McManus. I heard several hundred safeties being clicked off as Secret Service snipers began targeting a potentially subversive humorist.
Fortunately, Pat has vast experience at being lost, almost more than I, and upon noticing he had become separated from his herd during a brief visit to the approved press corps potty, he executed his patented “Modified Stationary Panic” until the presidential aide, who was executing a brilliant version of “Fully Mobile Panic” found him. Pat shook the entire incident off with a chuckle. The Secret Service, on the other hand, was not laughing. Some people just have no sense of humor.
Order was restored just as the president strode into view, surrounded by an entourage that included former Secretary Baker and his wife, EPA head Reilly, USFS head Robertson, and others. Even more Secret Service with their deadpan faces scurried in, along with one who toted a large, black internal frame pack with an antennae protruding from its top. This was like no other wilderness hike I had ever been on.
A firm handshake and warm greeting by name for each of us and we were off and hiking with President Bush through the Sequoia trees. President Bush gazed at carefully chosen natural landmarks (including the tree that would be named after him) along with other very large Sequoias. We gazed at the president gazing at trees. The president walked and we walked while staring at the president. The president stopped and we stopped, still staring at the president. I admit it – I had morphed from journalist into a full-fledged presidential groupie.
I have been asked if, at any point during my hike with President Bush, do I recall him saying anything politically memorable or quote worthy? Other than defending his environmental record at every opportunity (your opinion of the veracity of that claim will rest firmly on the platform of your party affiliation I suspect) he did make reference to God being an arsonist. I know what you are thinking, but I kid you not. After querying the USFS silviculturist about USFS policy on controlling forest fires, the president said, without prompting, that he had heard, “Lightening starts so many fires which means that God is an arsonist and that is why the forest looks so good.” President Bush did say this with a wink, but his sense of humor notwithstanding, I have little doubt that upon hearing this, Barbara issued quick instructions to White House staff to hide all matches.
We also discovered, under heavy questioning by a relentless outdoor press corps during our staged fireside chat, that President Bush loves fishing, had just taken up fly fishing but wasn’t very good yet, and that he ran a nine-minute mile. All of it, upon perusing my notes, didn’t really make for critical election-year material, and perhaps that somewhat explains the November 1992 final election-night tally.
All-in-all, it was an unforgettable day for this journalist. And I have nothing but admiration for President George H.W. Bush and the way he conducted himself and treated each of us, even this no-name reporter, with reverence and respect. And yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat if asked – though not holding my breath. Chalking this up to a once-in-a-lifetime moment – so it is when you get invited to go on a hike in the wilderness with the commander-in-chief of our country.
On a personal note, what was most rewarding for me was observing Secretary Baker and his wife eagerly smelling the vanilla bark of a Jeffrey pine, picking up pine cones with fascination, and generally being the only members of the presidential party who seemed to be truly aware of what this walk really meant – a brief moment of peace in an otherwise frenetic world.
And then it was over. We each had our pictures taken with the President and he was hustled off to deliver his proclamation before the official White House Press Corps.
Oh, one final note. As we were leaving, the radio aboard a USFS truck crackled, announcing a convoy of CHP cars were lost on a remote logging road and couldn’t turn around – so much for that shortcut. I presume that they eventually got things sorted out, but in case you come across a group of humbled and much older officers while hiking among the Sequoias, point them in the right direction with a smile will you? They’re likely still operating on a need-to-know basis, and it’s clear they have no idea at all.