The bright green earth sinks under each step. A cold stream murmurs through carpets of moss. Birdsong lilts down from the hickory oak canopy. Ahead, past sweet-smelling logs in the throes of decay, a sign hangs on a wire to signal the boundary between America the beautiful and America the off-limits.
One more step forward, and what happens?
Another? Maybe then a siren, scattering the chipmunks. Maybe then a charging German shepherd, or a rubber bullet to the kneecap, or the sudden appearance of a camouflaged Marine who has been watching all along as a hiker approaches the perimeter of Camp David, the official retreat of the president of the United States — 180 acres of public land that the public cannot lay eyes on, a cloistered campground a couple of miles up the mountain from a sleepy town of 6,000 that over the years has maintained a polite but distant relationship with its very high-profile neighbor.
This weekend, the president is having friends over. Big-deal friends who represent the world’s largest economies, for the annual G-8 Summit. Nearly 11,000 acres of state and national parkland will be on lockdown, and a no-fly zone with a 30-mile radius will hover over western Maryland. The municipality closest to the global center of power this weekend is the town of Thurmont, which will go about its own business while world leaders go about theirs, mere miles from each other as the crow flies but dimensions apart in terms of power and consequence.
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Diner waitresses have a judicial kind of authority, and if they say Thurmont is just a quiet little town where everyone knows your name, then Thurmont is just a quiet little town where everyone knows your name.
“But that’s what they always say when something bad happens somewhere: “It was just a quiet little town,” jokes Mary Reed, who has been freshening cups of coffee at the Mountain Gate Family Restaurant since Ronald Reagan was riding horses up at Camp David.
Everyone in town is talking about the weekend, when President Obama will host the G-8 at 1,800 feet. In March the president switched the summit’s location from Chicago to Camp David because he wanted a more intimate setting, but activists interpreted this as confirmation that leaders want to avoid angry citizenry.
“Perhaps if you don’t see people and their messages, it’s easier to pretend we’re not there,” says Occupy Baltimore activist Beth Emmerling, who will be camping with 30 protesters in a Thurmont farmer’s hayfield Friday and Saturday. “It feels like the very people that can help make things better are just going further and further into hiding.”
One cannot occupy Camp David, so one must occupy Thurmont. The town has kindly set aside a public park for out-of-town protesters. Painted wooden butterflies — part of a public-art initiative — have been removed from parking meters so there are fewer objects for theoretical rioters to throw. The flags of the G-8 nations are flying at the intersection of Main and Water streets. The Super 8 and the Cozy Country Inn are booked solid by Secret Service agents and the media. Schools are closed Friday. Town officials are prepared for the worst, expecting the best, and will support citizens who want to exercise their constitutional rights by chanting in the general direction of a campground they can’t get within four miles of.
If the G-8 Summit stands for the secretive and privileged nature of playing politics on a global scale, Thurmont stands for what is normal and decent about living in a democracy within 3.12 square miles. The median household income is $71,400, and a quarter of its population holds at least a bachelor’s degree. Unemployment is half that of the United States as a whole (4.3 percent). Thurmont is 96 percent white and 7.3 percent impoverished, and in 2008 its county (Frederick) went for John McCain by 1,000 votes while its state fell heavily for Obama. Like other American towns of its size, Thurmont organizes its history in terms of parades, state champion baseball teams and such meteorological events as the big flood (1868) and the big snowfall (1899). You can run a tab at both the bar and the hardware store.
The town fought off a Wal-Mart and hasn’t seen a new housing development in at least 11 years, says Thurmont’s Republican mayor, Martin Allen Burns, who favors low growth and works in the special programs division at the Pentagon.
“Thurmont has stayed the same, and that’s what people want,” says Burns, a former Marine assigned from 1986 to 1989 to Camp David, which is maintained by the Navy and staffed by Marines from the Barracks at Eighth and I streets SE in the District.
Burns, 46, is deeply familiar with both the town, which he calls “a piece of paradise,” and the camp, whose sights and sounds remain in his mind: the warble of a wild turkey during night maneuvers, how the bare trees would ice over in the winter, the way President George H.W. Bush would walk into the camp gym and say “Hey, Marine, wanna play racquetball?”
He also remembers Burt, the camp’s domesticated deer. Someone donated a bottle-fed spike to Camp David, and during the Reagan years he would prance around, nibbling on sugar cubes and dandelions from Marines’ hands, nudging you from behind if he wanted to play. Eventually Burt became a full-fledged buck and, in a territorial fit, mauled a Marine, sticking one of his antlers four inches deep into the poor man’s thigh, Burns says. It was a rare moment of disharmony within the camp’s walls, and Burt was immediately cast out to fend for himself in the wild and was never seen again.
Burns, 11 years into his mayorship, has a framed photograph of the buck on his desk at the Pentagon. The photo reminds him of the strange, singular privilege of being on the inside, up on the mountain, with the president.
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At 10:55 a.m. Tuesday a Chinook chops its way along the Catoctin Mountain range, ferrying unknown passengers to an unknown location.
Five hours later, Bob Black stands on a ridge of his 100-acre Catoctin Mountain Orchard. From here he can see his entire kingdom, a second-generation fruit-growing business: the blackberry bushes by Route 15, the apple and peach trees up by his brick house, the market and bakery where his family makes pies and sells cider. And overlooking it all from a higher elevation is Camp David, hidden behind the trees up the small mountain.
Strawberries are freshest right now. Black foresees a nice crop overall, although a cold snap earlier this spring means a lighter load of apricots. The grower muses about the powerful forces that hold sway — Mother Nature, for one, and the people who will be up at the summit this weekend.
“I guess we hope they’re making the right decisions for all of us,” Black says, looking westward from hilltop to mountaintop. “This is world trade. It affects us all.”
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“It affects nothing down here,” says John Kinnaird, whose heroic beard befits a fifth-generation stone carver of memorials and gravestones. He drives a gray pickup truck with a bumper sticker that says “Don’t Hassle Me, I’m a Local.”
“If they’re flying in, they might see us out the window,” he says of the G-8 leaders. “And on the ground, Thurmont is just a sharp turn on the roadway.”
Kinnaird’s hands are calloused and split open, toughened by 45 years of carrying on his father’s trade after the family emigrated from Scotland. He has four children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren all within easy driving distance. Thurmont is his life. Carving granite is his craft. Before the recession he’d import 40 pieces of stone per month. Now it’s 20. These days, relatives mark their loved ones’ remains with $500 footstones instead of $2,000 upright monuments, but harder times don’t diminish the value he sees in the work: Immortality for the dead and, in a way, for himself.
“I can go back and look at every job since 1968 and it’s still there,” Kinnaird says. “This is the only record people will see of this person’s life. Sure, there are Social Security records and military records, but you walk into a cemetery and you see the names — it’s a little historical record of every single person. Literally carved in stone.”
He finally got his U.S. citizenship last year so he could run for office. He’s now a town commissioner and describes Thurmont as a Republican-minded place, although lawns and cars are free of political signs and bumper stickers. Residents prefer to focus on local issues that affect them directly, Kinnaird says.
R.S. Kinnaird Memorials has a broad reach, though. After the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, a key player in the Camp David Accords negotiated on the mountain, Kinnaird’s father, Robert, pulled a stone from Hunting Creek, where Sadat and President Jimmy Carter had fished for trout. Father and son carved the rough piece of river stone into a smooth rectangular shape, lettered it to refer to Camp David, and sent it to Egypt.
Thirty thousand inscriptions at Arlington National Cemetery have also been completed by the Kinnaird family, whose memorial shop is a couple of blocks off Main Street in Thurmont, near the railroad tracks.
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Thurmont and Camp David became neighbors through a series of economic incentives over the course of 200 years, according to an extensive history of Catoctin Mountain Park by Edmund F. Wehrle of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Take a deep breath.
In the 1740s, the son of a Chesapeake planter began selling his father’s 7,000 acres in the Monocacy River Valley on the cheap to draw industrious German farmers and mechanics to help develop the rocky, challenging land. The mechanics (weavers, tailors, blacksmiths) incorporated Mechanicstown in 1832, which was renamed Thurmont (to suggest “through the mountains” and avoid confusion with Mechanicsville and Mechanicsburg) in 1894 as the Western Maryland Railroad worked its way from Baltimore to Hagerstown. The railroad — and the rise of the automobile in the 20th century — nurtured a tourism industry based on boarding houses and small cottages rented by visitors from Washington and Baltimore.
Tourism dovetailed with the public works projects of the Great Depression. One of these projects removed poor farmers from sub-par land in the mountains around Thurmont and employed jobless locals to develop the property into a national park for vacationing urbanites. Workers completed the first camps in Catoctin Mountain Park in the late ’30s, and the grounds were used by the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts for recreation and by the military for training. After the United States entered World War II and German U-boats began lurking off the Atlantic coast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the market for a vacation spot closer than Warm Springs, Ga., and less vulnerable than the presidential yacht. The White House enlisted National Park Service officials to recommend a place, and they chose Camp No. 3 in Catoctin. In April 1942, Roosevelt visited the grounds, which already had rustic lodging and a swimming pool, and called it “Shangri-La,” after the mythical utopia hidden from the savagery of the real world in James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.”
At the camp, Roosevelt tended his stamp collection and played Solitaire on a screened-in porch, removed from the “fret of existence,” according to W. Dale Nelson’s definitive book “The President Is at Camp David.” Truman winterized the wood cabins but complained that there was “nothing but trees” up there. Eisenhower renamed the grounds Camp David after his father and grandson, added a small golf course and paced under his cabin’s covered porch whenever rain kept him from playing. JFK’s children enjoyed pulling the ears of the camp’s docile rabbits. Lady Bird Johnson likened a weekend on the mountain to “a psychological journey.” Richard Nixon would float in a new heated pool on snowy December days and stoke a raging fire on dark August nights. Walter Mondale’s daughter Eleanor tore around the grounds at breakneck speeds on a golf cart.
Off the mountain, as Camp David transformed from rustic retreat to full-service woodsy resort, Thurmont evolved from an agricultural-industrial settlement into a bedroom community for federal workers and commuters to Frederick and Hagerstown.
During the Roosevelt administration, the sudden arrival of Secret Service agents in town indicated that the president was only a few hours behind, and residents would crowd the intersection of Church and Main streets to watch FDR flash a “victory” sign from the window of his car. Today Thurmont residents know when the president is making the 30-minute helicopter flight from Washington because the local papers will carry an advance news item about a brief closure of Park Central Road, which winds upward to the entrance of Camp No. 3.
Obama has made 22 visits to Camp David since taking office, spending all or part of 54 days there, according to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps a record of the visits. At the same point in their presidencies, George W. Bush had made 81 visits spanning all or part of 256 days, and Bill Clinton had made 18 visits spanning all or part of 54 days. Camp David cost $100,000 to maintain in 1945 and somewhere between $1 million and $2 million in 1986. This year the budget is $8.5 million.
Outside the grounds, rattlesnakes and white-tailed deer are the kings of the mountain. To keep the deer population in check, the National Park Services dispatches sharpshooters to take down 200 per year.
One’s mind goes to Burt.
The Obama White House would not comment on any aspect of Camp David operations, hewing to the tradition of keeping the press and the public outside its walls, allowing one to assume that Angela Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev will be assigned to share a cabin and bunk bed this weekend.
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Camp David’s closest full-time neigh bor might be Gail McClellan, who on Tuesday afternoon sits near her camper alongside the creek where — somewhere upstream 25 years ago — Carter and Sadat fished for trout. She clutches her phone, a can of Coke, a lighter and a nearly empty pack of cigarettes. She wears jean shorts and a baseball cap. Pope John Paul II is on the front of her T-shirt, framed by the words “ON A MISSION FROM GOD!!!”
Gail, who has lived in the RV park for three years, has a good sense of humor.
“Michelle Obama’s gonna come get me,” she says, shifting her overweight frame, glancing backward up the mountain as if the fitness-focused first lady is about to burst through the underbrush swinging kettle bells.
Gail has a bad back that limits her mobility, and in 2004 breast cancer required a double mastectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation fried her short-term memory, put her out of her house and keeps her on disability, she says. She used to be an administrative assistant in Gaithersburg, but moved to the Crow’s Nest camp site after she could no longer afford the $800-a-month rent at a motel. Most camp residents pay $300 per month for a slot, plus electric.
Mary Friend, 62, her part-time neighbor, sits nearby. The location at the foot of the Catoctin Mountain ridge has its charms. It’s gorgeous when it snows, Gail says. Every morning you wake to a symphony of birdsong, Mary says.
“They need a Wal-Mart,” Gail says of Thurmont. “Get with the times.”
“They need a decent dress shop,” says Mary, who has a home in Oakland, in western Maryland, and works part-time at the discount store Dirt Cheap. . “You have to go to Frederick to get a dress.”
“They need to let businesses in,” Gail says.
“But I like it quaint,” Mary says. “In Oakland, the Dairy Queen I went to as a girl — they took it down and put up a Walgreens. It’s like they take out all the things you used to do as kids.”
When someone arrives at Camp David, you can hear it. There were six aircraft this morning, Mary says. Gail is amused by being so geographically close yet so conceptually far from economic power.
Obama “oughta come down here and see how the economy has impacted certain people who are now living in tents and campers year-round,” she says. Gail goes to the food bank in Thurmont because her disability check no longer lasts the whole month. Mary is upset that Maryland’s flush tax will double in July.
They both fantasize about moving to a better camp. They heard of one in Pennsylvania that has an on-site laundromat and paved roads.
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In the morning, children scamper to school buses along Frederick Road. In the afternoon, chestnut-colored horses graze in a meadow of buttercups on the eastern edge of town. In the evening, as the woods go dark up around Camp David, the crack of billiards resounds through the screen door of the bar and grill down on Main Street. Shadows cast by Kinnaird’s memorials, Bob Black’s apple trees and Crow’s Nest’s campers grow longer.
In front of Thurmont’s town office at twilight, a woman waters freshly planted flowers under a new wooden sign that says “Town of Thurmont: Gateway to the Mountains.”
Inside the town office at that moment, Thurmont’s mayor and four commissioners vote unanimously to apply for a grant to provide the local food bank with three new refrigerators and three new freezers to handle perishable donations. This weekend, a couple of miles westward and upward, the president and his peers will likely affirm their unanimous commitment to bettering the global economy, although who’s to say that what happens at the top of the mountain is any more important than what happens down below.