CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. — The other day, Carol Meyer and her friend Ellen went walking in the woods of Chappaqua. For all they knew, they might see a coyote or some rare mushrooms or Hillary Clinton.
“I just have a sense — ” said Ellen, putting on her gloves.
“You think so?” said Carol, adjusting her scarf.
A Clinton sighting was hardly unlikely. She and her husband were Chappaqua neighbors who enjoyed an invigorating, mind-clearing tromp in the local nature preserve as much as anyone else. And now, of course, she was back in town. Ellen had already seen her in the woods twice since she lost the presidency, and she wasn’t the only one. Two days after the election, a young woman had spotted Clinton and taken a photo with her that went viral, leading to fake news stories alleging that the whole thing was staged, which was said to prove once again that Hillary Clinton couldn’t do anything that did not strike a false note. But Chappaquaians knew better.
“Of Course Hillary Clinton Was Hiking The Day After She Lost the Election You F-----g Dumba--es,” wrote one Chappaqua native blogging in defense of the young woman in the photo, who had received hate mail afterward, which was why Ellen and others did not want their full names made public. “It’s not uncommon to run into the Clintons in the nature preserves, or even on the road.”
In fact, photos had been popping up all over in recent weeks showing a makeup-free Clinton smiling with strangers in the pines, so many that “Saturday Night Live” did a skit called “The Hunt for Hil,” in which two investigators head off into the woods to “find her, trap her, and thank her” with the help of a forest shaman. Others scrutinizing the photos noted that in one, Clinton appeared to be wearing the same blue-patterned Patagonia fleece she had been photographed wearing in outings for 20 years, spawning jokes that her fleece had more experience than Donald Trump, and comments about how regular she seemed, how human.
It was like Al Gore growing a beard after his 2000 election loss. Or George W. Bush painting self-portraits after leaving office. It was Hillary Clinton in the woods: not a candidate running, but a person walking, and probably also talking, as Ellen and Carol were doing now, two lawyers heading along a grassy path into the 44-acre preserve.
“I read this article by Michael Kinsley — he was saying Donald Trump is a fascist, but not in the usual sense,” Ellen began, and as they walked along, the words “corporate statism” and “Tillerson” and “democracy” drifted up into the maples and pines.
They huffed up a rocky hill and walked along a ridge. They eased down into a clearing by a half-frozen stream, which was where, two days after the election, Ellen had been walking her yellow lab Phoebe, distraught over the results and saying to herself, “If I see her, I see her” when she actually saw her, in the woods: Hillary Clinton coming around a bend.
“Bill was in front,” Ellen said. “And then here came Hillary with her poodle and then the agents. And I’m here, and then we were together, and I just said, ‘What happened?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea.’ And I said, ‘I really admire you. You look great. You’re wonderful.’ I stood there with my arms wide open and I’m not even a hugger and I gave her this big hug. She had on a beautiful sweater. She asked my dog’s name.”
A couple weeks later, Ellen, who calls herself “the Sacagawea of the Arboretum,” let Phoebe off her leash. The dog was bounding ahead full speed when she started barking, and then Hillary and Bill Clinton appeared again, this time with their daughter, Chelsea, Chelsea’s husband and their children. It was the day after Thanksgiving and soon, other hikers were popping out of the woods.
“I had already hugged her so I just said hello and patted her on the arm,” Ellen said. “Don’t ask me why.”
It was cold and quiet now except for the wind blowing through the bare branches of trees, and the sound of something rustling in the leaves. The women carried on deeper into the woods, bending back twigs, heading up a slope they called “Secret Service Hill” after a time years ago when the path was frozen and they had helped the Clintons’ agents, who were wearing loafers, navigate the incline. The Clintons were well shod.
“It was a snowy February day,” Carol recalled. “They were holding hands.”
Ellen remembered Bill talking during his convention speech this summer about how he and Hillary had taken a walk on their first date and had been “walking and talking” ever since. Sometimes, though, it was just Bill walking alone in the woods as Hillary traipsed around the world or campaigned across the country.
Once, a Chappaquaian named Judy Fuhrer was driving along the road by the preserve, listening to an audio recording of Bill Clinton’s 1,008-page memoir. She said she was on the 13th CD when she realized that the tall white-haired man walking his dog up ahead was the former president of the United States.
“I stopped and got out of my car and said, ‘I’m listening to your autobiography right now!’ And he said, ‘You listened to the whole thing?! Whoa!’ And I said, ‘I listened to Hillary’s too.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s more interesting.’ He asked me if I wanted him to sign [the CD] but I told him it was a library copy.”
Once, a Chappaquaian named Lew was coming out of the woods with his dog Maggie when he saw Bill Clinton and the dog heading in.
“He said, ‘What’s it like in there today?’ ” Lew recalled. “I said, ‘It’s actually pretty muddy.’ He was complaining he didn’t have on the right boots.”
It seemed like almost every Chappaquaian had some story about the time they ran into the former most powerful man in the world. They had chatted with him in the woods about Nelson Mandela’s birthday party, or at Le Jardin Du Roi bistro about the lost chance for a Middle East peace deal. When Judy Fuhrer’s son broke his arm, Clinton signed the boy’s cast. Ellen ran into him in the bookstore once and handed him her cellphone to wish her sister-in-law a happy birthday, and he had seemed glad to oblige.
Hillary Clinton sightings were less frequent. “Sometimes she was here on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, in casual clothes, just like the rest of us,” said Carol, stepping over some rocks. “She’d always comment on it being a nice day, I think so you’d feel comfortable because sometimes it can be intimidating, you know, meeting a former president and, at that time, a secretary of state.”
Now it was different. Now it seemed like Hillary Clinton might appear at any moment, like she was just up ahead, just beyond those trees. Recently, a Chappaquaian named Andy and his two dogs, Lucas and Earl, were out walking and noticed that the leaves normally covering the path appeared to have been cleared by a leaf blower, the first time he had ever seen such a thing. In the distance, he saw two men sitting too stiffly on a bench.
“I said, ‘This is odd.’ It’s more like ‘Deliverance,’ ” he said, referring to the movie. “I tried to hustle up with the boys, and that night, my wife showed me the picture.”
A picture of Hillary Clinton in the woods. He had just missed her.
“I’d be interested to see her and chat,” he said, figuring it would happen sooner or later, which was what Carol and Ellen figured too.
They ducked under the limbs of two skinny trees that arched over the path, and after a while, there was a rustling noise, and the sound of people talking in the distance. It was a Saturday afternoon; Ellen had almost always seen her in the afternoon. She had seen Bill at the Starbucks earlier. Maybe she was back. They pressed on, but soon the sounds vanished, and there was just the woods.
“The Cathedral of Firs,” Ellen said, reaching her favorite part of the hike, a swath of evergreens. They stopped and looked around. You could hear a bird or two. You could hear the creak of branches in the wind. They tried to imagine what Hillary would be doing next.
“I think of her as someone who wants to be out doing things, having a goal,” Carol said.
“My niece wants me to invite her to join my book club,” Ellen said, and as they headed into a clearing, the two friends talked about how they had solved all the world’s problems in the woods, even if they had yet to solve their own grief over the election. Seeing Hillary Clinton out here in nature helped, even if it was also unsettling.
“It kind of brings it all home — like, oh. Wait. That’s who lost,” Carol said, and soon, they reached the last part of their hike, a path winding through a marshy area of low shrubs with long yellowy leaves. The leaves looked like uncombed yellowy hair. That was what they saw now, not Hillary.