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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.

Thurmont, literally a one-stoplight settlement of about 6,000 people, is at a crossroads over its own relationship with history. Some residents and business owners want to reinvigorate the town's historic charm as a way of creating a future for Thurmont. An older class, locals whose families have lived here for generations, would just as soon not touch a thing.

"It's a complex place," Little said. "There are people who hang with fingernails clawed to the past, and people who don't understand that. Wal-Mart's a dirty word around here."

The whole area is heavy on history: a 20-minute drive up U.S. 15 is the Gettysburg battlefield; turn around and come back down the highway and the Maryland welcome center doubles as a memorial to the Mason-Dixon Line.

In Thurmont, at the Cozy Country Inn, you can tuck yourself in with a copy of Kennedy's inaugural address in the JFK suite, or immerse yourself in FDR's room with the same nautical decorative motif Roosevelt brought to the Oval Office. Just next door to the inn, the Cozy restaurant also serves as a one-room museum of Camp David history (the only one in existence as far as anyone there can tell).

Roosevelt's retreat, originally named Shangri-La for the fictional utopia in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, became a permanent property of the National Park Service in 1954. The park had originally been established during the Depression as a work site for the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

During World War II, the Secret Service was looking for a secure retreat for Roosevelt near Washington when it was discovered that the government already owned this patch of land.

Roosevelt visited for the first time in 1942. Later, he worked on plans for the invasion of Normandy here.

A decade after that, President Eisenhower renamed the place Camp David after his 5-year-old grandson. The simpler name seemed in better keeping with the grounds' roots than any literary reference did - particularly, one from an English author.

After the war, the camp's existence was also revealed to the wider public, and subsequent presidents turned a favorite calm weekend spot into the de facto official presidential retreat, later home to Middle East peace talks and diplomatic visitors from Churchill to Putin. An invite to the rustic mountain has become the highest honor extended to visiting dignitaries - or, conversely, an indication of the gravest crises in need of quiet time.

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was in private talks with Eisenhower at the camp in 1959 when Wireman sent the president a letter inviting the two down for Palm Sunday services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Thurmont. Wireman got back another of those polite responses - sorry, the president's schedule was packed - adding that Eisenhower's people would let him know if things changed.

That Saturday night, Wireman got a knock on his front door. It was a Secret Service agent with a message "on behalf of President Eisenhower." The next morning, Wireman escorted the two heads of state into church.

And the following Sunday - another Easter morning in the mountains - the president had a great big bouquet of lilies delivered to the congregation in thanks.

if you goGetting there

Thurmont is 65 miles northwest of Baltimore: an hour's drive west on Interstate-70 and then north on U.S. 15.Lodging

The Cozy Country Inn, 103 Frederick Road, 301-271-4301 or cozyvillage.com. The inn features rooms and suites commemorating the presidents who have stayed at Camp David and the uninvited visiting press corps members who have often slept here. Rates run $62-169.Dining

Thurmont Bar & Grill, 10 E. Main St., 301-271-7422. Fried chicken is a local favorite.

Cool Beans, 4 E. Main St., 301-271-4744. Coffee shop with light lunch, pastries, salads and live music on Saturday nights.

Isabella's Tavern & Tapas Bar, 44 N. Market St., Frederick, 301-698-8922 or isabellas-tavern.com. An extensive tapas menu at this restaurant located about 20 minutes south of Thurmont.Activities

Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park. 301-663-9388 or nps.gov/cato. Hiking trails, camp sites, lodging for day- or overnight trips.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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