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No grocery, $5 haircuts - and the Bush ranch

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The White House bills the president's month-long retreat to his Texas ranch in Crawford as his "home to the heartland" tour. Some reporters jokingly call it "home to the wasteland."

True, Crawford is little more than a crossroads on a drought-stricken prairie, bereft of even a grocery store. From afar, it's hard to imagine why the president of the free world would spend so much time in the middle of nowhere and in temperatures that, in August, intimidate even the local scorpions.

But up close, nowhere becomes somewhere - a place with a distinct identity and culture, and despite the jokes, a place with its own sense of beauty. Drive out Prairie Chapel Road to the Bush ranch, and you'll wind along a serpentine route that cuts through a kaleidoscope of color: grass as blond and soft as a chamois; fields turned under to reveal rich, dark soil; pastures dotted with black angus and green oak.

Laura Bush calls the couple's secluded, 1,600-acre ranch "a haven." The president, ribbing reporters who might have preferred to be covering Bill Clinton on Martha's Vineyard or even one of his father's bass-fishing trips, explained himself this way last week: "I know a lot of you wish you were in the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air. But when you're from Texas - and love Texas - this is where you come home."

Certainly this is how people in Crawford - population 705 and growing - feel about this town too small to rate placement on a rental-car map. They may themselves go on vacation to Cozumel or Canada, but they always come back to this place with road names like Cattle Drive and Covered Wagon Trail.

Some folks here can trace their families back to the original German immigrants who founded this agrarian settlement in the late 1800s. Jamie Burgess, who runs a farm and a new gift shop called "The Red Bull," says her roots go back at least seven generations. Bill Sparkman, the local barber, has been shaving and cutting in the same shop for 41 years, long enough to master the tight-around-the-ear look. On Sundays, residents attend one of five local churches - most of whose congregations consist of one or two extended families.

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