The president of the United States was utterly unconcerned about his own safety as he edged toward the precipice of a rocky 90-foot cliff.
As George W. Bush coaxed his guests to join him for a better look at the creek below, he told them not to worry. A strong wind, he said reassuringly, was gusting up from below.
With unrelenting good cheer, Bush led a small group of White House reporters on a brisk four-mile hike around his wind-swept property Thursday morning.
Along the way, he demonstrated not only a certain fearlessness but also considerable knowledge of the fauna and flora on his beloved 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch, six miles outside this central Texas town.
Despite the morning chill, Bush set a pace that in no time had most of the reporters panting. The equipment-laden photographers were quickly drenched in sweat. "A warmer-upper," Bush playfully described the hike.
The day proved mutually beneficial: The reporters got an extremely rare up-close and extended look at Bush, in a setting that he loves like no other. Bush reaped handsome dividends as well, garnering a rash of favorable images.
In a blue jacket, baseball cap, denim jeans and gloves, the president looked quite the part of a Texas rancher in touch with the environment.
At one point, he spoke about maintaining "the proper buck-to-doe ratio." At another, he claimed: "I've become a guy who really likes trees." As if to prove it, he spelled and then defined "mott": "where a group of trees grow quite tight together."
After the tour, he invited the media -- sans muddy footwear -- into the ranch house for coffee and some quality small talk.
During the 90-minute hike, a few reporters playfully posed leading questions, offering the president several opportunities to get serious. But he parried every such thrust.
Among the outing's more lasting impressions was the president's love of his land. As the group ranged across the vast terrain -- up and down hills, over and around rocks -- Bush's enthusiasm seemed only to grow.
Time and again, he pointed out changes in the topography, noting all manner of trees, including some magnificent live oaks and the water-sapping cedars that he often attacks with vigor. He rued that the pecan trees had a poor season.
Bush seemed especially taken with the springs that bubbled out of rocks and trickled into ravines.
At one point, he led reporters into what he calls "the cathedral," a starkly beautiful canyon that nature has carved out of chalky soft limestone. There, a waterfall cascaded from a huge shelf of overhanging stone into a clear pool. Bush lingered for a few minutes to marvel at the site, which had been bone dry at the time of his first press tour, in August 2001.
At various times, Bush veered off the crude, rocky roads to point out especially scenic tableaux. He ducked under trees to show off a brook that dropped from flat rock to flat rock.
When a reporter pointed out a hawk overhead, Bush quickly corrected him: It was a turkey buzzard.
Despite the small talk during the ranch tour, Bush served up several noteworthy morsels.
Since arriving at the ranch Dec. 26, Bush and his wife, Laura, have entertained friends every night. "It's a good chance for us to catch up with our buddies, and we really like our friends," the president explained.
But Bush did not stay up to usher in the new year. Referring to the six-hour time difference between here and London, he quipped: "I was looking for that ball dropping in London."
Even at the ranch, Bush does not sleep in. He works from 7 to 10 a.m. before going outside to "cut cedar or fool around, you know, repair something." After lunch, he will work until about 4 p.m. and then go fishing.
Bush also revealed that he and his wife have a difference of opinion concerning their retirement residence.
"In my view, this will be the primary residence, and we'd have a townhouse somewhere else," Bush said. "I think her view might be slightly different, in which case, her view will prevail."