How the wife of a president helped create the PCT

An excerpt from The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail

By Mark Larabee and Barney Scout Mann

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Eight inches of fresh snow lay on the ground but the day was sunny in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. His young shoulders bore a nation’s hopes. Pundits began calling his administration “Camelot.” Did this mean a new day for trails? A wry quip of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas revealed a crystal-clear answer. Douglas, who was an ardent conservationist, remonstrated his friend, the new president: “The trouble is, Jack, you’ve never slept on the ground.” One journalist wrote that the closest Kennedy “came to nature was to peer through binoculars at a moose from his lodge window.”

President Kennedy appointed Stuart Udall as secretary of the interior. Udall was certainly inclined to pursue a trail agenda. But the end result was as predictable as the response on the day Udall suggested Kennedy join him for a hike. In September 1963, Udall and Kennedy were in Wyoming staying at the Rockefellers’ Grand Teton lodge. It was an incomparable setting. Udall suggested that he and Kennedy get up for an early nature walk. Kennedy’s staffers looked at Udall and laughed.

Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated.

While Kennedy had been a Boston Brahmin, the next man in the Oval Office was a Texas rancher. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, would trails fare better? If it had been left solely to Johnson, most likely not.

Sunday, August 16, 1964, might well be one of the most important days for national trails legislation. President Johnson was alone at the White House. His wife, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, affectionately known as Lady Bird, was away. What was on his mind? The man was preoccupied with his prize bulls—how well would they place at the Blanco County Fair? The Secret Service finally delivered the wired report after 11:00 p.m., and Johnson must have slapped a thigh and smiled. The ranch walked away with six first place ribbons and the reserve champion bull. So reported Johnson’s daily diary.

When the administrations had changed, Udall stayed on as secretary of the interior. Trails were still one of his goals and he also wanted to protect the country’s threatened wild rivers. But how do you get the attention of a rancher focused on trophy cattle? Udall made an end run instead. He courted the first lady.

In 1960, Daniel Ogden had worked for the Kennedy campaign and after the election, secured a position in the Department of the Interior. In 1962, the Bureau of Recreation was created and Udall appointed Ogden the assistant director of planning and research. Two years later, Udall approached Ogden and said, “I need your help to plan a trip.” Udall wanted to take Lady Bird Johnson rafting down the Snake River. All the planning revolved around a special lunch at a spot reachable only by water. With the Grand Tetons as a backdrop, Udall planned to pitch Lady Bird his plans to protect the nation’s rivers and to build a nationwide system of trails.

Dan Ogden sits down to talk with us about his involvement with the PCT and the National Trails System. Photo by Mark Larabee

Dan Ogden sits down to talk with us about his involvement with the PCT and the National Trails System. Photo by Mark Larabee

Ogden was the advance man for the float trip. Working closely with the National Park Service, Ogden knew how much might be riding on Udall’s lunch with Lady Bird. Everything was arranged. Big inflatable rafts were set to deliver them to a particular spot on the banks of the Snake River. The report came to Ogden the night before: “The river is too low. There isn’t enough water coming down the Snake River to float to the picnic site.” The rafts couldn’t make it. Ogden huddled with Udall and then, he said, “We called the Bureau of Reclamation and told them to open up the dam.” There are benefits to being the secretary of the interior. Upstream, the big valves turned and water flowed in a surge.

The LBJ Presidential Library archives preserved the moment in a photo. Lady Bird looks up and she’s beaming as Udall points out the sights using his full arm. The two are side by side sitting on the thick walls of a gray raft. The Grand Tetons slice the sky, cheering Udall in his efforts. Udall got his lunch. No record has surfaced recording what they said. But Johnson’s diary shows that he spoke to his wife that night at 11:05 p.m., just before he got word about his showstopping bulls.

First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson floats the Snake River near the Teton Range with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. This 1964 raft trip helped influence President Lyndon Johnson's decision two years later to push legislation establishing the PCT as one of the first two national scenic trails.

First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson floats the Snake River near the Teton Range with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. This 1964 raft trip helped influence President Lyndon Johnson’s decision two years later to push legislation establishing the PCT as one of the first two national scenic trails. Courtesy of the LBJ Library.

Not even six months later, on February 8, 1965, Johnson delivered a special message to Congress. At the last minute he hesitated. Vietnam, the Achilles’ heel that would bring Johnson down, was much on his mind. But he signed the message and by noon it left the White House, crossing the grassy expanse of the National Mall to be delivered within the great white Capitol Dome. This text is referred to as Johnson’s American Beauty Message. Like a musical’s overture, it led with the main theme; the composer’s muse was Lady Bird.

For centuries Americans have drawn strength and inspiration from the beauty of our country. It would be a neglectful generation indeed . . . which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants.

There were five full paragraphs devoted to trails. Ogden drafted them. The written text carried an all-caps heading: “TRAILS.” After citing “the forgotten outdoorsmen” who liked to walk and hike, Johnson threw down the gauntlet: “We must have trails.” The tall Texan proposed, “We need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of America.”

I am requesting, therefore, that the Secretary of the Interior work with his colleagues in the federal government and with state and local leaders and recommend to me a cooperative program to encourage a national system of trails.

Such was the result of a lunch on the Snake River, made possible by a timely release of water from a dam and a conversation with an influential wife of a president, all as requested by Ogden, advance man.

***

Late morning on October 2, 1968, President Johnson greeted François Tombalbaye, the president of Chad. That night Johnson held a formal state dinner. The day was chock-full and hectic. But the effect of one 39-minute interval still reverberates today.

The setting was the East Room of the White House. A large map was hung and there were so many conservation dignitaries present that President Johnson ran out of pens. Starting at 1:17 p.m., the president signed acts creating Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park, he signed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and he signed the National Trails System Act.

The National Trails System Act designated two trails as the nation’s first national scenic trails. One was the Appalachian Trail. The other was the Pacific Crest Trail.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Associate Director of Communications and Marketing. He is editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and manages the association's advocacy efforts. He is co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.