My wife and I were getting away, a back-to-nature trip to New Zealand, and at the welcome center on the Coromandel Peninsula saw a photograph of a guest cottage that looked attractive: Celadon. An hour’s drive on a twisting road took us to a small town, and a sign for Celadon led us onto a gravel track going back into rainforest. Hidden among the giant Kiwi ferns was a building with pole footings and a sharply peaked second floor. The note on the door said, “Am Around. Please Toot. Ray.”
My wife tooted a couple of times, and we were about to give up when a 60-ish man in green sweatpants came running through the open pilings of the house from the back, as if from out of the forest.
“Oh, you’re Americans!” he said, when we said what we were after. “But I’ve just given the Tipper Gore Suite to a young Dutch couple.”
“Tipper Gore!” my wife and I said in unison.
“I prayed that I could rename it the First Lady Suite, but of course that didn’t happen,” Ray said. “And Sarah wrote me a note on Air Force Two stationery-that’s the Vice President’s plane-saying it was the best vacation her mother had ever had.”
“Sarah Sedona. That was her alias when she came-Sarah Gore. She’s lovely. She said it was the best vacation her mother had ever had, which I’m afraid doesn’t say a lot for Al.”
Ray was a bit of the forest creature. He had a musical voice and light blue eyes and expressive gray eyebrows.
“But, look, I can put you up in the bodyguards’ cottage-$90.”
We walked up a hill through thick foliage to a house with pine siding. It had a sun deck with a stunning view of the Coromandel harbor and bay.
“Please Remove Your Shoes,” a sign said. Ray slipped out of his big rubber boots, and I undid my own.
“Did the bodyguards take off their shoes?” my wife said.
“Oh, yes,” Ray said. “They weren’t heavies. They were cultivated and well-spoken-especially Doug, whom I dealt with. They told me they were teachers who had attended a conference in Australia and just wanted to have a look around while they were in the Southern Hemisphere. And of course I fell for it, I’m so naïve.”
The place was cold. It’s winter in New Zealand, and it felt like an October day in New England. Ray turned on the space heater and showed us the neatly equipped kitchen.
By now, my wife and I wanted to know how Ray had gotten past the aliases. He stood in the middle of the room telling the story with fresh amazement.
“Well. I drove into town, and Sarah happened to drive in front of me. And as we came by this driveway, the teachers’ van was just sitting there, waiting, and it pulled in behind me, so I went into town in a sandwich. That seemed a little odd; still, the penny didn’t drop. Till later-“
“I had made a reservation for the teachers at a restaurant, and the restaurant called back to say they didn’t have a booking. So I came up this hill to find Doug to tell him, and who should he be talking to but Sarah! And I just thought, ‘O.K., they’re Americans, so that’s why they had met.’ Still-“
Just then the phone rang, and Ray pulled a white handset out of his sweatpants.
“I’ll tell you the rest later,” he said, and shot out the door.
I moved the bags into the Bodyguards’ Suite, and we drove into the nearby town for dinner. Ray had recommended the Success Café, as he had to the Gores. The food was a disappointment. The fish was smothered in Parmesan and tomato sauce, and I wondered how Tipper and Sarah and Kristin-she had stolen along, Ray said-had dealt with the cuisine in Coromandel. They had come during New Zealand’s winter, early August 2000, just before the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
I imagined the Gore women were just trying to do what we were doing, getting away to a place that seems simpler and more honest than the States. Kiwis care about food and land. The cities are connected by highways that would be back roads in our country, and cars stop to make way for herds of sheep. No one is particularly consumerist. Yet the culture is sophisticated. The hillsides are filled with eccentrics replanting the ancient kauri forest and selling jugs of plant food made from seaweed.
When we got back, Celadon was absolutely still, with just a plume of smoke rising up from the cottage Ray told us was occupied by a computer worker on a Buddhist retreat. We took off our shoes and dragged the space heater into the bedroom. “Did you notice that the handles on the water faucets work backwards?” my wife said.
The next morning I had to go back into town to get cash and run an errand for my wife, and by then it was getting time for us to get to a bush railway we were hoping to ride. It looked like we weren’t going to learn the end of Ray’s story, especially when I stopped at the office to leave our money. The place was empty. A tui bird drinking from the flowering coral tree made an odd clucking noise just over our heads. I slipped the cash under a strangely beautiful lantern of incised black ceramic and had started writing a note to Ray when he materialized again, from the woods.
We didn’t have much time. We pressed him to find out how things had come out.
“Well. As I said, I went up the hill to the teachers’ cottage to tell Doug about the reservation when who should I see but Sarah, and she was talking to Doug! So I said, ‘Sarah, you’ve met Doug!’ And Sarah said yes, she had met him. And then she stepped forward and said”-a dramatic pause-“‘Ray, we won’t insult you any longer. These are our bodyguards.’
“‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘You must be someone very special to have a bodyguard.’
“‘I’m not Sarah Sedona, I’m Sarah Gore, and that’s my mother, Tipper Gore.’ You see, she had said that her mother was Mary, and that’s her name, Mary, so she hadn’t really lied about that.
“But she said, ‘Now, Ray, you mustn’t say anything, because if you do the paparazzi will be here in 10 minutes from Auckland.’
“And I said, ‘Of course I won’t.’ And that night my daughter called from Auckland and I said, ‘You won’t believe who’s staying here-someone very special, but I can’t tell you now.’ Then an hour or so later, my partner called-she teaches in Auckland- and she had talked to our daughter and she said, ‘Ray, what is happening?’ And I said I couldn’t say anything about it, not for a long time, and she said”-Ray’s voice grew accusing-“‘Who is she?’
“But still I didn’t say. And”-Ray’s voice became serious-“she said, ‘Ray, you can’t do this to us. We’re family. You must tell us.'”
“I think I would have caved,” I said.
“I did not. Not till Tipper was safely out of the country. It was more than a month.”
Then things got out of Ray’s control. Someone staying in the Tipper Gore Suite read the name Tipper Gore-which is how she signed the register-and tipped off an Auckland newspaper, which called Ray in November 2000. Ray tried to hold out, but the reporter played hardball: “Listen, if you tell us, we’ll run a whole other story about your cottages after the election, if the Gores win.” So, feeling that he had satisfied his obligation to the Gores, Ray Morley went public.
There were big headlines in the Auckland papers about the Gores’ incognito visit. Sarah, then a student at Harvard, had been working on a Let’s Go guide. Her mother had come to visit her.
“And we prayed and prayed for Al Gore. But, of course, it didn’t come to pass,” Ray said. “Which is Al’s own fault, you know. Because he chained up Bill Clinton.”
“He did?” I said, racking my brains to remember the election.
“Oh, yes. Because if he hadn’t chained up Clinton, he wouldn’t have lost Tennessee and Arkansas. Their home states! Which would have easily provided the margin of victory. Easily.”
We shook hands with Ray and, rushing past the clucking tui bird, went up the road and further into the bush, determined to have a vacation.