Reporting from Gettysburg, Pa. — It's still unclear whether Sarah Palin's road trip is an educational family tour of historical America or a dry run for her potential Republican presidential bid.
But Monday, two things became clear: She will not shy away from unscripted encounters, and she isn't going let anyone know in advance where she's going as she wends her way across the country this summer.
In an impromptu news conference Monday evening in the parking lot of her Gettysburg hotel shortly after taking a four-mile run in steaming heat, Palin said she thought the current crop of Republican presidential contenders is "strong" and that any campaign she might wage "would definitely be unconventional and nontraditional, yes, knowing us, yeah, it would have to be."
And that was as far as she would go, leaving the former Alaska governor's intentions, like much of her bus tour, a mystery. Although she announced her "One Nation" tour with great fanfare on her website, Palin has refused to post information about her schedule, leaving reporters scrambling across the Eastern Seaboard to figure out her stops.
Her bus tour began for real on Monday after she spent Sunday, the ostensible start day, riding in a motorcycle procession for veterans and surreptitiously visiting Washington monuments. Her patriotic-themed bus, decorated with a blown-up image of the U.S. Constitution, pulled up to the National Archives in Washington at 9:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, half an hour before opening.
Her party — which included her husband, three daughters and her parents, as well as Greta Van Susteren, a host on Fox News, with whom Palin has an exclusive contract — was ushered into the building for a private look at the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, cloistered in a darkened rotunda under glass.
By the time she exited the archives half an hour later, a small crowd of reporters and well-wishers had gathered outside.
"I wish every student in America could get here," she afterward. "It is heartwarming, and it means so much to so many of us to be able to physically be here and see the foundation of America."
Don Folden, 58, a bus driver who has a T-shirt and cap business, provided Palin with her first candidate-like interaction of the day as she made her way back to her bus.
"Gov. Palin," said Folden. "I'm a black Republican. I'd like to know, what are you gonna do to attract more African Americans to the Republican Party?"
"I would believe that every American is interested in making sure the country is getting back on the right track, that jobs are created in the private sector," she said, smiling. "Doesn't matter skin tone on that. We all need good jobs, we need the economy roaring."
Folden continued to press Palin, saying that "the rumor is that you are divisive, but man, include us as well, that's all I ask."
"Amen," Palin said at one point. "I appreciate that. Thank you."
Later, Folden said he was unsatisfied. "It was a standard cookie-cutter response," he said.
On their next stop, the Palins visited Mount Vernon, where they toured the restored Virginia home of George Washington. A CNN microphone picked up the sound of a woman asking Palin to "Please protect our Medicare," although it was unclear whether she responded. She did not speak to reporters, who were kept at a distance.
But Palin later chatted amiably with reporters at Ft. McHenry, site of the 1814 American victory against the British in the Battle of Baltimore, which inspired the national anthem.
Palin and her family followed Ranger Jim Bailey, dressed in the sweltering heat as an 1814 Army artillery officer, who gave them a tour of the battlefield in Baltimore and let Palin pick up a 36-pound cannonball.
On their way out, Sarah and Todd Palin peered through glass at the original 1814 score for Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner."
She stoked the mystery of whether she will run for president at each stop, saying several times that she is still "contemplating" a run. One associate, who was not authorized to speak for Palin, said he thinks that the trip is a way for the Palins to see whether they are up for the rigors of the campaign trail. (Her youngest child, Trig, 3, was not seen, nor did Tripp, the 2 ½-year-old son of her eldest daughter, Bristol, appear to be on the bus.)
Later at the fort, asked about the GOP field, she mentioned Texas Gov. Rick Perry, saying she thought he would make "a fine candidate" and that "we have a lot in common."
"Competition breeds success," she said. "I would hope there is gonna be vigorous debate and a lot of aggressive competition even in our primary so that our voters have a good choice."