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August 21, 2009

Magic Moments in the Great American West

by Sara Tucker

It didn't hit the stride of, say, Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man With the Muck-Rake" speech, but "Cool! Look at that! That's a geyser there" has its own kind of poetry. Call it the rhetoric of spontaneous delight.

That, of course, was our president last weekend, speaking off-the-cuff at Yellowstone National Park as Old Faithful gushed into the air. It was a memorable moment in a three-day family tour of some prime American wilderness, a tour dogged by pesky problems. Questions such as whether it's really a good thing to allow guns in our national parks and what to do about the growing number of pot farms on park land. Not to mention whether the move to reduce wolf populations through hunting is a good idea, considering that wolves were on the endangered list a few short months ago. Then, of course, there was the inevitable hubbub about health care reform, since this was, after all, a working vacation.

The Obama family's western tour was modeled after a historic trip made by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. Loosely modeled, you'd have to say. Vanity Fair's Power & Politics blog reminds us that TR "explored Yellowstone on horseback with naturalist John Burroughs, declared the Grand Canyon off-limits to mining interests, and slept under the stars in Yosemite with the inimitable John Muir." Obama, as the AP was quick to point out, is "no Marlboro Man" (oh, ouch), but reporters hoping for a western twist on the Pennsylvania bowling fiasco were disappointed. His western tour was very much the family vacation, with peach picking, zip lining (the president's sister tried it), s'mores, and white-water rafting ("Mrs. Obama is an incredible paddler," a guide told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle). The president tried out his new fly rod (the press was not invited) and fielded questions about insurance.

The tour was a whirlwind, but there were moments, and Old Faithful was one, when this presidential walk on the wild side reminded us why we care about our national parks. As a fountain of steam and spray exploded into the blue sky of a perfect day, everything else fell away--guns, wolves, health care--leaving behind only a welcome sense of childish wonder. "Cool. Look at that. That's a geyser there."

Further reading:
* "National Parks Welcome the Obamas" (The Daily Traveler on CNT)
* The 10 greatest parks and how to visit them (CNT, September 2009)
* "How the West Was Saved" (Vanity Fair)
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links


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