The visiting President Barack Obama and first family had a big impact Saturday on thousands of Yosemite visitors, some who had invitations to hear him speak, others hoping just to catch a glimpse of him.
Although the president’s motorcade temporarily closed off some park roadways and trails throughout the day, most visitors seemed content to wait patiently while enjoying the sunny skies and sparkling waters of a picture-perfect day.
Those who were lucky enough to gather at Cook’s Meadow, the site of the president’s Saturday morning speech, were entertained by Tom Bopp, who has played piano since 1983 at the Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee).
One of his songs touted the joys of “roughing it” in the park: “I want to camp at the Majestic, just like the swell folks do.” (“I had to revise the lyrics,” Bopp added.)
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Invited guests who had a chance to meet the president included members of Fresh Tracks Leadership Expeditions, an environmental program that coordinates a cultural exchange of teens from Compton and Alaska.
Fresh Tracks member Jared Savage, 17, of Compton said it was “amazing” to meet the president. “He’s done so much for our community and the people in our community,” he said. “Just to see him in person, that close to me, was amazing. His presence and his speech was just so influential on me.”
Savage was equally awed by Yosemite: “When I drove in, I saw all of the trees and said, ‘This is amazing.’ And then I saw my first waterfall and I literally jumped out of my seat … I’m so blessed to be here today.”
I want people to get their outdoor swagger back.
Rue Mapp of the nonprofit Outdoor Afro, on what she hopes is gained from the president’s visit to Yosemite
A Fresh Tracks member from Alaska, 18-year-old Esau Sinnok, was also thrilled to shake the president’s hand. “This right hand that I’ve got, shook his hand,” Sinnnok said with a wide smile. “That felt so amazing. I don’t think I’m ever going to wash this hand … I’ve dreamed of meeting (the president) ever since I got involved in environmental work.”
For Sinnok, from the island of Shishmaref north of Nome, the trip to Yosemite for the president’s speech was his first time at any national park.
“The cliffs and the waterfalls really got me; that was just overwhelming,” he said. “Man, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.”
Sinnok said he was moved when the president “said that youth around here don’t really get involved with outdoors, and we should take action to let them get involved.”
“Everybody should feel the same experience I’m feeling,” he said. “It’s amazing to be out here in the national park … That’s what I hope to help with in the Fresh Tracks program.”
The invited attendees also included Rue Mapp of the nonprofit Outdoor Afro. Mapp, from Oakland, said her organization’s goal is to “celebrate and inspire African Americans to reconnect with national parks.”
“We want to impress on the president to issue a memorandum ensuring that national parks stay relevant and vital for the next 100 years,” Mapp said.
And, she added, “I want people to get their outdoor swagger back.”
Ansel Adams connection
Ming Zhu, 47, was invited to hear the president speak because her husband, the grandson of Ansel Adams, owns the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. Zhu, originally from China, was excited to see the president for the first time.
After meeting the Dalai Lama, Zhu said Obama is “second on the list.”
Since immigrating to the United States 20 years ago and joining the Adams family, Zhu said she has learned a lot about the importance of Yosemite. She also learned Yosemite is the sister park to Huangshan National Park, which is near her hometown.
Mark Wellman, a former park ranger who is the first paraplegic person to climb El Capitan and Half Dome, said he felt lucky to talk with the president and shake his hand after the speech.
Wellman said he told Obama about his climbing accomplishments, to which the president replied, “I can see that – look at the guns on you!”
The El Capitan climb took place in 1989 when Wellman was 29. Now he’s 56 and spends much of his time working with disabled youth and veterans, teaching wheelchair users adaptive climbing. He hopes to get more funding so that the trips can include disadvantaged and disabled youth.
People from all over the world come to Yosemite, but then you have people in the Central Valley who say, ‘I’ve never been there.’ It blows my mind.
Mark Wellman, first paraplegic person to climb El Capitan and Half Dome
Wellman said Obama’s speech was on target and moved him. He grew up in the Bay Area and frequently visited Yosemite as a boy.
He said all kids should have the same access to national parks that he did.
“People from all over the world come to Yosemite, but then you have people in the Central Valley who say, ‘I’ve never been there,’ ” he said. “It blows my mind.”
Other climbers didn’t get so close to the president. David Rozul and four of his friends were stuck waiting all morning to go bouldering in Camp 4.
The guys from San Diego passed their time relaxing on their large cushioned crash pads under some shady oaks. At noon, park rangers finally allowed them and a large crowd at the corner of Village Drive and Oak Lane to walk into the east side of Yosemite Valley.
The wait was a little frustrating for Rozul, but the 25-year-old also was excited to be near Obama.
“He’s enjoying the giant slabs of granite like us,” Rozul said with a smile.
He and his buddies joked that perhaps the president would appear later at a chunk of granite called the Presidential Boulder to work on his climbing moves with them.
He’s enjoying the giant slabs of granite like us.
Rock climber David Rozul of San Diego
“It would be so cool if Obama was a climber,” Rozul said. “Maybe one day in the future, after he’s done with his presidency and wants time to relax, he can always hit us up, we’ll meet him here. Hopefully there won’t be as many Secret Service or barricades.”
Speaking of congestion
While the president spoke, a large crowd gathered across the meadow, craning their necks in hopes of getting a glimpse of Obama.
One woman with binoculars helped some young children get a look, who then exclaimed, “Oh I see him! I see the president!” Another woman standing nearby watched the president’s speech via a live news stream on her phone.
All the excitement also caused some problems for the driver of a large RV. Finding the road ahead temporarily closed, he backed his vehicle into a tree while trying to turn around in the cramped space.
Adriana Orozco, 40, rode up to Cook’s Meadow after Obama left. She and her family, who live in Los Angeles, vacation every year in Yosemite around the Fourth of July.
She knew she wouldn’t get to hear Obama speak but was happy to see the aftermath. Orozco said she didn’t grow up visiting Yosemite or other parks. She started coming 10 years ago because she and her husband, both teachers, were looking for a simple place for a family vacation.
“That first year we came, I was just mesmerized,” she said. “My experience with the parks and the trees was through books. It made me realize books don’t do this kind of place justice.”
Orozco said she understands why the president wants more children to visit national parks. Her own three children, ages 11, 15 and 17, love going to Yosemite.
“They feel a sense of freedom,” she said. “Every little thing, even if it’s just walking to the Merced River, feels like an adventure.”