(First) Family Vacation

President Obama takes a Western vacation minus the station wagon

By Carol E. Lee
|  Sunday, Aug 16, 2009  |  Updated 11:51 PM CDT
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Obama the Family Man

AP

President Barack Obama, wife Michelle Obama, and daughters Malia Obama, 11, and Sasha Obama, 8, take in the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Wy.. Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The first family has toured Notre Dame in Paris. The Obama sisters made dolls with their grandmother in Russia. But the Obamas’ four-day trip out West has been the closest thing they’ve had to a family vacation since moving into the White House.

And while there was no station wagon – they hopped from Yellowstone National Park to Colorado peach groves to the Grand Canyon on Air Force One – the excursion ushered back the Obama common touch. The J.Crew of Obama outings, it was much more every-family than, say, the urban president's Manhattan date night or the family's upcoming week-long stay on Martha's Vineyard.

The itinerary covered some of the sites the president’s mother and grandmother took him to see during a month-long trip when he 11, the same age as his elder daughter, Malia.

Although he’s come a long way since riding Greyhound busses and staying in Howard Johnson’s as he did back then, the air of the presidency didn’t prevent the usually-cool Obama from channeling Clark Griswold.

The commander-in-chief came up empty handed in a Montana river while his fly-fishing partners – who serve under him in White House – reeled in rainbow trout. Gazing up while standing in the Wyoming swathe of Yellowstone, he quoted neighboring Montana’s saying to a park ranger: “That’s some Big Sky Country.”

The president also patiently mediated as his daughters hemmed and hawed over which flavor ice cream they wanted from the general store. And he offered his goofy dad commentary on the scenery.

“Oh!” Obama said, standing with his daughters in Yellowstone as Old Faithful belched into the air. “Look at that. That’s a geyser there.”

Obama mixed some business with his pleasure – holding two town hall meetings and delivering a speech Monday to Veterans of Foreign Wars.

But his mood at his public events appeared more jovial than usual, perhaps elevated by the fact that between talking health care he was squeezing in a tour of Black Sand Basin, a family dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix and a hike in the Grand Canyon.

At the beginning of each of his town hall events, the president informed the audience what “Michelle and the girls” were up to. The first lady was white-water rafting down southern Montana’s Gallatin River in the rain, and hail, with an inner-tube full of Secret Service agents in tow. In Colorado, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama were picking peaches.

“I’m hoping they bring some back for me,” Obama said. 

By Monday, the first family’s photo album will include an array of snapshots – many of them will likely come from the White House’s budding photographer, Malia Obama, who was seen clicking away on her digital camera.

One of the most picturesque postcards of their vacation will be from the Grand Canyon.

The first family gazed out over Powell Point and Hopi Point along the South Rim of the canyon, overlooking red rock butte and the Colorado River.

Malia and eight-year-old Sasha, who are joined on the trip by their cousins, inquired about wildlife. A park ranger explained there were snakes, scorpions, elk and mountain lions. “Oh man,” the ranger said the girls replied. “I don't want to see those.”

“The last time I was here is when I was 11 years old,” Obama told his family, who has probably heard the story a million times, as they posed for a photo.

The family peppered park rangers with questions about the canyon. “Malia had a good question, which is, the tops are so perfectly straight,” the president said. “Why is it, when everything was pushed up?”

The ranger explained the wearing down of sediment and showed them some samples of canyon rock.

Malia correctly identified igneous rock – getting a high five from her mom and a squeeze from her beaming dad. Obama later pointed out that his daughter also identified metamorphic and sedimentary rock, without coaching.

The president wasn’t so successful, although the park ranger was hesitant to correct the commander-in-chief

“That looks like sedimentary – you can tell by the layers,” Obama said, pausing. “These look like fossils.”
“I don't think so,” the ranger said. “Well... maybe.”

It was later determined that the rocks were not sedimentary.

Like the one when he was 11 years old, Obama is joined by his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, on this trip.

Obama credits his childhood vacation through California, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Great Plains and the Great Lakes with giving him an appreciation for nature. It’s something he hopes this four-day jaunt will give his Chicago-born daughters.

“That was an experience I will never forget,” Obama told the audience at his town hall in Colorado on Saturday. “It’s an experience I want for my daughters.”

The president returns to Washington on Monday, and a week from now he will find himself vacationing in a more natural Obama setting: at a sprawling 28-acre beachfront resort in Martha’s Vineyard.

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