The Obama Watch

The Grand Tour

All roads lead to Yellowstone -- but will the Big Sky be big enough for our president this week?

By 8.10.09

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According to the Bozeman Chronicle, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will visit that Montana city on August 14, where the president will hold a "healthcare reform townhall meeting" in an airport hangar at Gallatin Field. Law enforcement in the area have been officially notified of the Obamas' visit. "He's definitely coming, that much is clear," Bozeman Mayor Karen Jacobsen told the Chronicle. Josh Holland, an Avis agent at the airport, let slip to the paper that the Secret Service has reserved 30 cars for the use of the president's support staff. This last probably annoyed the White House, which, as usual, is mum on travel details for security reasons. As of this writing, the itinerary is unknown.

But rumors are swirling in the regional media (the Chronicle, Billings Gazette, NewWest.net). The visit will likely last two days and might include a "swank fundraiser" somewhere at the Big Sky resort complex, and an overnight stay at the upscale Sun Ranch resort in the Madison Valley. That would explain the need for those 30 rental cars. But locals who might have some idea about the itinerary are understandably tightlipped. Sam Byrne, of the Yellowstone Club at Big Sky, has "no knowledge" of a fundraiser. Adam DeFanti of the Sun Ranch said, "We would be honored to host Mr. Obama, but at this time, there is no such plan."

A townhall out here is certainly no different from one held in the D.C. suburbs, except for the logistics related to additional local stops. They don't call the West the land of wide-open spaces for nothing. I don't begrudge the Obamas some sightseeing, but with the administration paying lip service to its green credentials and aspirations, this visit has more than a touch of hypocrisy attached to it. Based on the rumors, let's look at a possible itinerary.

It's 51 miles from Bozeman south to Big Sky following the twists and turns of U.S. 191 up through Gallatin Canyon, a nightmare of a heavy traffic, two-lane road, thanks to Bozeman's and Big Sky's growing pains over the last two decades. The Secret Service could close the highway for the SUV motorcade, or the Obamas will helicopter to Big Sky, the latter more likely (wonderful views of the mountains and the Gallatin River, Mr. President). Either way -- depending on their deployment -- much of that 30 car entourage will drive up the canyon.

After golf, lunch, plutocratic fundraising, and whatever else is on the schedule at Big Sky, it'll be off to the Sun Ranch for dinner and a cozy night at the Lodge. Oh, and I forgot, the president's fly fishing lesson. During a 2008 campaign stop in Butte, candidate Obama expressed the wish to return sometime to the Treasure State (sorry, I couldn't help but allude to that possible fundraiser again) to learn the arcane angler's art.

The Obamas have two ways to get to the Sun Ranch. They could quickly helicopter over the 10,000 feet crest of the Madison Range (that could induce Secret Service queasiness as aviation of that sort is always problematic, mostly due to weather) between Big Sky and the Madison Valley, landing either at the Sun Ranch (if that's possible) or at the small airport at nearby Ennis, Montana. Or the motorcade could drive around the southern spur of the Madison Range by proceeding south on U.S. 191 for 39 miles and making a right turn on U.S. 287 and driving 49 miles back north and down the Madison Valley (great views of Hebgen Lake, Mr. President) to the vicinity of tiny Cameron, Montana, where the Sun Ranch is located (I recall a fine autumn day fifteen years ago when I fished that same stretch of the Madison River; you'll love it, Mr. President!).

On day #2 it's back to the airport in Bozeman (Air Force One freshly washed) by the direct route north down the Madison Valley on U.S. 287 to Montana 84; or the Obamas fire up the chopper. It's 67 miles from the Sun Ranch to Bozeman. Depending on how the presidential motorcade and those 30 cars are deployed, just one vehicle would put 206 miles on its odometer to travel the whole two-day loop.

According to an ABC News radio story heard while writing this, the Obamas plan to take daughters Sasha and Malia to Yellowstone National Park during this two-day mountain sojourn (I can't keep up with them). Well, it's 91 miles from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, the West Entrance to the Park. It's 48 miles from Big Sky to West Yellowstone. It's 58 miles from the Sun Ranch to West Yellowstone. Or the Obamas helicopter (from wherever) to a central location such as Old Faithful or the Yellowstone Lake-Fishing Bridge area. Many of those 30 cars will be driving on the Park's roads. You get the idea.

As for the townhall meeting, it's appropriate that it's about healthcare reform and not energy consumption. And I wonder what Al Gore thinks about this massive weekend carbon footprint and slug to the gut of the American taxpayer?

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.