June 18, 2016 President Obama Visits Yosemite

I opened for the president! Here's the story.

Around Thursday, June 9th, news broke that President Obama would be visiting Yosemite. A neighbor in Fish Camp quipped to me something about entertaining the president, which got me to thinking, so on Monday I emailed Scott Gediman (YNP Public Affairs Officer) and, after thinking it over, YNP Superintendent Don Neubacher on Tuesday the 14th:  

Hi Don:
Looking for Yosemite music for the big visit? I played for v.p. Cheney in 2006 (at a private party)…
Tom Bopp

Don answered:  "Not sure anyone is looking for music.  But, will pass on.   Thanks for sending a note."

I’d mentioned Cheney in order to possibly assure those considering me that I was somehow qualified, or at least had previously been background checked and vetted to entertain a v.p.  

On Thursday, Scott emails “can you call me right away” – then I learned that I was being considered by White House staff to perform. I told Scott that I’d have to cancel my long-awaited once-a-year opportunity to drop off hazardous waste (paint, batteries, etc.) in Oakhurst, but decided it was worth it. It was confirmed the next morning that I’d be performing for the event, so, sworn to secrecy, I pack up my electric piano, amp, and microphone in the back of the truck, and lay out hat and clothes for an early morning and a long day.  

I also pack up the Volvo with the hazardous waste – Diane won’t be able to attend the event (due to limited seating for invitees), so she got the dubious task.  

Saturday, June 18 – get up around 4 a.m., leave the house about a quarter to five, encountering a little traffic coming into Yosemite already. I stop at the restroom at the Swinging Bridge parking lot, silently monitored by an official-looking police car, and then head to my destination at the Sentinel Bridge. 

The bridge is blocked off, but I’m allowed in after identifying myself and flashing my official-looking parking pass. Wending my way between news vans I park just north of Sentinel Bridge across from the covered Shuttle Bus stop, which is being used for sound equipment. A tad before 6 a.m., I check in with a young lady who’s the White House event coordinator; she introduces me to Brian, the sound-guy, and we figure out where I should set up. 

Amps, mixing boards, and floodlights are already partially set up, and a slew of news cameras on tripods, and rows of desks for reporters, all facing Yosemite Falls which is in fine form this morning. There’s a temporary metal-fence to hold back the press – I’m set up just in front of that, and between my vantage point and the President’s podium are a couple hundred white plastic chairs.

Circling the seating area, the NPS has somehow trucked in a perimeter of huge incense cedar logs, maybe three feet in diameter, still decorated with bark and yellow-green staghorn lichen. These would make a decent security barrier, if needed. I snap a few pictures of the scene, and then about 6:30 head to the parking lot west of Yosemite Lodge, now temporarily designated parking for the presidential guest list.
Milling about and chatting with ranger friends and early arrivers, I see Ahwahnee manager Brett Archer show up with Food & Beverage manager Brian Hammill and Executive Chef Percy Whatley setting up coffee and cookies and such for the guests. I visit with former Yosemite Chief Ranger Steve Shackleton, noted climber and motivational speaker Mark Wellman, actor Lee Stetson (or is it John Muir, himself?!), and see others with connection to the park or county and state government.

Finally about 8:15 we line up to empty our pocket contents for examination, body scanning, and the scrutiny of a serenely competent dog before boarding a Shuttle Bus in the company of a Secret Service agent to head back to the Sentinel Bridge parking lot. 

Riding along is Ranger Kara Stella, silently practicing her sign-language interpretation for the upcoming speech. I hear her say “Oh! I’ve never signed the Star Spangled Banner before – I’d better look that up!” as she hurriedly taps on her smart-phone

Jeffrey Trust photo
Off the bus – to the piano…check the sound, snap a few more pictures, and it’s nine o’clock, time to start playing. There are lots more people yet to arrive, so I run through some songs that I’ll repeat later when everybody’s present: (Here In) Yosemite by Harry Mabry, The Bridge By Yosemite Falls by Mac McMillen, mixed with a few atmospheric pieces like Ashoken Farwell by Jay Ungar, some Robert Burns songs, and the like. The morning sun is starting to light Yosemite Falls.

Gary Wuchner photo

Gary Wuchner photo

An occasional reporter stops by the piano (actually just behind me, on the other side of the barricade), and asks me a couple questions. More busses drop off more of the vetted and screened attendees as I adapt my selections to fit (or mildly guide) the mood of the scene. Guests stake out their seats but most remain standing, visiting with one another and looking around to see who else is in the select crowd. A goodly sized group of school children are here, and representatives of various interests associated with Yosemite.

I gradually begin announcing song titles before I play them – giving their context as relating to former presidential Yosemite visits, or to John Muir, or to Yosemite itself, with brief tidbits about Kennedy, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Rutherford Hayes and Grant. The White House event coordinator asks me to try a sing-along – possibly to encourage guests to start settling into their chairs, or maybe to engage the somewhat fidgety kids. So I launch into Down By The Old Merced River (“where campers are thicker than fleas…”), and The Big Yosemite Mountains (which later ends up in the White House Video redux of the event), and a bunch of others including cowboy songs and On Top Of Spaghetti, etcetera.
Jeffrey Trust photo

About 10:30 the NPS Mounted Color Guard comes in; the kids lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and a talented young lady sings the National Anthem. More waiting – I play a few of the Yosemite songs I’d played an hour and a half earlier and a bunch more that I’d kept in reserve. 

Another fifty minutes pass, then craning necks and uplifted cameras note the arrival of the presidential motorcade. While I’m playing a Sousa march, The Fairest Of The Fair, President Obama steps out of his car just at the north end of Sentinel Bridge. I wonder if he’s seen the picture of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback traversing an earlier iteration of that bridge, in the very same location! The White House staffer directs me to stop playing. I wish I’d been a little more instant earlier when I asked if I could play Hail To The Chief upon his arrival – but I’ll never know if they would have allowed it.  
Around 11:20 President Obama strides in along the south-western perimeter of the parking lot (behind the logs) with secret service agents in front and behind, and up to the podium with a cordial “Hello everybody!  (Applause.)  Well, everybody have a seat, have a seat.  How gorgeous is this day?”  (Applause.)  

Complete Transcript of the President’s Remarks


After the speech, many in the audience approach the log barrier and shake hands with the president. Recordings of Sousa marches serenade us – I move to the left (south) part of the parking lot and wave with the rest – striding back to the motorcade the president flashes that famous smile and waves back.

After some milling around, and missing the one shuttle bus back to Yosemite Lodge, I leave my piano and walk back to retrieve my truck, return, pack up and head home.  

It feels somehow different, now, reading the old accounts of past presidents’ visits to Yosemite; there’s nothing like being there!  


White House Video Redux            White House Video Redux also on YouTube  

Union Democrat (Sonora, CA)      Modesto Bee            Fresno Bee  

Transcript of President’s Remarks