Grade schoolers filled the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center on Friday, preparing to meet the nation’s first lady.
While they awaited Melania Trump’s grand entrance to Grand Teton National Park, rangers rehearsed with the fourth graders from Munger Mountain Elementary and second graders from Jackson Elementary. One group sat in a circle, flanked by interpretive intern Alejandro Cruz, chatting about wildfire. They played a game called “Fire Land,” a spoof of Candy Land.
“You guys are going to be looking at me, and we’re going to be talking about fire,” Cruz told a handful of the youngsters. “What are the things that we’re going to tell her about fire?”
They took their job as the FLOTUS greeting party seriously. One child wanted clarity: “What do we call her, Mrs. Trump?”
Another student, wearing a bright pink “Girl Power” shirt, wanted to make sure that laughter was permitted. Told it was, she rejoiced: “Yeah! I love laughing.”
Meanwhile, members of the press — some from as far as Casper and Rexburg, Idaho — took in the scene from a couple dozen feet away, instructed by their White House handlers not to cross a crack in the floor tiling.
At around 10:15 a.m. it was the real deal.
The 49-year-old Slovenian-born wife of President Donald Trump strolled up. Characteristically, she stood stoic and straight-faced, making it hard to read what she made of the students and their exercise. As she moved along, watching a group of students learn about bear-wise camping practices, she seemed to loosen up and started smiling.
All but a few of the words Trump shared with the Jackson Hole children were unintelligible, even from just a few yards away. But in one of the few exchanges audible enough to jot down, she complemented the majesty of the mountainous valley she visited.
“It’s a beautiful place,” she said. “A beautiful place.”
The purpose of Trump’s visit, according to her media team — she gave no public address — was to support the National Park Service’s efforts to get every kid in a park, and to promote her “signature program” known as “Be Best.” The latter initiative has three pillars: promoting well-being (in this case by encouraging time in the outdoors), advocating “online safety” and combating the opioid crisis.
She has traveled as far as Kenya and Malawi spreading her message, her spokespeople pointed out, and was at the Washington National Monument promoting well-being shortly before heading to Jackson Hole.
“When you’re in a place like this,” one of her staff said, “what could be better for you than taking in these views, and the water and the land?”
If the first lady was going to tout the restorative power of this region, they said, she would have to experience it for herself. And what did she think of her sojourn?
“Today was full of adventure,” she said in the only released statement from the trip, at the end of her first and only night in Wyoming. “We should continue encouraging our children to experience and preserve the diverse rivers, mountains, and landscapes that make up the natural beauty of Wyoming that we had the privilege of enjoying today.”
But even as she pitched the importance of America’s national parks, some found it hard to look past the contrast between her advocacy and the president’s many environment-threatening policies. Over the past several years his administration has rolled back dozens of environmental regulations, proposed budgets to slash National Park Service funding and appointed energy lobbyists to the highest environmental and land management posts.
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations with the National Parks Conservation Association, lauded the White House’s efforts to inspire young people to engage with their public lands. He only hopes that, upon her return home, Trump persuades her husband to protect those lands.
Trump began her short visit Thursday morning, when she touched down at the airport in Executive One Foxtrot, the first lady’s equivalent of Air Force One. Seven steps took her from the bottom of the air stair to the black SUV — one in a line of 10 — that for the next two days whisked her around the valley.
Destination No. 1 was Town Square, and they were on a tight schedule.
“I guess it’s OK to speed,” said Monte Carr, a Casper construction contractor who volunteered to pilot one of the press cars, as the entourage and its police escort zipped into town.
From beneath his faded leather jacket and black Stetson came a laugh and another observation: “I bet it’s the first time she’s ever had a cowboy in her motorcade.”
They filed into the square, surrounded by row upon row of onlookers lining the boardwalks. Boy Scout troops stood in wait under the antler arches, while here and there Secret Service agents paced, scanning the premises.
The first lady was met with curiosity and fanfare from locals and tourists. Shouts of “We love you, Melania!” filled the square, along with chants of “USA” and an impromptu rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Red “Make America Great Again” hats dotted the crowd.
Trump chatted with each of the Scouts before heading to the Snake River, where she went for a float with schoolchildren. Guided by John F. Turner, of the Triangle X Ranch, which operates on national park land, and former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President George W. Bush, they drifted along beneath the Tetons, soaring and jagged from their northern aspect.
Trump offered no words as her raft passed the small spit of sand White House staff had selected for the journalists’ bankside viewpoint. But, as if on cue, Turner began talking up the children between oar strokes.
“What kinds of wildlife do we have out here?” he asked. Elk, moose, bison, wolves, coyotes, they answered. He pointed to the shore. “You can see the beavers chewing on the trees,” he said.
All the while, a careful eye could detect dark figures lurking in the surrounding forest, in what was likely an unusually tranquil assignment for the Secret Service.
That wrapped up her first day in the valley, after which she met with the grade schoolers in Grand Teton National Park on Friday. Her next stop was supposed to be Yellowstone. But with snow in the forecast, her team called off the trip.
Instead they loaded up again into the motorcade and headed toward points unknown. Jackson resident and Scenic Safari General Manager Dave Knaus, another volunteer driver, conceded that he was just along for the ride and had no idea where he was headed.
After cruising north on Highway 89/26/191, Trump got out at the iconic Snake River Overlook and sauntered down to the scenic vista for a solo photo op. See the results on the official FLOTUS Instagram page.
The retinue then turned south, drove the Antelope Flats-Kelly Loop, and seemed to surprise everyone by keeping on toward Jackson. But with hazard lights flashing the long line of black vehicles instead looped into the southern Grand Teton National Park entrance pullout, where Trump hopped out again and positioned herself before the welcome sign for another photo.
Cameras flashed while a White House press pool handler urged the photojournalists to step to the side for a different angle: “If you guys want to move this way,” she said, “you can get the mountains a little better.”
The contingent of cameramen mostly obliged and more shutters clicked, but their opportunity was fleeting. Within moments, they were shooed away.
“OK guys,” the handler said, “let’s pull back to the vehicles.”
While everyone hustled to the Chevys, a passerby easing down the adjacent highway rolled down their window and weighed in.
“Trump’s an a--h---!” the female driver shouted. “We hate him.”
Even amid the pomp and positive message of Melania Trump’s visit, some may have found it difficult to look past the situation back in D.C., where House Democrats are pursuing a formal impeachment inquiry into her husband. But others offered her a warm welcome.
Mary Bergeron, who works at Astoria Fine Art, went to the Town Square on Thursday bearing a poster of support for Trump’s “Be Best” initiative. That — and perhaps her besparkled red cap, with white and blue stars — endeared her to White House staff, who invited her and two other women to carry their sign into the square and become part of the spectacle. Smiling and more than a little incredulous, Bergeron and her companions cheered as Trump passed through the sun-dappled square.
“We love you, Melania!” they shouted. “Thank you!”