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She takes trip of a lifetime

MacKenzie Watson1 / 2
This picture illustrates about how close to the action a local student came while attending a youth conference held in conjunction with on inaugural events. MacKenzie Watson said people climbed atop portable toilets to get a better view of events in the distance. Submitted photos2 / 2

MacKenzie Watson, a River Falls High School ninth-grader and daughter of Dan and Connie, said about her trip to President Obama's inauguration: "It was all amazing."

The honor student went with about 15,000 other students including middle and high school and university, to take part in the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference. PYIC is a part of the Congressional Youth Leadership Council program, for which Watson said a former principal referred her.

Watson received repeat invitations from CYLC, including one for PYIC.

Activities began a few days before Inauguration Day and ended with the biggest events: The swearing in, the inaugural parade and one of many black-tie galas.

Students began breakfast at 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. each day then jumped into jam packed days that ended around security-check time at midnight.

Watson stayed at a nice hotel in Tyson Corners, Va. She and other honor students traveled by bus to and from their destinations, including the 45-minute trip into Washington, D.C.

Watson attended events at the University of Maryland and the Washington Nationals' Baseball Stadium. She enjoyed private access to Smithsonian facilities, toured the nation's capitol and heard big-name speakers whose messages impressed her.

Watson listened to insights from presidential historian and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin; young journalist Lisa Ling; former Secretary of State General Colin Powell; Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Desmond Tutu; former Vice President Al Gore; and inspirational speaker and world-class adventurer Erik Weihenmayer.

She also watched performances -- some comedic -- by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Creative Coalition and Capitol Steps.

Several quotes she heard impressed Watson:

"I am a VSP! I am a very special person." "You are a VSP. Start acting like one." --Archbishop Desmond Tutu

"If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." --African proverb as quoted by Al Gore

"Leadership my young friends, is not about leadership at all. It is about fellowship." "Have a reputation for excellence." --General Colin Powell (retired)

Watson said Weihenmayer ranks as her favorite speaker. He's an author and adventurer who as of August 2008 had climbed to the highest point of all seven continents.

His story qualifies as extraordinary even before people find out he's blind.

Though the conference activities didn't include intense education about the inaugural activities, Watson says her conference handbook did.

"All the speakers tied all those details into their speeches," she said.

On inauguration night, the honor student attended a black-tie gala at the Air and Space Museum. She said the new president and first lady did not attend, but the event was fun and interesting.

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Watson explained the ambiguity of the inaugural event's ticketing system. Some allowed holders to sit close. Others allowed general access. For all goers, the National Mall was packed.

"It was crazy," she said. "I almost got squished."

Watson said the new president was so far away, he looked like a speck.

She and a new friend worked their way out of the crowded mall and into the street, where they could at least see and hear the giant video screens. In one place they stood, people began climbing on the portable toilets in an attempt to get a better view.

The girls decided to find a new spot when the portable bathroom roofs began to collapse under the climbers' weight.

Watson said they saw and heard musical artists Stevie Wonder, Shakira, Bon Jovi and, perhaps the artist Waston was most excited to see, Beyonce.

"The concert was amazing," she said.

The honor student said Washington, D.C., had unseasonably cold weather hovering between 20 and 30 degrees. Ice chunks floated in the seldom-frozen Potomac River, on which Watson took a cruise one night and recalls the ice looked like pieces of stained glass.

She said when it came time to introduce herself to the conference group, she identified herself and said she is from River Falls, Wisconsin, "...where it's -35 degrees right now."

"We did a lot of walking," Watson said about the whole trip.

She's traveled to Washington, D.C., eight times before (family trips) but found many streets she knows barricaded to vehicles or pedestrians. She and friends became lost a few times, walking miles and miles back to their intended destination.

She said a person couldn't go a few feet without coming across another street vendor selling Obama memorabilia. She bought commemorative buttons and key chains, a copy of the inaugural seal, a laminated copy of that day's Washington Post newspaper and regular copies of every other newspaper.

Watson's convinced she got the last McCain key chain in the city.

She said she also appeared very quickly on MSNBC TV. She was in the background as the news outlet interviewed a lady who had brought her dog to the inaugural events.

Watson says before the election she wasn't an Obama supporter, but she thinks all citizens should support their president.

"President Obama has a bright future ahead of him," she surmised.

She characterizes the crowd's energy on Inauguration Day as "crazy."

She felt the surge of excitement when Obama took the stage. She said many were overcome with emotion as and after he took the oath of office.

Watson said at one point, she and a friend despaired as the inauguration unfolded. They stood far back in the crowd, unable to see or hear, even via the jumbo-sized video screens.

On the verge of tears, they cheered themselves by realizing and saying, "We are a part of history."

Watson figures having been there for the huge event surely beats having seen it on TV.