WASHINGTON — A journey that began in the quiet darkness of a Rock Hill parking lot reached its crescendo Tuesday in a moment shared by more than 1 million.
By the time Barack Obama took the oath to become the nation's 44th president, a group of friends and former college classmates from the Rock Hill area had scattered to different parts of the National Mall.
The group of more than 50 people became separated during the course of a frigid, chaotic morning. But a few travel hassles didn't distract from the purpose of the trip.
"I imagine a lot of people are just like us, they've never been to an inauguration," said Rock Hill's Carl Dicks, the lead organizer of the trip. "Everybody feels like there's something different about this one. Look at the people."
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From their vantage point on the mall, about halfway between the Capitol and Washington Monument, Dicks and a half-dozen fellow travelers were surrounded by a crush of people on all four sides.
The crowd looked much like the people who delivered Obama the election. Blacks appeared to make up between 60 percent and 70 percent, while young people of all races showed up in huge numbers.
"This is America," said Donese Mickles of Lancaster. "This is the way America should be. We're one people. You've got God's people out here, smiling, happy -- even though you're getting walked (over)."
For Martrice Askew, the gravity of the day's events will take a while to sink in. Askew works with Dicks at AT&T.
"I'm still in shock that I was able to be part of history," she said on the bus ride home. "We all read the history books about slavery, sit-ins, segregation. But you never think you're actually going to be part of" a new chapter in history.
The oldest passenger on the bus, Rock Hill's Charles Smalls, can remember the days when blacks drank from separate water fountains and sat in their own sections at the movies. Now 76, he brought his grandson, Justice, with him to Washington.
"To have him up there and witness it himself, not just watch it on television, he'll have something to carry with him the rest of his life," Smalls said.
"Just think how things have changed."
The two-day journey from Rock Hill to Washington proved more grueling than many had expected. It also included a few unexpected twists.
The group, comprised of local alumni and friends of S.C. State University, planned to use a parking permit to drive into the Capitol area. But shortly after the bus pulled off the highway in Anacostia, just outside D.C., those plans quickly changed.
"Welcome to Washington. Welcome to the confusion," said a transit official who stepped on board shortly before 6 a.m. to warn of traffic problems.
Four hours earlier, the group departed from a Red Roof Inn outside Richmond, Va., where many squeezed in three or four hours of sleep before the early wake-up call.
Told that highway traffic was unlikely to budge for hours, group members opted for a different course. They climbed off the bus and walked to a nearby Metro station, where trains with little wait time carried them into the city.
The lines moved smoothly, but reaching ground level required climbing 50-plus stairs -- with no time to rest as crowds surged behind them.
Once on the mall, all would wait for four hours for the ceremony to begin. Temperatures hovered in the 30s with a steady breeze adding an extra chill.
Another surprise brought some relief: Crowds on some parts of the mall were not required to pass through security checkpoints, allowing for easier access — but no less waiting for the 11 a.m. start time.
"I didn't know I was going to be standing this long," said Boll Barber, another traveler from Lancaster. "My feet are killing me."
Standing nearby, Mickles appeared to be in even greater pain thanks to a bad back and sore knees. Just as she was about to take a seat on a stray newspaper, a young girl offered her a camping chair to use instead.
"Oh thank you, Lord," Mickles said, grateful for the chance to rest for a few minutes.
Parts of Obama's speech were difficult to hear because of an echo between various loudspeakers booming across the mall. The breeze didn't let up. And the journey home had not yet begun.
But on this day, the chance to witness history overshadowed all the frustrations.
"I'm hurtin' from head to toe," Mickles said. "But I wouldn't miss it for the world."