Inauguration Central: On the ground
WASHINGTON — The very idea that the National Mall could be packed any tighter seems unfathomable.It was shoulder-to-shoulder from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument as more than 500,000 people jammed to Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, John Legend, U2, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks, Usher, Beyonce and others and listened to speeches from the likes of Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Kal Penn (Yes, Kumar from "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle"), Martin Luther King III, Tiger Woods and Samuel L. Jackson.This was ObamaStock — also known as "We are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial." It officially kicked off the inauguration festivities leading up to Tuesday's swearing in of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.On Sunday, nobody seemed to mind getting a little cozy with the strangers packed in around them. Nobody seemed to mind the temperatures that lingered in the upper 20s or lower 30s for most of the day. Instead, they wanted to celebrate.Or they just wanted to listen to a few music legends perform for free.Whatever their reasons, they got there by foot, plane, bus and train and packed the National Mall seemingly to the breaking point.Only it's going to get more crowded.The steady flow of airplanes into Reagan National Airport - one flew overhead every two minutes or so - added weight to the realization that Tuesday's inauguration festivities will be much more congested. As busy as it was Sunday, people still have today to arrive before the real party begins.
In some ways, this journey began a few months ago.Fresh off our first night of sleep in real beds after trekking in the backcountry of Denali National Park, my friends Justin and Genee flipped on the TV in our hotel room just outside of Anchorage, Alaska.It was Friday, Aug. 29.As the TV flickered on, John McCain was uttering the final words of a lengthy introduction.“My friends and fellow Americans,” McCain said, “I’m very pleased and very privileged to introduce to you the next vice president of the United States … Gov. Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska.”With that, two of my favorite hobbies — politics and adventure travel — crashed head-on. Throughout the next week we rolled through the state, from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to Seward and Homer and Anchorage. We read the Anchorage Daily News and talked to some of the locals about their governor, hoping to learn about this mystery woman that most people in the lower 48 had never heard of rather than accepting as gospel the portraits that Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann wanted us to see.Upon returning to Kansas I remained captivated by the election, studying candidates’ positions and attempting to sort through the distractions and spin.I pondered the collection of minds and personalities that might make up each candidate’s cabinet.I tried to picture how each candidate would interact with other world leaders, both allies and enemies.Like most of you, I watched my life’s savings disappear as the stock market crashed. I paid greater attention to what those running for office planned to do to help us out of this mess.I voted the first day the polls opened — Oct. 21 — excited about the upcoming changes that our country was destined to make. Two weeks later I huddled around a collection of televisions with friends as we watched election night coverage on multiple channels and ultimately saw Barack Obama declared the 44th President of the United States.About a week later Justin called and brought things full circle, inviting me to visit he and Genee in Washington, D.C., for Obama’s inauguration. Consider it another clash of hobbies — politics and adventure travel. Rather than navigating tricky terrain and avoiding grizzly bears, this time we’ll navigate crowds projected to be between 2 and 4 million, while combating freezing temperatures for lengthy periods of time.A chance to witness history? No need to pay for lodging? Sign me up.I left Saturday morning.Just like the Alaska trip nearly five months ago, I head to D.C. unsure what to expect but eager to find out. It should be an exciting adventure.