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Gary Younge
Obama inauguration: Four hours and 250 miles to victory

The road from Roanoke to Washington DC snakes north-east through the Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge mountains flanking you on either side. Ordinarily you can make the 250 miles from rural south-west Virginia to the nation's capital in four hours, without much fuss.

But for the 13 locals who set off from a hospital car park on Monday night for Barack Obama's inauguration, this was no ordinary trip. They left the country to camp in the city. Braced for maximum discomfort they wore heavy boots, rucksacks, several layers, sleeping bags and blankets. They came to sleep on the floor, inch through the crowds and stand in the cold. They came to be part of something bigger than themselves. They came for history. And they got what they came for.

"Just to be there and be part of that energy will be great," said Sarah Goodman, as she baked cookies during the day. "It's like being part of the grand finale of this hard work and I just have to be there."

Marjorie Joyce wanted to extend the giddy feeling of election night for as long as possible. "It's a continuation of everything we worked for during the election and the excitement that I felt on election night," she said. "When everyone was united in believing that America was about everyone pulling together. I was wanting to feel that in person and be among the people."

With a few exceptions, they spoke of Obama's inauguration as though it were an inevitable fact of life - the logical consequence of the American people surveying the choices and picking the best. But when I arrived in Roanoke five weeks before the election, the mood was anything but bold.

Obama supporters discussed their allegiance in hushed tones. Some in a nearby town asked one campaigner not to reveal their support for fearthey might be ostracised.

They had come a long way since those dog days of September: on election day Virginia went Democratic for the first time in more than 40 years. And now they just had a little bit further to go - 250 miles and a four-hour drive.

We hadn't even left Roanoke when the road signs warned of traffic delays for the inauguration. But the mood remained bright. Sarah passed around her cookies and Marjorie wanted to take bets on what Michelle Obama would be wearing. Brian thought purple; Marjorie guessed red.

The traffic was clear shortly after midnight as we drove into Washington. Before we could roll out our sleeping bags and bed down for the night Terri wanted to brief us for the day ahead. Holding up a map she guided us through the next day with a few useful pointers. Bring toilet paper - there may be 5,000 Portapotties lining the Mall but apparently few of them were stocked. Look out for the JumboTrons, the giant screens punctuating the Mall that made it feel like you were both watching the event on television and that you were there. And stay warm. The forecast was for snow in the evening and harsh cold in the morning.

We woke at about six today with sleep in our eyes and hope in the air. Outside a trickle of visitors passed the house at dawn, soon turning into a stream and within an hour a flood. As 10 of us set off our strides were reduced to baby steps by the crowd.

They'd come for a ringside seat on history, but at that moment it wasn't clear whether we would find a seat or even get to see the ring. We spent the next 90 minutes nudging our way forward step by step, sometimes following people who were themselves lost.

We found our own piece of Promised Land by the Washington monument, surrounded by flags and with a good view of a JumboTron. Like a lost tribe by that stage, we were down to just three - the rest abandoned on corners unknown.

As Obama raised his hand Terri said she never thought she would see the day. A tear fell from below her glasses. Her bold assertion of a holiday booked a year in advance gave way to the reality of making that dream come true in relatively conservative Roanoke. "This is not something I thought I would live to see in my lifetime. A black man becoming president ... It's been a pretty amazing journey."

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