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Northlanders make there-and-back-again trip to inauguration

WASHINGTON -- The dented mini-van didn't pause for anything. After John Ilse pulled away from his Finland home on Jan. 16, he picked up friends Jeff Dickson of Finland and Forrest Johnson of Two Harbors and drove for nearly 24 hours on his way to...

On the road
Forrest Johnson of Two Harbors takes a turn at the wheel during a road trip to Washington, D.C., to witness the presidential inauguration. A group of Minnesotans made the approximately 24-hour trip in one go. Janna Goerdt / jgoerdt@duluthnews.com

WASHINGTON -- The dented mini-van didn't pause for anything.

After John Ilse pulled away from his Finland home on Jan. 16, he picked up friends Jeff Dickson of Finland and Forrest Johnson of Two Harbors and drove for nearly 24 hours on his way to see Barack Obama become the nation's 44th president.

Along the way, he thought and talked about the reasons to make the trip: a hope for more transparency in government, a yearning to restore the respect the country once enjoyed.

And -- perhaps the most shared reason of them all -- the simple desire to be there.

"I wanted to celebrate a new era for America," Ilse said. "I wanted to be with millions of other people to welcome that new daylight."

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It's impossible to know how many others like Ilse, Dickson and Johnson made similar trips to Tuesday's inauguration. But as the dented mini-van drifted south and then east on the toll roads, it merged with hundreds more from Wisconsin and Iowa, Indiana and Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan and Montana.

The sun came up about 8 a.m. over Indiana, and the van stopped for gas, coffee and biscuits. Truck driver David Carlson had stopped for a rest on his way through to Boston with a load for Wal-Mart, and he asked a favor of one of

the inauguration-bound Minnesotans.

"When you get there, do a few extra dance steps for me," he asked.

As the day lengthened, it became easier to identify others who were on the same journey.

A family of 10 from Chicago whooped as they left an Ohio rest stop; the children clutching pizza boxes, the grandpa wearing a bright red "Obama for change" T-shirt. On their way out they passed Carla Bragg from Michigan, who grinned as she talked about the hand-

lettered "Obama" sign taped to her passenger window. Claudette Bond, Lorraine Shaw and Jean McDowell, all of Michigan, were packed into a Jeep and well-supplied with cheese balls and warm clothes.

"History, history," Bond sang when asked why they were making the trip.

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The dented mini-van arrived in the Washington area late in the evening, its passengers stretching and staggering a little as they exited. The next day they entered a city that had braced for their arrival.

Despite the crowds, long lines and unrelenting sales pitches to "get your key chains, hats and buttons here," the Minnesotans melded easily into the jubilant city. They took in the carnival-like atmosphere on the Mall, where visitors gathered days before the inauguration.

The Boys Choir of Kenya, just arrived from Nairobi, paused to deliver a joyous impromptu performance. People wore American flags tucked into their hats, their backpacks and their hair. Abortion protesters shouted into megaphones. The Minnesotans inducted new members into the fledgling "National Union of Friendly Americans," and Johnson pointed out the bushes he had slept under during a 2003 anti-war protest.

D.C. resident Rishaunda Ewings said people always come to town to celebrate inaugurations -- but not in such numbers, and not with such an air of anticipation.

The Minnesotans from the dented mini-van had planned to meet early on Tuesday. But rivers of people began surging toward the area hours before dawn, jamming access points to the Mall and stalling foot traffic. Some people were stuck behind security checkpoints that closed early, though the Minnesotans made it through.

They wriggled their way through the crowd, stepping around those who were napping on the ground and stopping to talk to those who were awake. They shouted and whooped at the scene unfolding around them.

Wendy Heimann of California alternately leaped up and down and stood and wept as Obama delivered his inaugural address. Both her parents had survived the Holocaust, and both had believed "in the protection this country afforded," she said. Heimann said her own faith in America's promise had wavered in recent years. "I thought we lost our country," she said. "I felt like our country had been hijacked by people I couldn't relate to."

But listening to Obama speak about inclusiveness and respect helped restore her own faith, she said.

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It wasn't long after the ceremony ended that those standing on the Mall began to peel away: toward the inaugural parade, to inaugural balls or to begin the journey home.

The Minnesotans left town close to midnight. Again, there were just a few stops for gas, hard-boiled eggs, gummi worms, and to stretch. Some legs went numb from sitting for so long, and Ilse slumped against the passenger window for a quick nap before taking the steering wheel again.

"Well, it's January 21, and we have a new president," Dickson said as the dented mini-van drove through to dawn on Wednesday. Conversation drifted along with the traffic.

Ilse mused that people on the Mall who seemed eager for change could have picked up trash the crowd had left behind. Dickson marveled at a Washington Post report that there had been no arrests for disorderly conduct during the day. And Johnson thought more about why he had joined the trip. Finally, as the van neared home, it came.

"I just wanted to be there," he said.

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