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Freedom riders 

Hope reigns on the road to Obama's encore.

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The schedule said we were supposed to stop in Memphis for dinner, but we wound up driving straight through Tennessee other than two brief, sleepy layovers in pitch-black highway rest stops, where big rigs dozed and grumbled alongside our buses in the dark. The miles dragged. At one point, deep down in the night, Brian turned to me after 100 miles of silence and — paraphrasing The Eagles song about the famous hotel where you can check out but never leave — intoned: "Welcome to the Tour Bus California." And so Bus No. 6 shall ever be called in my memory.

All the way there and back, we sat on the bus behind Jackie Walker of Little Rock. When I asked her why it was important enough for her to travel 2,000 miles by bus to see the inaugural, she said. "This is his last time running, and I just really wanted to be here. It's very important to me. ... This is something I'll never be able to do again. This is once in a lifetime." Walker said she'd been happy with Obama as president, and was glad the country gave Obama a second term.

"He has done so much in four years, so why not give him four more years to accomplish more?" she said. "I hope he'll be more forceful. With the Republicans, he's able to say there are certain things he won't back down off of."

The road stretched out before us. But that night, we would lay down our heads just outside the city where Lincoln wooed the better angels of our nature, where he freed a people, where he held a cleaved nation together and where he died. The next morning, we would walk the streets of the city where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, where John F. Kennedy asked us to ask not, and where he lay in the grave. On the way to the National Mall the next morning, we would pass the gray bulk of the Pentagon, where a jetliner tore a hole some years back. A thousand-thousand other American moments, all focused there through a limestone lens. And then my traveling companions and I would see history done again before dusk.

We, the People

Inauguration day, we were out the hotel door and on the bus in the dark. The riders were silent, reverent. On the way, I spoke quietly with Nathaniel Noble, one of an extended family of nine native Arkansans who'd come for the inaugural.

When he was a child, Noble said, the dream was: Every boy can grow up to be president. "Now it's every woman, every color," he said. "You have examples of that. You have Hillary Clinton who got so close, you have Barack Obama who actually made it. When I was a kid, it was a dream for me, but for my son, who is 14 years old, it's a reality for him."

Noble was in high school when Jesse Jackson ran, so he said he always believed he'd see a black president in his lifetime. "I was never one who said it couldn't happen, but now it's not an issue," he said. "Not only can it happen, it did happen. It happened twice. Even more, he's able to transcend color because he's doing the job of president. He's doing a presidential job."

Tickets to the inaugural in hand and the buses parked at RFK Stadium, we walked three miles to the Mall. Along the way, I walked and talked with Jared Lareau, president of the University of Central Arkansas's Young Democrats. Asked to give Obama a grade on his first term, Lareau said he'd give the president a solid A considering the hyper-partisan climate in Washington.

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