Warren Slocum and Rob Billingsley had an excellent plan.
Slocum, San Mateo County's chief elections officer, and Billingsley, a longtime friend who works for the county of Arlington, Va., decided they would spend the night before President Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday at Billingsley's office in Arlington.
Billingsley, who lives in Manassas, which is nearly 30 miles from Washington, D.C., was one of many county employees who decided to crash Monday night in the government center, shaving hours off their trip into Washington the next morning.
But when they woke up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, their plan began to fall apart. Their car, which contained their suitcases and inauguration tickets, had been towed from the county parking garage, despite parking attendants' assurances the night before.
It was all downhill from there for Slocum, from a logistics point of view. He later remarked on his blog (www.warrenslocum.blogspot.com) that, despite all the happy images on television, "there was a dark side to the inauguration." But it was also an exhilarating experience, Slocum insisted, one that he wouldn't "trade for anything."
After Slocum and Billingsley had taken a Metro to pick up the car and paid a fine in excess of $200, they set out for the National Mall.
They despaired of taking the Metro into the city, because by 7 a.m. or so the line just to get into the station was about 90 minutes long.
They couldn't find a taxi, but they happened upon a limo driver who was able to get them to the Mall by about 8:15.
At this point they were about three-quarters of a mile from the "purple area," a designated viewing section for the inauguration that had been set up next to the Reflecting Pool, about 300 yards from the podium where Obama delivered his inaugural address, Slocum said.
But they never made it to the purple area. Like many other purple-ticket holders, they got caught up in the crushing mass of humanity that had funneled into the Mall.
For a long time, they stood virtually motionless, crammed belly to back and shoulder to shoulder with other celebrants. It was kind of fun at first. Slocum chatted with his neighbors, including a man from Ghana, and took in the scene.
Then two people were injured. As an ambulance attempted to inch through the crowd, its siren wailing, people started to get agitated.
Billingsley and Slocum were still more than half a mile from the purple zone. It might as well have been in Wyoming. With noon approaching, they managed to slip out of the crowd through a gap some fellow citizens had created in a security fence.
They wandered awhile in the bitter cold before finding a deli, where they watched Obama's address on TV with a small group of cops, students and other citizens.
Slocum had tickets for a reception following the inauguration at the Library of Congress, but he missed that, too.
It would have been impossible to get there by foot. Plus they were looking and feeling a bit disheveled. So they grabbed a late breakfast, warmed up and then headed back to Manassas in the late afternoon.
But it was all worth it, Slocum said.
"I still would have gone and still would have done it (knowing what I know now)," Slocum said. "Just being able to feel the spirit of the nation in the capital was historic."
As for the gridlock outside the designated viewing areas, it turns out Slocum was not alone in his frustration. Larry Stone, Santa Clara County's assessor, was also thwarted in his bid to reach the purple area, Slocum said.
And The Washington Post reported Friday that a Facebook group called "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" is attempting to find out how the inauguration committee made such a hash of the crowd-management situation.
On Wednesday, Slocum paid a visit to Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of the first and second battles of Bull Run. The college American history major took some time to reflect on the inauguration as he looked out over the land where thousands of men died during the Civil War.
"It was special," he said, recalling the experience. "It was just a special time."
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