WASHINGTON — They came, they shivered, they soaked up the history and they plotted their moves for Inauguration Day.
All day Monday, downtown Washington took on the vibe of a history-making carnival, complete with vendors hawking Obama wares from the backs of trucks.
Young people chaperoned their elders to the first inaugural events they'd ever attended. Families, weary from 12-hour car rides, showed their children the city's monuments. They were citizens drinking in democracy, and they knew the main event was still a day away.
"There aren't many days where you wake up knowing, 'I'm going to remember this day for the rest of my life,' " said Geran Tarr of Anchorage, Alaska, who spent part of Monday afternoon picking up her tickets for the inaugural ceremony.
Outside the White House, the mood was of that of a state fair midway.
A couple of thousand people milled about, peering at the big reviewing stand and snapping pictures of themselves in front of the north gate of Barack Obama's new home.
A man dressed like Abraham Lincoln, complete with stovepipe hat, posed for photos. A protest march, with about 300 people, snaked its way through Lafayette Park; marchers carried a big sign that said "Arrest Bush." A photographer walked around handing out cards urging people to "celebrate history with custom photo products." Vendors sold Obama calendars.
Lisa Partridge, 47, had driven about eight hours from Cincinnati and was in front of a security fence, taking pictures of the reviewing stand. She planned to spend Monday night outside Baltimore and drive the 30 miles to a subway station before dawn Tuesday. The weather, she said, wouldn't deter her.
Nearby, Kayla Rice, 17, and Clark Glennon, 16, were walking by with their high school band mates, just in from Brattleboro, Vt.
"This isn't that cold," Rice said. "It's warmer than Brattleboro."
Between the White House and the Capitol, eight members of the National Guard from Iowa walked down H Street in camouflage and knit caps. They were there to assist with inaugural security, the first time Iowa's Guard unit had been called to do so, said Spc. Steven Dickinson, 27.
As he talked, a businessman in a dark flannel coat interrupted.
"Are you guys on duty?" he asked. A suspicious box had been on the street for hours, right in front of an office building, he told them.
Half the Guardsmen peeled off to inspect the box. They were back a few minutes later.
"Just a box of candy," one said. "Somebody's called it in three times already."
Near the Foggy Bottom Metro station, the closest one to the Lincoln Memorial, dozens of street sellers hawked inaugural memorabilia, from buttons and T-shirts to scarves and pennants emblazoned with images of Obama, his family or Martin Luther King Jr.
Travis McAllister, 27, of Washington held aloft pint-size plastic bottles of "Obama Water," for which he was asking $3 each.
"I'm enthusiastic and energized by the number of people who have come to the city," said the lanky African-American, celebrating the moment and the fact that in two hours he'd sold all but six of the 70 bottles — sporting different pictures of the president-elect — he lugged in a suitcase.
Thousands of visitors, most of them African-American, crowded below the Lincoln Memorial, kept back from the gleaming monument to the16th president by security fences.
Families posed for photos against the backdrop of the monument or the frozen Reflecting Pool, beyond which soared the needlelike Washington Monument and, beyond that, the Capitol dome.
In town were people on their first inauguration, and people on their eighth.
Melissa Van Herksen, a Miami native who's living in Maputo, Mozambique, braved a 40-hour trip with a 21-month-old.
She wanted Luka, the Mozambique toddler she and her husband have adopted, to witness history.
"In my lifetime, this will be one of those defining moments in the history of our country," she said. "And I wanted Luka to be a witness."
Then there was Steve Sauls, the vice president for governmental relations at Miami's Florida International University, who is attending his eighth inauguration (First up: Richard Nixon, 1973).
He's never seen anything like this one.
"You walk around the city and you see so many people, and it's not even Inauguration Day," he said. "There's a happiness, a confidence and a hopefulness. All around it's just a good vibe."
Even the Washington establishment noticed the different vibe. "It's a D.C. version of Mardi Gras without the floats," said Allen Witcher, the general manager of the tony Oval Room restaurant, across Lafayette Square from the White House, where braised Wagyu short ribs go for $24 at lunch and Vice President-elect Joe Biden hosted a celebratory party Sunday for 200.
Finally, there was Jeff Chambers of Lafayette, La., who owns a photo studio and had come with a very special mission. He explained it as he grabbed lunch at a soul food restaurant called Saint's Paradise Cafeteria.
Chambers, who's black, was driven by the memory of his grandmother, who died a year before he graduated from college.
"I started thinking, 'All the hardship you've been through hasn't been in vain,' " he said. "I want to capture an image I can put on my grandmother's tombstone along with my college diploma. I am going to get up as early as possible. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to get somewhere in front with my telephoto lenses and get the swearing-in, if it's the last thing I do."
(Lesley Clark, Margaret Talev, David Lightman, David Coffey, Erika Bolstad, David Goldstein, Tish Wells, Katherine Tandler, Jonathan S. Landay and Maria Tucker contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY