They brought hopeful dreams and financial fears, memories and memorabilia, children and aged parents as the passengers, most African-American, boarded buses in the dark.
And just before the caravan doors closed, prayers were offered:
"Lord, we know that this journey was always written," Victoria Wimberly, owner of First Page New Chapter Tours, said over a microphone. "We thank you for these changes you have planned for us to witness, to see the inauguration of the new ruler of this new nation. We'll never have another opportunity like this again."
Leaving the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., bound for the nation's capital, the 185 passengers were united in their desire to witness the inauguration of the first African-American president.
Buses traveling from across the U.S.
Hundreds of other buses were making the same trip from across the country. On these three buses Saturday night, these passengers were powerfully drawn to the occasion by an unprecedented sense of history and pride.
There was applause as the buses pulled out of the parking lot. Alford Arnold made sure that his mother, age 78 and known to all as Miss Frankie, and his father, 84-year-old Lawrence, were comfortable.
Arnold remembered attending the funeral of King as a child in Atlanta, walking up to the glass-covered coffin and looking down at the slain icon's face. The line was more than three hours long. But Miss Frankie knew people, so she was brought to the front with her family.
Miss Frankie was born in 1930 on a plantation in Fairburn, Ga., the last of her sharecropper parents' 11 children. She picked cotton as a schoolgirl, 100 pounds a day.
After graduating from high school, she worked for a prominent local white family — "I was maid, chauffeur, secretary, banker" — and then in food services at the local school. Her sterling character and tireless community work earned her election to the Fairburn city council — the first black person to hold such a position in her town 20 miles south of Atlanta.
'I want peace among all nations'
Decades of service later, Miss Frankie is a Georgia treasure. She has pictures of herself with everyone from the governor to her seven children and 14 grandchildren. A few weeks ago her congressman called, unsolicited, to offer a set of precious tickets to the inauguration.
Her greatest hope for Obama: "To get all the soldiers back home. I want peace among all nations for us all to live together in loving and kindness."
Dionta Johnson sat toward the back of another bus with his three children, ages 8, 4 and 3. Conversation bubbled through the cabin as Johnson remembered being a child himself, wishing his school would teach more black history.
He wrote a paragraph in the third grade about how he wanted to become president.
"He is me," Johnson said of Obama. "He's living the dream I wrote down 16 years ago."
Johnson's children quietly ate their chicken and french fries, then fell asleep in their seats. "I want them to understand themselves," Johnson said. "This is one of the greatest moments of our history. If they understand who they are as a people, they will want to succeed in life."
Johnson's wife stayed home for a job interview, but his mother-in-law, Susan Bonaparte-Waver, was sitting two rows ahead. The bus headed over the Georgia state line and into South Carolina, where her father, Vanish Leo Bonaparte, was born.
Surviving the 1967 riots
"That's an old slave name," she said. As a child, she moved with her parents and five siblings to Detroit, where her father got factory work and they survived the 1967 riots: "You look out your back door and you see fire, and you look out your front door and see the National Guard."
Bonaparte-Waver graduated from Michigan State University, moved to Atlanta and now owns a "cultural items" store. She was loaded down with Obama merchandise: postcards, hats, buttons, keychains.
"Hopefully this will turn out to be a good business trip too," she said. "I need my own stimulus package."
One seat behind Bonaparte-Waver, Khalilah Ali was reading the book, "The Wanderer: America's Last Slave Ship," about a group of men who in 1858 — 50 years after the slave trade was outlawed — brought 480 Africans to Savannah, Ga.
Ali, who is studying for her Ph.D. at Emory University, spent seven years teaching in Atlanta-area high schools. She often had no pencils, or the windows wouldn't open, or the students were from single-parent homes and their mothers worked two or three jobs. She believes the educational system is designed to work for children from stable, middle-class homes.
"This is the kind of change I'm talking about," she said. "There needs to be some kind of reform."
Cutting her budget to the bone
Ali knew she would be cutting her budget to the bone when she left teaching for graduate school, and now her home is in foreclosure. She's trying to renegotiate her payments and hold the bank off until the summer, when she can go back to work and catch up.
"It feels intentional. Someone is being locked out. It's not the same dynamic as in this book" — she waves "The Wanderer" — "but it's the same outcome."
The bus drove into North Carolina, headed for Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy.
Barbara Thomas, a retired telephone company employee, remembered being disillusioned with the Democratic Party — "they had no stand, no standards" — and even started checking out McCain. But she backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the early going, until one of her early debates with Obama.
"I realized this man is trying to change the conscience of the nation, similar to what Dr. King did" she said. "He's talking about people coming together as a nation."
Dawn broke just after the caravan pulled into the hotel parking lot in Falls Church, Va., a few miles from the capital. The passengers slowly awoke, stretching and rubbing their faces. They descended into the cold morning, looking to become a part of history.