WASHINGTON - Three Minnesota women stood among the throngs on the National Mall, huddled and shivering, exhaustion in their eyes.

None of that mattered to them. They had traveled for two long days on a bus and rose Tuesday before the sun in anticipation of joy they had never felt.

They arrived among the crowds in Washington on a charter in the predawn darkness, a sea of motor coach taillights illuminating the gloom, all bound for a remarkable day of American history.

"We're here!" announced Gaynell Ballard, 67, as she stepped off the bus. "We have arrived."

After an hour of walking and waiting in line, they climbed aboard a shuttle for a stop-and-go ride to the outskirts of the National Mall. The moment was nearing, and the masses were streaming in -- parents carrying newborns in pouches, senior citizens walking gingerly with canes, a multicultural mural of every color and race.

The closest patch of open grass the women could find was in the shadow of the Washington Monument -- a mile away from the inaugural platform just below the Capitol.

The bulk of the crowd, estimated at 1 million by the Associated Press, centered itself in a singular sea of humanity between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. In some areas, people were shoulder to shoulder; others had plenty of room. Many walked for miles.

Ballard and her sister, Barbara Doyle, climbed a small hill to get a better look. In all the days leading up to Tuesday, the St. Paul natives, whose early years included painful personal encounters with segregation, kept asking themselves: Is it real? Is America really inaugurating its first black president?

Their eyes took in a sea of people, tightly packed as far as they could see.

It was really happening.

"I am so amazed. I'm just all choked up. This is the most beautiful sight I've seen," Doyle said, her voice cracking. "Just to witness this is the most incredible thing, that one man can draw these people together, and I see all races, all nationalities."

"Phenomenal!" Ballard chimed in, squeezing her eyes. "There are no words to describe what this is."

The two walked down the hill to stand with others from the bus, all of them wedged near a row of portable toilets, craning to glimpse one of the giant screens that had been set up along the mall. The crowd swayed back and forth and sideways around them, but strangers said, "Excuse me," and "I'm sorry," when they bumped someone. A civic gathering, not a mob.

When the Minnesotans couldn't see, they strained to hear a crackling speaker carrying the sound on the wind. It didn't matter that they didn't have a great view or clear sound. They were there, bathing in the history.

As the time for Obama to take the oath neared, Doyle and Ballard stood near their 76-year-old bus companion, Naima Richmond. The three leaned on one another, bracing for the moment.

Aretha Franklin took the stage and started singing: "My country, 'tis of thee." Doyle broke into tears. When Obama rose to place his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used, Richmond, a longtime Minneapolis activist, also shed tears. The crowd quieted to hear the new president say the final words "So help me God," and then erupted in screams.

Doyle put her arm around Richmond and whispered: "We're actually here. That's what's so unbelievable. We never thought we would live to see this day."

"I can't believe it," Richmond replied. "You know, if I were to die tomorrow, I can say, 'I witnessed this.'''

The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102