Come walk the national walk with me.
A three-mile beeline through American history.
I started at the Lincoln Memorial early Sunday morning, before the inaugural hordes had a chance to defy the small sign that warned "Quiet."
The sun was easing up, over the Potomac, and the only person on the white marble stairs was a guy sweeping them with a frayed yellow broom. Abe Lincoln, the stone giant, sat in the shadows, watching.
Abraham Lincoln's memorial is the center of moral gravity in a city that so often seems to lack one.
As every third-grader should know, he was the president assassinated after he oversaw the Civil War, which led to the end of slavery. It was at his memorial, at the top of these shining stairs, that Martin Luther King Jr., who later would be assassinated, once famously proclaimed his dream of an end to racism. Barack Obama brought his family here just before his first inauguration.
From these steps — out across the reflecting pool, past the Washington Monument, straight to the dome of the United States Capitol — you can see a country, or at least a country's idea of itself.
So I started to walk the path of who we are.
I weaved slightly off to the left of the reflecting pool to touch the black stone at the Vietnam War Memorial. Then it was over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a haunting assembly of 71/2-foot-tall stainless-steel soldiers on patrol.
The National World War II Memorial was next, a semicircle of granite pillars inscribed with the names of states.
"Where's South Carolina?" a woman fresh off a tour bus cried, then happily scurried off to snap a photo, the way you might buy an inauguration souvenir.
From there it was on to the Washington Monument, named, as every third-grader should know, after a commander in the Revolutionary War who became our first president.
At this point in the national walk, it's hard not to draw a conclusion: We are a nation built on war, defined by war, obsessed with war and eager to capitalize on war as a tourist attraction.
But keep walking, with the Capitol getting closer, and things mellow. Across 14th Street lie the museums and galleries that speak of art and science, that reveal our higher minds.
For Inauguration Day, it's also where the porta-potties, big white tents and temporary monuments to TV networks stand.
Finally, the walk reaches the Capitol, where Obama will give his second inauguration address Monday. On Sunday, the building gleamed peacefully in the January sun, though you might argue that it, too, is a monument to war.
So many visitors to Washington were taking the national walk that it seemed to have become part of the inaugural ritual. By the time I looped back toward the Lincoln Memorial, the walkways were packed.
"Are you on a pilgrimage?" I heard a young woman ask a young man. He was tall and pale. She was short and had skin the color of Obama's.
She started talking about Martin Luther King Jr., mentioned that she was biracial, and told him he had to go to the new MLK Memorial.
"MLK," he said. "Oh my God, not a lot of people have achieved his level of impact in the world. Especially for that era."
She looked at him, as if skeptical of what he knew of the era.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-two. How old are you?"
"You look good for 29," he said, and they kept walking, changing the topic to Obama.
"I'm very for Barry," he said.
"You call him Barry?" she said.
Her name is Jennifer Smith and she runs a dance studio in Grand Rapids, Mich. His name is Eric Hoover and he lives in Fort Wayne, Ind.
They talked about how much they were learning on this walk, about where they were, and where they came from. And how cool was it that strangers could meet on a walk like this?
"I initially came for the inauguration," Smith said, "but when I got here, I realized how much history is here."
They parted at the World War II Memorial, but I kept walking with Smith toward the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.
She'd been the day before, she said, with her dad, who is black, and she'd been struck by the absence of white people. It was true again Sunday. She wondered why.
Because, I theorized, so many white people still don't understand that we share black history.
People come to an inauguration to see a president, but they come for something bigger than that. They come for a sense of belonging, not just to a political party but to a political process, to a country and its past.
That's what people find on the national walk, even as that walk shows us what's still missing.