WASHINGTON - The sun set on the U.S. capital, but the band played on. And on. And on.
The Asheville High School band took to Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday night, representing North Carolina in the 57th inaugural parade. About 40 bands played at the historic event, and only 16 of those were from high schools.
"It's hard to know what just happened," sophomore Robert Wiggins said. "Like, I just don't even know what just happened."
Sophomore Sarah Smith said, "I just, I just cried. I'm not even sure why, but we were in front of the president, and I just realized there were tears streaming down my face."
"Oh, I didn't cry, I think because I had the whistle in my mouth, and I was afraid I'd blow it by accident," drum major MacKensie Kvalvik said.
The band rode for hours on a charter bus, went through Secret Service checks, stood with instruments in hand for more than four hours on the National Mall and endured frigid weather long after the sun set to march in front of President Barack Obama on Monday night, following his ceremonial swearing-in.
"He didn't look real," freshman Tessa Kvalvik said of Obama. "He looked the way he looks in a picture. He's beautiful. And I cried. A lot."
Right before they reached Lafayette Square, where the president reviewed the parade, the band turned a corner and was blinded by stadium lights from all angles.
For most of them, they said, that was the moment - tears or no tears.
"It was just incredibly surreal, turning that corner and seeing these blinding white lights in front the reviewing stand," drum major Adam Vernon-Young said. "It just hits you, and you can't see anything, but you know exactly where you are and that the president is just right there. And it just feels like, this is it. This is happening."
Band director Will Talley, who started the fledgling marching band in competitions six years ago after he took over as head director, was uncharacteristically incredulous even before the band began to march. He was typically calm, but profoundly proud.
"Even a year ago, I just never would have imagined we'd be here, never," Talley said, watching the band as they warmed up before they began to march. "They're a very young band, and I'm just really proud of them. I just hope they take this moment in."
Talley told band members, who huddled on the the lobby of their hotel the night before, that playing the right notes wasn't his priority the next day.
"You all are amazing people," Talley told them.
"I don't care about you guys playing the right notes, I don't care if you can't blow your nose," he said. "I just want you to be wonderful people, and to play like the people you are."
And the people they are, they say, are family.
The band had to make some last-minute adjustments, which mostly fell to Kinana McDaniel, the drummer who led off each segment in the parade loop. In the moments before they began, at least a dozen of them said they were more worried for her than for themselves. And in the moments after they stepped back on the bus, they erupted in spontaneous applause for her.
"I'm just so proud of her. She's so amazing," trumpet player Adelyn Luke said. "I was more nervous for her than for me, but she was just ... she was just so good."
The band was also told last-minute that no one, including the three drum majors, would be allowed to salute the president as planned, but Brady Blackburn worked in a stolen wink in front of Obama's reviewing stand.
"Just seeing him was incredible," Blackburn said. "And I think we might have made a little eye contact, and he saw me smile even behind my mouthpiece."
Most agreed the crowds were much smaller than they expected, likely because the parade started more than two hours later than anticipated.
But the crowd that did line the streets showed them love, they said.
"I think the fact that we were here representing North Carolina really hit me," Oliana Like said. "There were so many people yelling 'go North Carolina' and just being really supportive, and that was a really great feeling."
"I think even through the cold and all the work, that we got to do this for Asheville High and for our town, that made it worth it no matter what," Adelyn Luke said. "There's nothing really better than that."
Talley gave the band a very brief speech after the performance, but it may have been the one moment outside a performance when every single band member was silent.
"What you guys just did will always be a part of history," he told them. "And you should be proud of that, of what you did tonight. I sure am."