GYPSUM - For the third time in eight years, Eagle Valley High School teacher Ashley Weaver and a group of students will witness history in the making.
Weaver and her crew are already roaming the streets of the nation's capitol. Weaver has organized five such trips since 2005 - three during inauguration events and two during off years.
Understanding that Weaver is a bit of a history junkie helps explain why she is willing to pack up a group of kids from Eagle and Gypsum and brave the throngs of people in Washington, D.C., who are present for a presidential inauguration.
"These are the kind of experiences that not only make government come alive, but also make history come alive for kids," Weaver said. "They do feel like they are a part of history."
Back in 2005, Weaver started a bit of Eagle Valley High School history of her own.
"The second George W. Bush election was my first year teaching, and I got a call from a student-travel company asking if I would be interested in taking a group of kids to D.C. for the inauguration," Weaver said. "I thought, 'Yeah! I will do that.'"
For the January 2005 trip, 23 kids signed up and veteran teachers Susan Scott and Becky Peterson agreed to help chaperone the group.
Clayton Forsyth, who currently works as a firefighter for Greater Eagle Fire Department, was a student on that trip. The adventure is one of his most vivid high school memories.
"We were right behind where they do the oath of office at the Capitol Building for the actual inauguration. Then we went to the parade after. It was freezing that day, I remember that," Forsyth said.
Along with his memories of actually being on site while President Bush took his oath, Forsyth said he enjoyed touring the monuments and the Smithsonian.
"Definitely being able to stand 2 feet away from the actual Declaration of Independence was mind-blowing," he said. "Every American should be able to personally look at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It's a humbling experience."
He hasn't been back to Washington, D.C., since that trip, but he is talking with his fiancee about taking a vacation there.
Once in a lifetime
Weaver knows that for some of her students, a trip to Washington, D.C., is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
"I realize a lot of kids will never go back to D.C., so I want them to see everything we can," she said.
After the first year, when she organized the excursion through a student-trip company, Weaver realized she could cut out the middle man.
"Washington, D.C., is a pretty easy city to navigate," she said. "Our kids use public transportation, and they love that. Plus, we walk everywhere."
The trip cost is $1,400 per student, and that fee includes air fare, hotel room, two meals per day and a Washington Metro pass.
Speaking with Weaver last week, she had a special surprise in store for this year's trip participants. Their hotel is located in Arlington, and while they weren't getting into Washington until late on the first night, she planned to bring them up to the Iwo Jima Statue as soon as they arrived. From that site, they will be treated to a view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Congress laid out in the distance. Weaver figured it would be a great appetizer for the history feast planned for the week ahead.
Memories to last a lifetime
Four years ago, the Eagle Valley High crew was shivering on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when President Obama recited the oath of office. They were among an estimated 1 million people who thronged the Washington Mall that day.
"There was just something different in the air that day," Weaver said. "Just the feeling of hopefulness among all those people. I remember telling the kids, 'This is not normal.'"
But it was a moment none of them will ever forget. And for Weaver, it was a moment that transcended politics. She laughed, remembering how the very first student who paid his money for the trip was a very politically conservative kid. President Obama was not his choice for the office, but that day in D.C., it didn't really matter to him.
"He was taking in the whole experience for what it was, regardless of politics," she said.
"There are so many great things I could say about that trip. It was by far the best part of my high school experience," said Rachel Hesse, now a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
"We did everything from walk to the gates of the White House to watch the president's limo and armored cars pass our hotel on the way to a ball, to piling six-plus people in a cab to make sure that we all stayed together," Hesse said. "Some of my favorite moments were visiting all of the amazing museums, walking around D.C. and talking with all the people who were there to see the inauguration; one night at dinner, we even stumbled on an artist finishing a piece of work that was made specifically for the Obamas and was going to be hung in the White House."
But for Hesse, that feeling of being part of history was what she will remember most vividly about the trip.
"My all-time favorite experience was the inauguration. We woke up incredibly early and walked to the Lincoln Memorial to secure our place for the ceremony. It was so cold that day that we took turns going to the women's restroom to stand under the hand dryers to try and warm up our hands and toes as much as possible," she said.
"It was definitely worth bearing the cold, though," Hesse said. "The fact that we got to stand on that particular monument while our first African American president was inaugurated was an amazing feeling. It gave me and many people around me goosebumps."
There is a reoccurring theme of facing frigid temperatures in the stories from former students.
"I remember the cold and how I thought, 'Oh I'm from Colorado, I can handle the cold.' I was sooo wrong," said Whitney Wright, currently a senior at Colorado State University. "The humidity made the cold literally bone chilling. It gave me aches and was pretty miserable."
"The coolest thing was how close it all made us. All of us that went on that trip still talk about how we want to go back together again," Wright said. "My favorite part of the trip was Arlington Cemetery."
Weaver's favorite moment from that trip was the outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial that features a Who's Who of popular music.
"Being there that day was one of the top five days of my life," she said.
When it comes to giving advice to students who are in Washington this week, the former students' words are basic - wear warm clothing and make sure you appreciate everything as it unfolds. But Hesse did offer a word of caution.
"Our first day in D.C., we came across a 'friendly' street vendor who asked us if we needed help or directions and said maybe we would want to buy a hat or two from him as well. Next thing we knew, he was throwing a fit saying that we stole from him and owed him more money," she said. "Needless to say it was kind of scary, but a lesson we Eagle/Gypsum kids needed to learn. So, to the future kids going to D.C., remember to be careful who you talk to."
The insider advice
Weaver said that each time she plans a trip to Washington, D.C., she tweaks the itinerary. She hopes this year's plans will be the best ever. The itinerary, of course, includes monuments and museums. The Eagle Valley High School delegation will attend the inauguration ceremony in a standing-room-only section at the Capitol, compliments of Rep. Scott Tipton, who provided the event tickets.
As for Weaver, she is hard pressed to share her favorite Washington venue.
"There's Arlington - every time the symbolism of the sacrifice that has been made makes me cry," she said. "The Capitol is super impressive. It's a powerful experience to stand in the Rotunda."
Weaver is a big fan of the Newseum - which has a memorable 9/11 display as well as a large display of the Berlin Wall.
"If you only have one day in D.C., I tell people to spend two hours there. It's a place I just love to share with people," she said.
Between the tours and events, the high school hijinks are part of the fun. Weaver organizes a talent show at the hotel every year. One year, Weaver and Peterson took the top honors with a "Dueling Banjos" theme, flashlights-blinking-up-their-nostrils performance. For the kids who were there, it was a moment they won't ever forget. For the kids who are in Washington, D.C., right now, memories of big and silly moments are in the making.
"What I am looking forward to is going to the museums and also seeing President Obama in person, because I have never seen a president in person before," said Addie Arnold, one of this year's participants. "I am excited to be able to experience what I have been learning in my government class about Washington, D.C. It will be an amazing trip."