Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.

I arrived in D.C. at 8 a.m., after a long night hunched in the seat of a Greyhound bus. Morning sunlight beamed, and as I hiked to Union Station, then to the Capitol, I realized that I'd arrived too early. This being Saturday, my brother and his girlfriend were sleeping in.

"Can you come at... nine-thirty?" Joe mumbled groggily into his phone.

"Sure," I said. "I mean, it's cherry-blossom season. There's plenty to see."

I wandered around the Capitol, then circled the Reflecting Pool, where ducks floated in crystal water and light breezes blew blizzards of petals into the air.

And then, just as my watch ticked 9 a.m., a line of musicians snaked through the trees. They were a high school marching band, outfitted in coats, buttons and shakos. The mass of uniformed teens coiled quietly around the pool and assembled in tight formation along the marble steps. They didn't play, only posed for their chaperones' cameras.

As I looked down the National Mall, I could see the multicolored legions of marching bands amassing by the Washington Monument. I wanted to see what the hubbub was about, but by then it was 9:30, and I started to walk toward Joe's apartment, through a rain of white petals.

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