As Washingtonians wheeled out of town for the long Labor Day weekend, they may have noticed something other than the road fading into the distance in their rearview mirrors.
That would be summer.
As September sets in, it's back to work in the Washington region: back to crammed roads, back to earlier alarm clocks to get the kids ready for school, back to lawmakers gaveling in laws -- all intensified by the presidential campaign season.
From Thursday to Monday, AAA Mid-Atlantic expected about 800,000 people to drive out of the Washington area, slightly more than last year's vacationers seeking a last hurrah.
When they return, the relatively empty roads that locals have enjoyed will be a memory. Transportation planners are expecting road congestion to spike 26 percent on Tuesday, hailing the week ahead as "the mother of all gridlock" and "the absolute worst traffic congestion and delays in the entire nation."
"Rush-hour traffic this summer has been much lighter -- especially this August, when the largest number of residents who were away on vacation -- so it's going to be very jarring indeed to commuters starting Sept. 4," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Area commuters will be quickly reminded why the Washington metro area is designated one of the most congested in the nation on Terrible Traffic Tuesday."
In addition to 2.8 million commuters clogging the roads, the opening of Virginia's public schools on Tuesday will bring out the Washington area's full fleet of 7,035 yellow school buses, as well as parents driving their children to school.
And parents know it's not just back to school for children. Leticia Barr, whose 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter attend Montgomery County Public Schools, said it's been "bittersweet" to return to waking up early, packing lunches, picking out outfits and checking homework.
"I didn't want summer to end. I appreciate the lack of the structure, the 'go with the flow,' " Barr said. "There was more flexibility if we wanted to go to the pool, and it's 'Sure, we can have a later bedtime' if there's no camp in the morning, but that's gone away with them back at school."
Barr and her husband find themselves scheduling specific time with their children -- family breakfast and dinner, and catch-up chats in the car -- to keep up with the grind. "You kind of need to keep in touch with your kids. It's hard!" she said, laughing.
Who is keeping in touch: friends of Mitt Romney and President Obama, sending breathless donation emails with subject lines like "the floodgates," followed unironically by "drowned out." And in the days leading up to Nov. 6, the frenzied campaign advertising and electronic solicitations will only pick up.
Making room, hallmarks of summer are winding down. Most outdoor pools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties are closing after the weekend; the District's outdoor pools began to close on Aug. 12, and after Monday, only East Potomac Pool on Hains Point will remain open (for another month, anyway). Three spray parks for children will stay open through September, and then they'll shutter, too.
And city and county councils will re-form (and reform, possibly, in the District's case) as lawmakers return from vacation -- Ward 3 D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh spent part of the summer in a Spanish-immersion class in Mexico -- and get back to lawmaking.
"Some downtime for the staff has been nice because there's a lit bit of fatigue that goes on during the whole budget process," said Cheh, noting that plenty of the summer has been spent focusing on the fall because the current council session ends in December. "So we have to start the clock again, and we have to be ready -- right out of the gate."
So long, sweet summer.
Staff Writer Liz Farmer contributed to this report.