A ring of tepees stand in the clearing with the wagons drawn up beside them. Lean figures in boots and jeans and cowboy hats lounge on the grass, some clustered around a broken-down buckboard with wrenches and hammers. gAt the edge of the trees, a dozen horses graze. Wood smoke from a campfire tangs the morning air at Bull Run Park.

They left Tucson more than six months ago, this VisionQuest outfit. On Thursday, shortly after noon, they expect to clatter across Memorial Bridge and set up camp by the Reflecting Pool. The next day they will push on to Greenbelt Park for a couple of days before heading north to Baltimore, Wilmington, Pittsburgh and, finally, Erie, Pa.

They don't move very fast; 15, maybe 20 miles a day. There are the wagons and the vans and the supply trucks, the 35 mules and 45 horses and all the gear that 60 teen-agers and their 41 leaders require.

"What this is, is reality therapy," said wagonmaster Robert Evenhus, known as Nobby to one and all. "These are kids with record repeaters. Car theft, assault, buglary -- usually crimes aimed at property, not people. These aren't your first-offenders. They've been locked up, many of them. We're trying to give them an alternative."

Founded in Tucson by Robert Burton, a counselor who felt there had to be a better way than detention, the group started with five teen-agers seven years ago. Nearly 1,000 children have been through the experience by now, including the 300 in the program this year. Seven out of 10 stay straight. (Reform schools average 20 percent success.)

"We have contracts with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Pennsylvania," said Charles Barnes, a former chemical engineer who got into youth work in New Hampshire and now is a VisionQuest leader along with his wife and brother. "A judge will recommend a kid, and we do some interviews and try to reach an agreement with the kid. He has to make a commitment to stick with us a year at least, with no booze, no drugs, no sex. We take on almost anyone except drug addicts. We're not equipped for that."

Newcomers are brought to the headquarters, a ranch near Tucson, where they learn some skills, mainly horse handling. Then they take to the road. When the train breaks up at Erie, some will go home, if the family situation is good. Others may go to foster homes or back to the ranch or down to Guaymas, Mexico, for a seagoing experience called OceanQuest, or off on a survival venture or a wilderness trip.

There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Twenty Ocean Questers will join the wagon train here this week. People hook on at any point along the trail. The wagons and tents and trucks and animals will be shipped back from Erie to Arizona, and the whole cycle will start again. Money comes from states involved, from counties, from parents.

As for the staff, "it's a life style. They come from all backgrounds," Evenhus said, "many from working with kids in locked facilities. They get tired of seeing them come back again and again. We have teachers, and we set up school sessions, though it can be tough for some of those kids who got nothing but frustration from school."

There is a veterinarian and a medical staff. More than one child has gone on to become an assistant vet. A former quester is now on the staff as a farrier.

"Some of these kids have never had a deep relationship with anyone until they make friends with a horse," Evenshus added.

The multi-racial group ranges from 13 to 18. Six are girls. They live in family groups, one group to each tepee, where they learn how to get along with others, how to express anger verbally and not physically, how to accept responsibility.

"You get a kid who says, No, he's not gonna do that, no way, and then you have to make him see that he has to do it, if it takes you three hours or all day. They change, they really change. The camaraderie shows up under stress."

Once in Alabama lightning hit a power pole and a live wire sizzled to the ground, panicking the horses. They took off, 25 of them, for 18 miles. It took six days to round them all up. Another time the wagons went nine miles down a wrong road and everyone had to double back. "They could have ridden the wagons, but all but a couple bloody well walked, to save the horses."

Stopping in fairgrounds, parking lots, vacant fields and parks, the wagon train does seem to stretch out forever like a cat in hot weather. A special group of scouts, the Roughriders, go on ahead to set up the next campsite. Their pup tents are scattered among the tepees. No one goes outside the ring of tents without a staffer.

"We hope people will come around and see our lifestyle when we're at the Lincoln Memorial," Evenhus said. "We want to show that these kids are learning to be part of a community. Thy're getting along without feeling they have to manipulate others."

On the fringe of the big clearing (the train needs about two acres but has gotten along with less), a youth is welding a tailgate on a horse van. Trucks are parked everywhere. Horses stand among the trees. A water wagon is pulled up by the tepees. Charlie Barnes points to a tall youth in a cowboy hat carrying a bucket.

"Now that kid, when we started out he couldn't talk about his troubles at all. If you crossed him, he's scream all his defense words, insults, and then he'd go silent, almost catatonic. Now he's learned to talk it out. He's not ready for the outside world yet. But he's getting there."