WHEN I told friends I was going to Texas on a transcontinental bus, they thought I was nuts. Such is the sorry reputation of bus travel in the jet age. But when you actually get on a sleek, silver coach to Dallas, as I did recently, it turns out to be marvelous fun. Wearying, at times, but if you are in the right mood, the ride presents a fascinating look at America you never get from a plane.

In one sense, my friends were right. On an overnight run, nobody but a baby can sleep for more than a couple hours curled up in a narrow seat. You squirm and fidget uncomfortably in the long hours of dark, and when you do finally begin to doze, the bus abruptly pulls into a station and the driver flashes on all of the lights. It happened in Knoxville and Nashville and points in between. More than anything, that's what takes its toll as the miles mount up.

But I knew what I was getting into. Twenty years ago and in my mid-20s, I came East from California on a Greyhound excursion ticket--$99 for 99 days of unlimited travel (a bargain, even then, though $99 will still get you coast-to-coast). I'd alternate spending a night on the bus with a night or two in an inexpensive (cheap) hotel or YMCA. In some of the seedier places you tend to find near bus terminals, I would have been better off staying aboard.

It was a grand adventure. Along a circle-America route, I hiked into the Grand Canyon, heard Dixieland jazz in New Orleans' French Quarter, explored old Key West, got my first view of the Empire State Building, watched Great Lakes ships steam past Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and was hired for my first newspaper job in Hartford, Conn.

A bus is no "Love Boat," but I even found romance along the way when two young school teachers heading for Spring Break in Daytona Beach invited me to join them.

The latest trip was hardly as exciting, lasting as it did not quite two days and 1,345 miles. But the rewards were still there--enough, I think, to suggest that an occasional bus ride in anybody's vacation plans might be a welcome break in what has become the monotony of flying. In years past, getting someplace was part of the pleasure of travel. You can still get that thrill from a bus if you are receptive to it.

As my Greyhound nosed its way West, I pictured myself on a frontier stagecoach heading into the unknown. The bus, after all, is a direct descendant of the coach. Like the characters in the John Wayne classic, "Stagecoach," we passengers were banded together in a shared odyssey, each with a story and time to tell it. Quick stops for food and drink aT roadside posts stretching across the continent: Frontier passengers had to get out of their coaches to eat, and so did we. In our case, it was a change of drivers, not horses, that put us back on the road again.

On a plane, as soon as you board, you are anticipating arrival. On the bus, time stretches far ahead, and that is somehow relaxing. You settle in, building a comfortable nest of pillows, books and snacks to pass the hours. Once you claim a seat, it is yours for the rest of the trip. For the 35 hours to Texas, I answered no phones, faced no chores, held no responsibilities. The man at the wheel was in charge, and journey's end was in the sometime future.

If Washington is, to some, the unreal world, a long-distance bus ride is a passage into hard reality. You encounter the expected travelers on a budget: college students, Army privates, little old ladies in dapper blue-felt hats, retired vacationers and farm town folks who have no convenient airport or train station. For many people in America's wide open spaces, the daily bus is their only public transportation.

But the bus is also the only means of travel, save hitchhiking, for the poor: white, black, Latin or whatever. It's not unusual to see them carrying their belongings stuffed in cardboard boxes, lumpy pillowcases or even grocery sacks--like the Job Corps initiates in southwestern Virginia en route to a new life or the family of five from West Virginia's mountains, their clothing almost in tatters, holding out hope of a better job in Arizona. Mom and Dad staked out the long back seat (more room for sleeping) and seldom budged, but 11-year-old Frank occupied the seat next to me much of the way across Arkansas.

Didn't I smoke? Frank asked me after awhile, scratching a knee that poked out of his jeans. His parents were puffing up a cloud back there in the rear. No. Didn't I even chew? No, again, which seemed to unsettle him as much as his questions had surprised me. "Well," he drawled, "my father lets me chew every once in a while." It came out sounding as if he were permitted some remarkable adult experience denied me by my own father.

I considered lecturing him on the hazards of tobacco, but since I was at the moment (28 hours into the trip) dreaming of a double scotch, I changed the subject to the scenery outside. A few weeks later I read about a university study that reported boys from 10 to 16 have begun chewing tobacco, a fad gaining popularity especially in the South and West. What do you know, my little friend Frank turned out to be a national trendsetter. You don't expect to find many of them on a bus.

The ride was almost always diverting, inside the bus and out. From the window, I watched the changing landscapes, like life-size vacation slides flashing against a wall, a new view every time I looked. Along a rural highway winding south through the Shenandoah Valley, the mist hung low over the green hillsides after an afternoon rainstorm. A line of fat geese waddled across a farmyard, calves and lambs romped in the pasture, a German shepherd sprang from the porch and for a moment almost outraced the Greyhound.

Outside Texarkana, Tex., we entered big-time cattle country. Large herds grazed in every direction across the flat, rolling plains. As we sped past one roadside corral, suddenly I saw an honest-to-goodness cowboy, swinging lariat in hand, galloping after a calf, the West of movie and storybook fame. Whether he lassoed it or not, I don't know, because at that moment the bus swept around a curve.

Even the roadside signs, when you are in an unfamiliar region of the country, can be fascinating. Just across the Red River, among a clutter of service station billboards, one stood out: "Sweat Pea's Barbecue Catfish." Doesn't that sound great, I thought? If only the driver would forsake the next burger stand for this exotic place. No chance. Someday, I'll be back for a plateful. Sweat Pea's looks like it's been around awhile.

Plane passengers seldom talk to anyone except the person sitting next to them. On a bus, for some reason, conversation floats easily up and down the aisle. My guess is that it's because everybody mingles in front of the soft drink machines every time the bus stops, and that is often, getting to know one another. (You can, by the way, drink a case of Diet Pepsi, one per stop, between Washington and Dallas.)

Rae, my favorite fellow passenger, boarded in Harrisonburg, Va. A tall, graceful woman in her late thirties, she took the seat across the aisle from me and immediately began sobbing heavily. High drama on the road West.

What could be the matter? The older woman sitting in front of me leaned over to offer help, and soon the crying stopped and Rae's story poured out. I evesdropped shamelessly.

She and her husband (the husky man I'd seen from the window wrapping her in a hug) were a team of long-haul truck drivers out of Texas, Rae explained, taking turns at the wheel five hours on and five hours off. But the escalating violence of the truckers' strike going on then had convinced her husband that she should return home to their college-age children. Because they needed the money, he would continue the run north to Connecticut.

Telling the story seemed to be catharsis, and Rae's obvious natural optimism returned. When a chance came, she moved to the front seat, and for the next 30 hours she engaged in friendly professional bantering with a succession of Greyhound drivers. One of them, who started his run in a scowling mood, initiated a quarrel with Rae that stunned the rest of us--he wrongly accused her of chattering too loudly in the front seat (she was silent; her chatty teen-aged seatmate had a grating voice)--but eventually the driver apologized. Soon they were teasing each other like old buddies.

As the longest of the long-distance travelers at that point, Rae and I became friends for a day, sharing bus-stop meals and a midnight snack at a candy machine. When she got off in Texarkana, we all missed her friendly ways. She, meanwhile, had scooped up an older couple from Michigan--bound for Arizona, but needing a night's sleep off the bus--and was loading them in her son's car to find a motel.

But before she drove away, she climbed back aboard to wave and wish the rest of us--by now a full busload of 43--a cheery goodbye. You don't get that on an airline flight.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, at 8:47 and only two minutes late, driver Dewey Fainter pulled Greyhound bus No. 8710 out of Washington's New York Avenue station and pointed it down 11th Street NW toward Los Angeles, the ultimate destination 2,660 miles and almost three days (67 hours) later. He would drive as far as Roanoke, where we were due in at 4:10 p.m. On the first leg of this run, he had less than a dozen passengers, but the bus would begin to fill.

"Los Angeles" read the sign on the front of the bus, and as I sat smugly inside (third seat from the front, on the right for the best view), I wondered how many of the people on their way to work through Washington's gloomy, rain-swept streets wished for a moment they were heading to the sunny West with me.

My spirits were soaring--here I was aboard a transcontinental express (even if I wasn't going all the way), with all the adventure and romance any out-of-the ordinary journey promises. Except, the bus turned out not to be an express. First stop, Alexandria, 15 minutes into the trip; second stop, Springfield, 10 more minutes; third (or maybe fourth), a rural crossroads, where an older woman waiting in the rain waved her hand and flagged us down.

I was, it became apparent, aboard the local to L.A. My streamlined coach rushing across the continent had turned out to be a tramp freighter that would sail rural highways and big-city backstreets.

Nevermind, it all turned out for the best. In a car, I had often hurried down Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley and missed practically everything there is to see. The bus rambled along the old commercial route, U.S. 11, passing through many of the communities ignored by the interstate. Staunton, its attractive brick buildings sprawled across steep hillsides, seemed well worth exploring, but there was no time this day. As often as we took on and discharged passengers, we delivered or picked up packages at terminals as insignificant as a crossroads service station. We even carried the afternoon newspaper from one town to the next.

Fainter, 52 and built like Buddy Hackett (too much sitting, too many lunch-counter hamburgers?), is a cheerful man, happy in the work he does. A driver for 21 years, he makes the Roanoke-to-Washington-and-back run three times a week through the Shenandoah Valley and figures "there's no better scenery" anywhere.

His schedule suits him fine. He owns a small beef farm outside Roanoke. He feeds the herd in the morning before the trip to Washington and again the following afternoon on his return. The plaque overhead with his nameplate inserted reads "Safe-Reliable-Courteous." On this day's journey, the description fits.

Dawn arrived in Memphis after I spent a fitful night trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Empty soft-drink cans rolling up and down the aisle got to be a problem at one point. I began squashing any that came near me, somewhat reducing the clatter. It helped pass the hours.

The schedule called for a one-hour breakfast stop, which was about twice as long as any other stop on the trip. While passengers ate and freshened up, the bus was refueled and the mountains of hamburger and fries wrappers and cans swept from the aisles. (The dinner stop the night before at a Burger King had been very brief, and we all had carried our meals on board.)

I had packed a change of socks and underwear with my toiletries, having learned from experience the more you are able to do to freshen up in the morning the better you will feel the rest of the day. But the Greyhound people didn't make it easy. First, the restroom was closed for cleaning, eating away at our precious minutes. And then, because there were no paper-towel dispensers, I had to line up after shaving for a hot-air blower to dry my dripping face. Have you ever tried to wash (and shave) without some kind of towel? In the end, I darted out to the restaurant and grabbed a napkin to get the last drips.

Those hurried minutes at the sink brought back unwelcome memories of early mornings in the Army barracks at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.--even to the guy next to me who asked to borrow my toothpaste.

Dallas finally appeared on the horizon, on the second day out of Washington, and we were due in at 6 p.m. The route had taken us south through Virginia, west across Tennessee and Arkansas and deep into Texas. There were only glimpses of the land and the people, and yet I felt I now knew my country a little better.

But even I, the bus aficionado, had grown restless in the last hours. Time no longer stretched in front of me, and I was anticipating a hot shower, a full-course dinner and a good night's sleep. Outside, the unchanging view of the plains country was less compelling. Inside, my colleagues were dozing more and talking less. It was time to get off--before what, so far, had been enjoyable became a trip only to be endured. Like Rae, I waved and got a friendly scattering of goodbyes in return.

Thirty-five hours out of Washington, by the way, we arrived promptly on schedule.