An icy morning chill whipped through the bus as its doors opened, welcoming the final passengers aboard. Early arrivals huddled in their seats, chin-deep in crocheted mufflers or wool knit scarves. Three children, their faces framed by the fake fur of hooded parkas, traded bites of sandwiches kept moist in foil wrappers. An older women sunk into her seat, hugged her purse and closed her eyes.

A younger woman gazed longingly out a back window as the chartered Metro bus left the District and bounded down the winding Virginia highway. The passengers, who paid $2.50 each for the round trip, were among the scores of friends, wives, girlfriends and parents who make a weekly journey to visit loved ones at the District's correctional facility for men. They call this the bus to Lorton.

Each year, according to Metro records, tens of thousands take the bus to Lorton. In 1980, 39,000 people took the Lorton bus, which picks up passengers at the southeast corner of 12th and G streets NW, a Metro spokesman said. Metro runs two buses on weekends, when ridership is heaviest. On holidays such as Mother's Day, buses have standing loads.

Sixty-nine-year-old Originnever Cooner, headed for a visit with a young cousin, explained, "Some of everybody in Washington is in jail."

On a recent winter morning, passengers included young women like Kimberly Brown of Northwest, who is trying to maintain a loving relationship with man who can't take her out on weekends; and a few newcomers, like Gerald Imes, who was visiting his brother, incarcerated three months ago, for the first time.

But most of the passengers were mothers, many like Ruth Livingston, who said her son Larry has been in trouble with the law "off and on, in and out" since he was 13.

Livingston knows the bus ride well, as do many of the passengers for whom the journey has become a part of life as weeks of incarceration turn into months, months into years and years into decades. For them it has become a routine pilgrimage of love and obligation that brings loved ones together in sometimes happy reunions. But the trip can also be a tiring ritual around which other necessary activities must be planned.

"It's not that it's rough, it just that it takes a lot of time," said Lucille Miller, who has been visiting her son at Lorton regularly for two years. "I could be doing my work at home." Miller had to switch her weekly visits to her son from Sunday to Saturday so she could attend services at a Northeast storefront church on Benning Road.

"Larry had a rough time due to the fact that he used drugs, hard drugs, and started robbing and stealing," said Livingston, who has been visiting her 26-year-old son at various District correctional facilities for 10 years. She was bundled in a black-and-white checkered coat. Her voice in high-pitched but crusty.

Livingston is unemployed and lives off a federal pension left by her husband who died two years ago. She has three children younger than Larry, all of whom, she said, have shied away from the drugs that lead their older brother into crime. Emma Jean, second oldest, is an accountant with a "a big job" in Alexandria, Livingston said. Her second son Lawrence is a high school football player. She proudly points out that her youngest child, Delores, is a junior high school student who always makes the honor roll.

Livingston speaks of all her children, including her imprisoned son, with equal love and candor. Twice a month, usually on Saturday mornings, she leaves her newly renovated Capitol Hill home, bought with money left her in her brother's will, takes the subway downtown to Metro Center and walks to the Lorton bus stop nearby.

As she talks of her elder son, a boy she claims was always strong-willed, she pauses and squints as if unsure she understands what she is trying to explain. Livingston said she believes her son would have been out of jail by now if he avoided the drugs that got him into trouble in the first place. Even now, she insists, drugs are easily available to him in prison.

Livingston says that some of the drugs are delivered to inmates by people who take the bus. She said she tries to tell her son how drugs destroy people.

"He don't want to hear about that," she sighed, heaving with frustration.

"I still go to see him," she said. "I love him. I haven't given up on him. He was a good boy once."

At the rear of the bus, Gerald Imes, 22, prepared for a visit with an older brother imprisoned for parole violations relating to an auto theft conviction. "A bum rap," Imes said, but not the first time someone in his family has been in trouble with the law.

"Funny thing, I got seven brothers, right?" Imes said. "All of them have gotten in trouble as far as being locked up, except for me and my little brother." Later during the bus ride, Imes said that when he was 17, he spent a night in jail on an auto vandalism charge.

Imes, a ninth-grade dropout, talked about the problems that he said lead young men like his brother to Lorton.

His family left a life of poverty in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1967 and, with dreams of wider opportunities and a chance for a better life, migrated to Washington, Imes said. They settled in a rooming house in Northwest's Adams Morgan area. His father got a job as a janitor while his mother kept the home running. Life in Washington was "a hundred percent better from day one," Imes recalled, but still left much room for improvement.

"We suffered," Imes said, punctuating memories of the bad times with a hard shake of his head. Times were so hard, Imes said, that he walked around barefoot that first summer in Washington because shoes were more than the family could afford.

As things improved, Imes said, he and his brothers still didn't have nice clothes or money to buy the things other kids had. In addition to their poverty, Imes said, they were also handicapped by a lack of urban street savvy. They were country bumpkins in a big city who sought to improve their reputations and financial status by the most accessible means: they started getting into trouble.

Imes, now unemployed, has had various construction jobs, but much of his life in Washington was involved with "scams, theft and robbery," he said. Knowing how to "duck and dodge," he said, kept him out of jail.

Imes said his new-found belief in God now keeps him out of trouble. He wants to become a self-ordained minister and hopes that religion will also help his younger brother, a high school student, lead a crime-free life.

"As long as I'm around he's gonna be a strong warrior; not physically, but mentally," said Imes. "I was a young brother growing up among big brothers with criminal minds."

Several seats away from Imes, Kimberly Brown, her eyes lined with thick mascara, stared out of a window at the back of the bus. Brown, 20, cleans offices at night part-time. The only time she has to visit her boyfriend, who has been at Lorton since August 1980, is on weekends. She makes the trip to Lorton faith-fully twice a week.

"They really can't function without knowing somebody's going to come to see them, that somebody cares," she said.

Her boyfriend is not due for release until August, but Brown said the wait is not a hard one. She has been dating him since she was 14 and their relationship has a solid foundation, she said.

Lonely times? Sure, Brown admitted, but she said she is willing to wait. "I feel that when he's locked up, in a way, it makes [the relationship] stronger," Brown said, explaining that absence can make the heart grow fonder.

Brown graduated from Cardozo High School three years ago. Since then, she hasn't sought more education or training, but she said she is ready to do something to advance herself now. While her boyfriend is at Lorton she is not trying to enter a job training program. But after her boyfriend is released, she said, they plan to wait until they can secure their own futures before tying the knot. "Right now, I'm not ready to get married because I don't have anything myself and neither does he," she said.

But for now, Brown said, she is content to take the bus to Lorton. Despite the distance and the separation, the relationship keeps going, she said, "with a little understanding, a little love."