The hot asphalt of the parking lot was familiar to their feet, but the Blue Ridge Mountains looming in the distance were a strange sight to young eyes more accustomed to a New York skyline.
For more than six hours, the nearly 60 youngsters on the bus from New York had waited impatiently to reach their destinations in the Virginia countryside.
An hour out of New York City, lunches had been eaten and excitement had turned into nervous poking and squirming. The familiar litany of young travelers, "Are we almost there?" had begun.
Finally, the bus rolled into Winchester, disgorging the weary and somewhat rumpled youngsters for two weeks with suburban and rural families in Virginia.
The youngsters visiting last week were sponsored by the 105-year-old Fresh Air Fund, which each year sends New York City children to host families in 13 East Coast states. This year, 11,500 youngsters are participating in the program. In Virginia, 282 families, including several in Northern Virginia, will host 335 Fresh Air Fund children.
For some children, it was a first visit. But for others, like 11-year-old Lucy Soto, it was a return engagement. For the past three summers, Lucy has spent two weeks with Susan and Richard Nye of Woodbridge.
"I brought my records with me," said Lucy as she and the Nye family drove to Woodbridge. "Remember the ones I told you about last year?"
"Did you bring 'Fame?' " asked 13-year-old Laurie Nye. "I want to learn the words to 'Fame.' "
"You have to teach Laurie and Karen the words to 'Fame,' Lucy," broke in Susan Nye. "All they know is the chorus, and it's driving me nuts."
The thin ice of a year's separation was broken.
Lucy, who lives in a basement walk-in apartment in the Bronx, began the first day of this summer's visit helping Laurie and 9-year-old Karen Nye with breakfast. Then the girls played with the younger Nye children, 4-year-old Carolyn, 1-year-old Christine and the new baby, 6-week-old Kathy.
Meanwhile, halfway around the Beltway in Reston, 13-year-old Trevor Wise of Brooklyn was settling into his sixth summer visit with Sally and Benjamin Au and their children, Jenny, 13, and Charlie, 11.
This year Trevor's visit had a new wrinkle; his 5-year-old sister, Nakia, had come along. Charlie and Trevor had established their room as a bastion of male privacy, posting a sign on the door: "No Munchkens Aloud. That means you, Nakia."
"Aloud" was later changed to "allowed," but the warnings were unnoticed by Nakia, who toured the house, carefully opening cupboards and boxes, flipping switches, pushing buttons and whispering to herself about the wonders of this new place. "Beautiful, pretty, lovely," she said as she held up a string of beads to her neck.
It was Trevor's birthday and Jenny called everyone to ice his cake and lick the bowls.
"You are making that cake die, Nakia," said Trevor. Nakia kept spreading frosting. She was used to the teasing.
The rest of Trevor's birthday was spent swimming, seeing the movie "Tron," and having ice cream at Farrell's, where Trevor got the full birthday treatment.
The next day Sally Au took the children to the beach. It was Nakia's first time.
The Fresh Air Fund started in 1877, when a minister sent out the first 60 New York children to enjoy what a 1982 Fresh Air child called "the liberty to run free without shoes."
Today, the Fund is a nonprofit corporation, with 61 percent of its money coming from private donations, 30 percent from endowment income, 5 percent from the Greater New York Fund and 4 percent from the federal government's summer food program.
The Fund operates four summer camps in New York State with a yearly enrollment of 2,500, but most of its program is centered on volunteers in 309 "Friendly Towns," who arrange visits to private homes for children, 5 through 16, who couldn't get to the country any other way.
It costs $392 to send a child to camp, but only $80 for a two-week stay in a private home because host families assume the child's expenses during his stay, except for transportation, liability insurance and medical care.
Children in the program may be sent home or asked not to return if they have behavior problems, but Fund officials say only about 25 children are sent home early each year and about 70 percent of the youngsters are in the program for more than one year.
Although serious adjustment problems are rare, coming to terms with suburban or rural life takes some doing. Green expanses of lawns often are viewed with amazement, the sound of crickets grates on a city child's nerves, fireflies are hardly to be believed, and fresh garden vegetables are eaten with extreme caution.
One farm family near Charlottesville recalled the amazement of a small girl who had never seen carrots pulled out of the ground. When she saw zinnias, she thought the same principle applied. "Do those have carrots under them too?" she asked.
Alice Trissel, of Harrisonburg, a regional coordinator for the program who has had more than 50 children in her home during her 29 years with the Fund, remembers one little girl who "stroked the grass like a kitten, almost in reverence." But one child who stayed with Lowell and Leota Holsinger in Winchester didn't like the feel of grass on her bare feet. "She'd end up going on tiptoes" says Leota Holsinger. "She'd laugh about it herself when we'd tease her, but she never did get used to it."
For many children in the program, the summer visits become lifetime memories.
Joseph Finkelstein, 63, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen in New York, remembers being picked up in a Model T Ford by Margaret Carroll when he was 7 years old. After he became too old for the program, he bicycled the 384 miles from New York to the Carroll farm near Staunton. Finkelstein and his wife still spend Thanksgiving with the Carroll family every year.
Mario Puzo, who is a former Fresh Air child, writes in "The Godfather Papers" of his host family, "I always remembered that man and woman with affection, perhaps more."
The reason for the affection is apparent. On the first day of Lucy Soto's visit with the Nyes, Susan Nye and the children took a hike, stopping frequently to taste the wild blackberries in the woods near the Nyes' Woodbridge home.
They were on their way to an afternoon of fishing.
For a while, as lines tangled and bait disappeared from their hooks, it looked as if they would come home empty-handed.
Then, zap, Lucy had a fish on her line, and a few minutes later, "I got another one! Put me in the Book of World Records!"
Lucy was on top of the world. It was 3 in the afternoon, an hour when bluegills are not known to bite, and Lucy had two in the bag.