Not a lot of thinking goes on before the sun comes up. From the moment Jeffery Dale rouses himself at 4 a.m. in his Clarksville home until the time he stumbles into work at the Federal Reserve 21/2 hours later, he tries to expend the least amount of brainpower possible.

Cereal bowl and spoon are set out the night before. So, too, are his business suit and shoes. He kisses his peacefully sleeping wife and daughter, and then he's out the door.

Each weekday, Dale drives 5.9 miles to the Park & Ride lot off Route 32 in Columbia to catch the only bus service from Howard County to downtown Washington. By 5:05 a.m., at the latest, he has parked his red Ford Explorer in his regular spot and clamped on the Club just in time for the 5:09 a.m. news report on WAMU-FM (88.5).

"I am a creature of habit," he explained.

Nearly a dozen other regulars eventually join Dale at the bus stop while the moon is still out, their brains in neutral. Over the years, they have settled into a routine that allows them to function with only a modicum of effort and no coffee in sight: They keep the same parking spots, the same seats on the bus. They have unspoken rules for lining up, as well as for boarding at 5:30 a.m.

Who cares if some of their rituals are arbitrary -- such as how the line forms about five feet from the bus stop -- and inexplicable? They need all the help they can get to muddle through the early morning. "Your body just learns," Dale said.

Howard County's estimated 86,800 commuters are stuck in the middle, sandwiched between Washington and Baltimore. Highway gridlock stretches in all directions. That leaves residents to choose between the lesser of two evils: waking up unbearably early to catch a bus or train, or enduring a drive that often seems unbearably long.

More and more, the Washington commuters are opting for public transportation, though the majority still brave the Beltway on their own four wheels. Steve Parker, director of operations for the Eyre bus service, said the first runs, which begin at 5 a.m., are the most popular. He has added four buses to the county fleet to keep up with the average of 47,000 trips monthly. After almost a decade of stagnation, ridership is up 4 percent over last year.

"If you want public [bus] transportation, we're the only choice," Parker said.

And so even on the dreariest of Monday mornings, when there's enough rain to streak a windshield but not enough to turn on the wipers, a troop of hard-core bus riders waits at the Park & Ride.

Barbara prides herself on always getting there first. (She declined to give her last name, citing her work with the federal government.) On this recent morning, she's sitting in her sedan with her eyes closed, but she's not asleep. Outside are two plaid umbrellas, one for herself and one for her daughter, marking their places as first and second in line.

Dale secures the third spot in line by setting out an unread newspaper -- dated Dec. 7, 2002, and wrapped in a plastic Giant grocery bag -- before retreating to his SUV.

Each person who pulls into the lot goes through a ritual. Some use their briefcases as placeholders, despite the rain. They're not especially worried about getting a seat; the bus doesn't get crowded until just before it leaves the county. But they line up anyway. They don't question why. At this hour, it all makes perfect sense.

The bus driver, Mike Parker, doesn't question it, either. This bus stop is famous for its idiosyncrasies. He knows about the briefcases. He knows to park five feet shy of the actual bus stop to pick up these riders. He knows he doesn't have to call out the stops. Once he begins the long drive down Route 29, all anyone wants to do is sleep.

Conversation is frowned upon after the first five minutes on the bus. Dale usually dozes off after the bus stops in Burtonsville, and he wakes up briefly in Silver Spring.

Parker is beloved by the regular riders for his skill at easing to a stop at the red lights, making sure no one is jolted awake. Dale can even sleep through the stop-and-go traffic as the bus rolls down 16th Street in the District.

But something always clicks once the bus turns onto New Hampshire Avenue. Dale's internal alarm clock goes off and suddenly he is awake. His friend, Jan Tyler of Columbia, who had been asleep in the seat behind him, leans forward. They've been in transit for almost an hour. It's time to play a game.

Nothing too taxing, mind you. It's not even 6:30. About all they have the energy to do is guess the number of dogs they'll see on the street.

The game gets them down to Dupont Circle with a grand total of one dog. Tyler gets off a few minutes later at International Square. K Street is still quiet; only one nearby shop has opened to serve coffee.

Dale ends his commute at 19th and E streets. Black Victorinox briefcase in one hand, he walks two blocks to the Federal Reserve building. Up one flight of stairs and an elevator ride up the next four, and he's in his office on the fifth floor. Inside, he powers up the computer, takes off his coat, checks his messages.

He runs down the hall to the bathroom to comb his hair. It's about 6:35 a.m., and the sun has come up. The day can now begin.

Early passengers -- such as Maurice Hickson, in cap, Jan Tyler and Jeff Dale -- appreciate Mike Parker's smooth driving.

As part of his weekday routine, Jeff Dale drops his bag next to others to mark his spot in line at the bus stop.