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ELOY, Ariz. - It's daybreak. The covered wagons are visible through a

shroud of fog, but the morning's tranquility is deceptive.

Overnight there has been trouble: runaways.

"It's the jitters," says VisionQuest staff member Tim O'Sullivan.

His wagon train has taken 45 convicted teen-age felons on a bumpy, dusty

trip over 2,400 miles and eight Western states. Nerves are, indeed, frazzled.

It's a hard life, 10 months on the road. The boys are forced to live with tough

counselors; long, regimented days, and brushes with the occasional Gila

monster. The hope is that they will come to see VisionQuest as their family,

and going straight as the way to a better life.

And now, eight of the teens have fled. It's the jitters, O'Sullivan says

again. The return to home base in Arizona is just weeks away, and for a kid

going nowhere, going home can be terrifying.

A squad car pulls up. Local cops picked up three of the runaways. Bad news.

They broke into a school and looted a vending machine. Wagon master Neal Ryness

frowns: "We won't be allowed in this area any more."

VisionQuest depends on the kindness of strangers. The eight-wagon caravan -

which also includes 26 staff members, about three dozen animals and a dozen

support vehicles - pitches camp in a friendly farmer's field or on a

weed-choked city lot close by a freeway.

As the wagons edge along frontage roads at four mph, truckers honk and

tourists snap pictures. Covered wagons are a romantic notion.

But once people find out who's inside, they think the wagon train's great -

"as long as it keeps moving down the road," says co-founder and president Steve

Rogers. "They think these kids are losers - forget it, throw them away. That's

scary to me."

What seems scarier to others is the philosophy of VisionQuest, a private

program, which is publicly funded. The program, based in Tucson, eschews

keeping teen felons behind bars. Instead, it says taking them into the

wilderness to work with nature, care for animals and rely on others and on

themselves will help straighten them out. The goal of the program - which

relies heavily on rigorous training and American Indian traditions - is to

break the teen-agers of their criminal ways.

Critics argue that such non-traditional methods haven't been proven to be

effective, but others are more favorable. "I know enough about the VisionQuest

model to be convinced they're on the right track," says David Steinhart of the

San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "The

(conventional) institutions are not designed to make human beings feel good

about themselves."

Indeed, on the road and in camp with VisionQuest for several days one sees

boys learning to trust and learning to tenderly take care of animals. For some

of them, it's a rare chance to show or accept affection. But don't be fooled.

Privately, many of the teens say they don't buy the wagon-train method of

rehabilitation (although they respect and admire the staff); nonetheless, they

say, VisionQuest beats sitting behind bars. The boys, ages 13-18, are, after

all, realists - street-wise and tough, mostly from broken homes, mostly from

California.

"These are not choir boys," says San Diego Superior Court Judge G. Dennis

Adams, a long-time VisionQuest booster. "They have records that would break

your arm."

The next day, the five remaining runaways return to camp.

Albert - a 17-year-old robber from San Bernardino, Calif. - is angry. "I

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just walked around the neighborhood. I felt free, felt good."

But he came back because for him, as for most kids here, it's this or the

California Youth Authority lockup.

Eager for an argument, Albert confronts staff member Regina Murphy-Darling

outside the cook shack. He blames his problems on being Latino. She gives as

good as she gets: "You tell me you got locked up because you're brown. No. You

got locked up because you did something." She doesn't flinch as he raves about

the (expletive) this, the (expletive) that. He calms down.

Word of the runaways has reached Tucson. At Red Rock, the next campsite, a

team of troubleshooters is waiting. Linking arms, kids and staff form a circle.

VisionQuest borrows heavily from the Plains Indians for its rituals; its logo

is an Indian Medicine Wheel. In times of crisis or celebration, circles signify

unity.

Of the three runaways who broke into the school, the 18-year-old, is in

jail. The other two, 16 and 15, are in juvenile hall.

Rick Zasa, who will get the younger two released to VisionQuest the next

day, tells the circle, "Those guys left the family - bing - they're in jail the

next morning. ... It makes me sick."

Wagon train life can be boring - and not always friendly. In Idaho, hostile

motorists made it a point to crowd the wagons. In Navajo country, beer cans and

bottles were thrown.

Most of the teens have been on the road for six months. That's six months of

packing and unpacking. Setting up tepees, taking down tepees, going to school

in a tepee. Showering about once a week. Jiggling on a mule-drawn wagon from

just after sun-up to just before sunset. Trying to stave off boredom on the

road during a ride that is rough, too rough, to read or write.

Ideally, the teens should be using this time to reflect on their lives,

program officials say.

This can be a difficult task for any teen-ager, but for a boy with a felony

conviction who comes from a dysfunctional family, this can be especially trying.

As the mules clip-clop along under a bright sun, Alec, 16, sits on a bare

bench inside the lead wagon, petting Buckaroo, one of wagon train's dogs. "They

make it as boring as possible, so you have time to think," says Alec, who has

been convicted of murder in Stockton, Calif. He grins. "Sometimes I just think

about committin' a better crime."

He is a chatty kid who talks about his hopes of playing pro football someday

- slipping in a "Sorry, ma'am" with each expletive. He is describing the

Stockton he knows, where kids "have to worry about gettin' shot or impressing

their friends by shootin' somebody else."

The kids in VisionQuest are a contradiction: Their pride in a task well done

- perhaps designing a saddle - is apparent. Still, they play all the angles.

They fake colds, for example, hoping for cough syrup with a jolt.

Jzenita is 17. When she was 11, she says, "my mom and dad started doing

drugs, messing up. My mom started selling drugs around the house. I started

hanging out with gangs." She tried being "Miss Good Girl," she says, but that

was boring "and if I'm not doing bad, my mom doesn't love me."

This day, Jzenita - among the 80 girls, or 10 percent, in VisionQuest now -

has completed a wilderness hike in which a group of girls had to solo for three

days. It is cold and rainy.

For Lucy, 17, a Latino, this was also a turning point: "I didn't like white

people. It showed me white people aren't all the same."

She adds "It was a white person that killed my dad."

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