THE diversity on display is staggering. Sprinkled through the Great American Peace March for global nuclear disarmament are radical environmentalists, a group of hard-core anarchists, lesbian- and gay-rights activists, as well as clusters of ecofeminists (who have their own singing group), punk rockers (who don't), grandmothers, yuppies, and lawyers.
The 1,000 marchers are expected to arrive in Washington today, marking the conclusion of a coast-to-coast trek that began last spring.
As we walk, the chanting of two Japanese Buddhist monks up ahead blends with the sound of a guitar player somewhere behind who's strumming ``Alice's Restaurant'' for the umpteenth time. The march, even according to the marchers themselves, is a strange combination, a sort of rolling mini-Woodstock for the 1980s.
Those who've gone the distance say the 3,235-mile march is a ``miracle in motion.'' Indeed, the logistics of the venture would make Napoleon's palms sweat. The group coordinates every aspect of its daily operations - from making the breakfast gruel to scouting out campsites over the horizon.
Every day, the group packs up ``Peace City,'' a conglomeration of trailers, buses, and tents, and moves to a new site, usually 16 to 20 miles down the road. Everyone is asked to work at least two days a week, sometimes more. This means that only a portion of the group can march every day; the others take care of details.
Despite these challenges, there's the palpable feeling among marchers that they've pulled together in a historic effort.
And as they near their final destination, they say they have reason to rejoice. ``We're proof that the peace movement isn't dead,'' says John Windle, a rare-book dealer from San Francisco who has been with the march since the beginning.
``We've just led one of the biggest coast-to-coast outreach programs in the history of the movement,'' he adds. ``It may be a drop in the bucket - but now the ripples are spreading.''
Experts agree that the peace movement is still strong, as evidenced by the march, but add that it faces some high hurdles.
Public concern about nuclear issues has subsided somewhat since the early 1980s, when a grass-roots movement sparked widespread support for a nuclear freeze. Meanwhile, some analysts say that popular support has shifted away from large-scale, national peace organizations, which are often perceived as too bureaucratic, and is now focused on ``networking'' among individuals and other community-based efforts.
Activists are also struggling to accommodate the natural diversity of groups interested in peace issues. Some analysts contend that peace initiatives are exploited by groups with specialized agendas.
Sol Schultz, a factory worker from Chicago who joined the march in New York, points to the marchers and says, ``You have to have a singleness of purpose; otherwise you neutralize yourself.''
He seems especially piqued that a member of the Hare Krishna religious sect, complete with tambourine and ponytail, has joined the last leg of the march.
``I caught him trying to pin his literature on the latrines the other day,'' says Mr. Schultz, who joined the march in New York after having had marchers stay in his home when they passed through Chicago. The literature came down. ``But how do you tell this group that they've got to be selective in whom they let join? You don't.''
So is there a common thread?
Marchers say that, regardless of their individual interests, they all share the desire to rid the planet of nuclear weapons. ``Diversity is our greatest strength,'' Mr. Windle says. ``But it's also the source of tension - creative tension.''
The marchers have needed all the creativity they could muster.
Launched from Los Angeles last March as ``the Great American Peace March,'' the venture quickly ran out of money and was nearly abandoned in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Calif. Most of the original 1,400 marchers went home as they saw the elaborate, multimillion-dollar organization known as Pro-Peace (People Reaching Out for Peace) shrivel under the California sun.
But the remnant, about 400 people, regrouped and formed their own organization to carry forward the mission. What happened after that is an odyssey of peace activism, a case of raw determination accomplishing what a glitzy organization couldn't.
It costs about $25,000 a week to keep the march moving. Most of the money has been raised from small donations collected along the way and by representatives of the march in various cities.
``We just took it one step at a time, and somehow everything has kept rolling along - despite all the logical reasons it shouldn't,'' says John Dewey, an affable college junior who left Cornell University to spend 8 months marching across a continent.
As time went by, the daily operations of the march became smoother. But even now, the march retains the appearance of contained chaos. And the diversity of the group has made most efforts at regimentation almost impossible.
For instance, some marchers balked at a rule requiring them to walk in a tight cluster behind the banners identifying the group. After an explosive meeting, the rule was modified to allow for city and rural modes, with close formation reserved only for the cities.
Another point of controversy has been whether to have a central organization to run the march. Some marchers favored a ``pure people's movement,'' one with no central authority. Not surprisingly, the anarchists spearheaded this one.
Despite such conflicts, the march has melded into a remarkably harmonious community.
Peace City has an accredited school system that operates out of used school buses for the 50 children accompanying the march. There's also a bookmobile, a medical trailer, a mental-health unit, a 4,000-gallon water truck, a low-power radio station, and a speakers bureau that sends volunteers out into communities along the way.
None of it is quite as grand as the now-bankrupt Pro-Peace organization envisioned. But gazing over the clusters of tents and ramshackle trailers at the end of the day, one marcher says, ``It does the job.''
Organizers hope to attract several thousand supporters to bolster the ranks of marchers in demonstrations against Reagan administration policies planned for tomorrow. The marchers intend to string their walking shoes over the spikes atop the White House fence. And some are talking about continuing the march to Florida for the winter.
But even if they attract the attention they are hoping for, the hard-core among the group seem to know that they've only begun the journey down the long road toward nuclear disarmament.