The joy of Cranberry Back Country, tucked in the nose of Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, is finding more animal tracks than human. It's not a big place: You're hard pressed to find more than a couple of days' hiking without crossing your own trail.

Not the arduous paths of New England or the High Cascades, the trails meander over heavily wooded hills. While the trails are well marked, they aren't tramped into bogs as parts of the Appalachian Trail are. Though most of the trails are relatively short and gentle, making them great for young children, they're genuine hiking trails through authentic wilderness. West Virginia's hills don't roll; they reach for the sky, pulling their tree-covered sides taut and sharp. They're bold and decisive.

Here and there in the damp, dense forest you'll find ferns, mosses, mushrooms, wild blackberries, wild strawberries, rhododendron and innumerable wildflowers. On the trails you see bright red lizards, tadpoles in the puddles, ground squirrels, snakes and, if you're quiet and lucky, raccoon, deer and maybe a bear.

I started my four-day hike a bit north of the Back Country itself, near Sharp Knobs. I walked up a dirt road from the highway, looking for Tea Creek Trail. There's some logging up there: New roads have been gouged out of the forest, leaving hillsides bleeding with fresh pink mud. Impatient to get away from this, I turned off too soon, onto the wrong trail, and sloshed several miles to come upon some road-building eating away at the hillsides. I followed this road to Tea Creek Campground for the first night's stay.

I picked a secluded campsite near the Williams River, feeling dismal about the sights of the day. A raccoon scurried from the woods, ran up a tree and inspected my camp. I moved slowly toward my camera, but he high-tailed it through the underbrush before I could get a picture.

The next day, the sun warming the forest, I climbed the Countyline Trail: not a hard climb for an experienced backpacker looking for a challenge, but more than a stroll through Rock Creek Park. I climbed steadily from 2,800 to nearly 4,000 feet up the hillside on a slippery trail surrounded by hardwood and leafy underbrush for about 1 1/2 miles. (The guidebook and the signs disagreed on this and most other distances.)

Less than a mile on, I was crunching through undergrowth that at times swallows the trail. About 75 feet ahead of me a black form ambled across the trail. A bear! I had to look twice to be sure. He was beautiful: about 3 1/2 feet at the shoulder, coat thick and healthy, easily striding through the short underbrush. Unfortunately, he was gone before I could think of pictures.

The few bears here are wild, not the corrupted Yellowstone or Smoky Mountain beggars who raid campgrounds for picnic baskets. Wild bears tend to be less dangerous than their nearer-tame cousins: Unless they are cornered or something gets between mama and cub, they scramble away when they sense people. Snakes are common enough in Cranberry -- there's a place on the western edge called Snakeden Mountain -- but they don't seem to be pests.

That day's trail, the best of my short trip, marks the boundary of the Back Country and lies well within wilderness area. It's wild and green and quiet. That night I camped by Little Fork River at a clean site near the water. The sun shone all day, warming the forest, but the smoke from my fire hugged the ground: Rain was coming.

The third day started cloudy. My trail crossed the gurgling, splashing creek several times, following it nearly to its source. Another trail down the other side of the hill put me on a Forest Service road in midafternoon. Dropping my equipment at a trail shelter near the start of the next day's route, I inspected the ford across Cranberry River that I'd have to make first thing in the morning. It looked easy enough.

The clouds had burned off, giving way to a warm, lazy afternoon smelling of spruce, ferns, newly cut grass and wildflowers. It was like a carefree day out of childhood when you had nothing to think about except when the pool would open, where you could get firecrackers and how little time there was till school opened again. overhang on the open side. There's usually water nearby, and toilet overhand on the open side. There's usually water nearby, and toilet facilities. Generally the Park Service or a trail club maintains the shelter. Hikers stay on a first-come, first-served basis, but provide room for all who need to get in. I was hesitant to stay in this shelter, since it's near a road, but the only people I saw were two fishermen on bicycles.

Camping in a shelter means more room to spread out; it also means hanging up all equipment and food at night, out of reach of mice and ground squirrels. Farther north, porcupines tend to be a menace around shelters, gobbling up pack straps and canoe paddles, feasting on boots and even eating the boards off the edge of the shelter. I didn't see any porcupine damage here.

Whoever last stayed at that shelter had neglected to douse the campfire. It was still hot and full of sparks when I got there. Where I come from, even young children learn that fires must be drenched, stirred and drenched again. A puff of wind could have spread that smoldering bed of ashes to the surrounding spruce and put a big, black hole in the Cranberry Back Country.

That night it rained nearly hard enough for fish to swim in the air. I was afraid that the river would rise too high to ford, but it didn't. I waded across barefoot and put on dry socks and boots on the other side. The joke was on me: Though the rain had ended, the forest was so wet that within three miles my socks and boots were soaked.

That day took me over Kennison Mountain, described in the guidebook as one of the best trails in the park because of the 4,000-foot-high overlooks above Cranberry Valley. It also said the ascent was tough.

It was hard to believe it referred to the same trail I hiked: All the overlooks are overgrown, so the only thing I saw at the peaks of those hills was the trees around me; and the ascent was nothing that most folks with two good feet couldn't handle.

Before evening, I was camping near the visitors center.The next morning, I hitch-hiked back to Washington, having done what I had set out to do; stop pulsing to the vibrations of the city and retempo myself to the natural timing of creation.

TALK ABOUT TREKKING

THE WAY TO GO -- Cranberry Back Country lies between Marlington and Richwood, West Virginia, in the southern tip of Monongahela National Forest, about 250 miles from Washington. The visitors center is marked on most highway maps. The closet bus service I found was to White Sulphur Springs, 30 miles south. Although most of the Back Country is designated wilderness (meaning no motor vehicles or even motor tools), a road skirts the wilderness section, giving good access to the trails. Four campgrounds in the area offer auto camping.

A GUIDEBOOK -- I used "Hiking to Monogahela National Forest and Vicinity," by the West Virginia Highlands Conservatory (P. O. Box 711, Webster Springs 26288). It may be available in a hundred places around town, but I found it only at Hudson Bay Outfitters, for $3.

A MAP -- An excellent one of the Monongahela Natioal Forest is available for 50 cents from the U.S. Forest Service, P. O. Box 1548, Elkins, West Virginia 26241, and at the visitors center about 15 miles southwest of Marlington. No Washington office of the Service distributes these maps.