IT WAS the dream of George Washington. Fearing that the Allegheny Mountains might split the new nation, perhaps even causing another country to form in the west, Washington envisioned several roads, including an all-Virginia route to the Ohio River. This was in the 1780s, when Virginia included West Virginia and the Ohio was considered the West. Following a series of funding battles in the Virginia legislature, the road was finally opened in the 1830s as a turnpike, with an elaborate schedule of tolls for stage coaches, horseback riders and mule teams. The road was called the Northwestern Turnpike, from Winchester, Va., to the Ohio River, and nicknamed America's Main Street. Today, that road is U.S. Route 50. Through the rolling hills of Virginia, where farmers still find Civil War musket balls in the earth, to the summits and passes of the Alleghenies, where you may look down a mountainside and spot an 1840s stone inn or the remains of an old tollgate, Washington's highway does what few roads do: It tells a story. "As much as any other highway," says Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration, "Route 50 tells the history of how this country developed." To the modern-day weekend traveler, the story is told in many ways -- on dozens of signs and historic markers beside the highway, through tours of old homes and taverns that have the musty smell of another era, in quaint museums, bed and breakfasts and antiques shops. And, in the land itself: imposing inclines and rocky overlooks, breezy valleys and fields full of apple trees, swift-moving rivers and shady waterfalls sweet with the smell of mountain laurel. The story is told, too, through the people who have come to live alongside Washington's highway. People such as Bob Guthrie, self-described mountain man, who wears his beard long and his hair in a ponytail. A gunsmith by trade, Guthrie is busy these days restoring the old Red Horse Tavern, on the highway near Aurora, W.Va. The three-story stone building was a major stopping point along the Northwestern Turnpike nearly 150 years ago, and is now on the National Register of Historic Sites. "This was the turnpike here," he says, pointing toward Route 50 with a pewter mug half filled with Stroh's. "One of the roughest roads in the country. When people reached here, and saw this inn, they were ready to stop. Whether they had to sleep five or six to a bed, it didn't matter." Or people such as Blucher Allison, chief engineer at the Mettiki coal mine, in Oakland, Md., near the mountainous border with West Virginia. "It's a fine way of life along this highway if you don't require too much from the outside," says Allison, a silver-haired man with craggy features. "If you're able to enjoy the mountains and the rivers, you'll like it. It's a funny land up here. In a manner of speaking, I guess it's kind of like a forgotten country." To understand Washington's highway, and the story it tells, begin west of Washington, where U.S. 50 narrows down to two lanes and takes on a Civil War name -- John S. Mosby Highway, for the Confederate ranger who formed a guerrilla army in Virginia and traveled this route. Soon it will take you to Aldie, where you'll cross a stone bridge, built in 1820, and pass by an old mill, circa 1809. Little has changed in Aldie since the 19th century, except that the old houses are now antiques shops. "People just try as much as they can to keep the charm that has always been here," says Debbie Hart, manager of Stone Bridge Antiques, which is in a house that goes back to 1820. Behind the house is a stone walk and an old red barn. Beside it, a goat grazes. The charm she speaks of is evident throughout the rest of the region, where you'll find antiques shops and 19th-century inns beside the road and wineries just a short distance away. Open the squeaky screen doors to the gas stations and general stores and it's like stepping into another time. Inside, you may discover a 1950s Coke machine or a scale that gives your weight and fortune for a penny. It's still possible here to see a "No Profanity" sign in a luncheonette or a hotel that advertises, "Special Rates for Clean & Honest People." Past Aldie is the more upper-class quaintness of Middleburg, in the heart of Virginia hunt country. It's a place, some say, where 800 people live, and 400 of them are millionaires. When you get to the traffic light (the town has but one) you will see the Red Fox Inn, oldest continuously operating tavern in the country, dating back to about 1728. The stone inn, originally owned by George Washington's first cousin, Joseph Chinn, was apparently visited by Washington himself when he came through as a surveyor in the mid-1700s. With its cobbled walks and shingle signs, Middleburg is a place that, as Alberta Gibson, general manager at the Red Fox Inn, says, "is easy to fall in love with. It's quaint, it's quiet and it's private. It hasn't been spoiled." After you pass the estates west of Middleburg -- among them Jack Kent Cooke's and Paul Mellon's -- you will see one of the more picturesque valley views in the state, that of the Ashby Gap. Beyond it is the top of the Shenandoah Valley, and the town of Winchester, a strategic spot that changed flags 70 times in the Civil War, and where George Washington worked in 1755 and 1756. On the corner where his office stood there is now a museum. The land through here is known for its apples, and in little markets along Route 50, you'll probably find more apple products than you knew existed -- apple vinegar, apple butter, apple soap, apple cider, apple syrup and juices. With this being the harvest season, expect plenty of fresh apples, as well. And if your timing is right, you may be able to see apple butter-making demonstrations during the fall festivals held by towns such as West Virginia's Burlington (Sept. 30-Oct. 1) and Grafton (Oct. 14). The Winchester area often calls itself "Apple Capital of the World." But apple growers such as Clifton Arnold, who tends to 600 acres just outside the city, like to qualify that claim. "In terms of production, we're maybe fourth or fifth," Arnold says. "But I think you'll find we produce a more flavorful fruit in this area. So I guess in that sense, we're the apple capital." West of Winchester, Route 50 begins its long climb through the Allegheny Mountains, winding up impossibly steep rock inclines, past dozens of unincorporated little towns, some of which were once stopping points along the Northwestern Turnpike. Here the road begins to take on an odd, lonesome individuality -- you will come around curves in the mountains and see strange-shaped houses and honky-tonks built into the hillsides, and businesses such as D&S Restaurant and Auto Parts, Player Piano Repairs, Costume Rentals. You will also see some of the most beautiful mountain overlooks in the East. Route 50 takes you into West Virginia past Capon Bridge and Augusta, pastoral little towns where travelers often stop to browse in the antiques shops, and on into Romney, second oldest city in the state, a confederate stronghold where Stonewall Jackson made his headquarters. Along the old-fashioned Main Street here is a log cabin that is now a Civil War Museum. A little ways off of it, on the original Route 50, is the Mytinger House, which goes back about 200 years -- and where, if you believe the local historian, George Washington once slept. A little way up the road is a monument marking the birthplace of Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln (although 57 other spots in the country also claim to be her birthplace). Then the road crosses briefly into western Maryland, where it's called George Washington Highway, and over Backbone Mountain, highest point in the state. At Cool Spring Park, a water wheel turns among the trees, supposedly marking the spot where Washington camped while he was surveying this land for a road. "Washington, he stayed right over there," says Kevin Harrell, a lanky, stubble-faced man who works in a West Virginia stone quarry and lives on the other side of Laurel Mountain. "He came here one day and said he was going to build a road through here. People must've thought he was crazy." They must have. As you drive through here, you'll have a sense of awe at what Washington envisioned, and what engineers Claudius Crozet and Charles Shaw accomplished. This is a land where, it seems, roads do not belong. Farther up is the city of Grafton, another quaint historic spot, currently in the process of restoring its downtown. Grafton, most noted as the birthplace of Mother's Day, is so hilly that some of its Victorian houses require a walk up 100 stone steps to reach the front doors. The state's two national cemeteries are also in this area. Beyond here, though, the road we have been talking about, the road that tells a story, fades. In the western portion of the state, between Clarksburg and the Ohio River, Route 50 is a four-lane divided highway. Although there are still historic markers, and some pleasant mountain scenery, the modern road conceals much of the highway's past, as do the businesses alongside it. Instead of general stores with screen windows and penny scales, there are minute marts and video-rental stores. But you might want to make the drive west anyway, if only to be able to look down as you're leaving the state and see the rushing waters of the Ohio River, the realization of Washington's dream. James Lilliefors, who has traveled Route 50 all the way to Sacramento, is at work on a book about the highway's people and places. Following 50 For Fall Fun A TRIP along the old Northwestern Turnpike can be an adventure any time of year. But there's nothing quite like driving it in the fall -- when the foliage begins to change, apples are ripe and a chill seeps in the air. "In autumn, it's beautiful," says Carol Stockett, of the Grafton/Taylor County (W.Va.) Visitors and Convention Bureau. "And you'll find all kinds of activities then, because there are so many people just driving through. The second week in October is usually when the leaves are at their zenith." Much of the charm of traveling Washington's highway is exploring it on your own -- finding the old country stores, the little restaurants with delicious homemade cooking, the scenic trails and recreation areas. But for those who won't travel without an itinerary, here's a suggested guide for three days along Route 50 (which can be planned further by calling some of the numbers listed). FRIDAY: Explore the Civil War land west of Washington. Visit the antiques shops of Aldie, and take in the historic charm of Middleburg. A walking tour of Middleburg prepared in 1987 lists 26 attractions within a few blocks of Route 50. The town also offers a full calendar of events, including a wine festival, polo matches, stable tours, theater and the nationally known Gold Cup Races. Although Middleburg has no Chamber of Commerce or tourist information center, most shop owners can steer you in the right direction (in fact, says Alberta Gibson, the gracious general manager at the Red Fox Inn, anyone with questions about anything can feel free to stop in and ask her). For a list of events, call the Middleburg Town Office at 703/687-5152 or write to P.O. Box 187, Middleburg, VA 22117. You can also pick up a brochure at the office on 10 West Marshall St. in Middleburg. This area also features free winery tours for small groups. Call Meredyth Vineyards at 703/687-6277, Piedmont Vineyards at 703/687-5528 or Swedenburg Winery on Valley View Farm at 703/687-5219 for further information. All three are open seven days a week this time of year. Have an early dinner at a Middleburg inn. And, if you're taken by the area, spend the night at the Red Fox (800/223-1728 for reservations) or the Little River Inn in Aldie (703/327-6742). If not, drive up the road to the historic city of Winchester, and stay at one of many reasonably priced hotels. Or try a bed and breakfast or country inn (if you really feel adventurous, there are also camping facilities nearby). For a list of accommodations in Winchester, call 703/662-4118. SATURDAY: Tour Winchester, a city full of monuments to its rich history. Here you'll find historic houses, cemeteries and churches, as well as museums, all of which can be seen in self-guided walking or driving tours. The tours are available through the Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center at 1360 South Pleasant Valley Rd., or by calling 703/662-4118. Spend enough time here to take in the Old Town section, which features 45 blocks that have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. On your way out of Winchester, stop along the road at one of the apple markets, then begin the scenic climb up into the mountains. Enjoy the scenery and change of season, visit the flea markets and antiques shops. Plan to stop in Romney, a city with a Civil War museum, galleries and historic markers. Spend the night at the Hampshire House 1884 Bed and Breakfast (304/822-7171). Or, you may want to drive ahead to the Tygart State Park, where you can rent a cabin with a beautiful view of the lake. Fishing and boating are also available. For reservations, call 304/265-3383. If you're traveling the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 1, you'll want to visit the Burlington Old-Fashioned Apple Harvest Festival, 15 miles west of Romney, which features crafts shows, country and bluegrass music, a vintage auto show and apple butter-making demonstrations. Call 304/289-3511 for details. If you'd like to rent a canoe along the South Branch River through here, contact Old Fields Outfitters at 304/538-2874. For other information about Romney and this part of West Virginia, contact Nancy Mayhew of the Romney Historical Society at 304/822-4326. SUNDAY: Take a historic train tour. In the fall, perhaps Romney's greatest attraction here is a three- to four-hour scenic train excursion to the Sycamore Bridge, along the South Branch River. The train ride, which costs $15 per person (older than 3) departs twice a day on Oct. 14, 15, 21 and 22. Call 304/822-3836. Then drive on to Grafton, the city where Mother's Day began. Although the Mother's Day shrine here is closed on Sundays, it can be seen by special appointment if you contact Carol Stockett during the week at 304/265-3938. Also see the state's two national cemeteries and visit Tygart State Park. An old railroad town, Grafton is "coming back," say locals. This fall, the Chamber of Commerce has planned farmers markets, old-fashioned barn dances and, on Oct. 14, a one-day fall festival. For more information about this part of West Virginia, call 304/265-3938. From here, you may have only enough time to drive home. But if you have a couple of hours to spare, continue west to Ohio, and enjoy the countryside for the whole length of the Northwestern Turnpike.