Oncoming drivers keep pointing at my car as I head into the rugged, rolling hills of western Virginia on the way to Fort Lewis Lodge in Bath County. They're few and far between on these two-lane roads, but nearly everyone seems to be trying to tell me something's wrong. Finally, I pull onto the shoulder, wondering if my car has somehow acquired an animal rights sticker since leaving the District.

Then it dawns on me. Raising your index finger off the steering wheel is how people wave hello out here in the country. My heart goes out to these folks. Wave to someone you don't know in D.C. and he's likely to whip a U-turn and run you off the road. When the next car comes, I try it out myself. In no time at all, I'm flicking and smiling at people like it's the most natural thing in the world.

Welcome to Bath County and life in the slow lane, where what you set out to do and what you end up doing are two entirely different things. Take innkeepers John and Caryl Cowden. John's father originally bought 3,200 magnificent acres along a particularly nice stretch of the Cowpasture River as a cattle farm. After John's dad died, the couple kept the cows but also tried raising sheep and growing Christmas trees. But the deer ate the trees, the sheep didn't work out, and the cattle market made Lotto look like a prudent investment.

In 1984, while restoring the 1850s gristmill on the property and figuring out what to do next, John had a sort of revelation. "Rather than force the land to do something it's not suited for, I decided to look at the land and ask what it was best suited for," he says. The answer was a hybrid: a lodge for hunters who came to the area in early spring for wild turkey and in the autumn for deer, a country inn the rest of the year for people who want to hike, bike, fish and reacquaint themselves with old social customs. And John decided to keep some cows, because the land liked to grow grass and he'd be damned if he was going to mow it every week.

Fort Lewis Lodge has 13 rooms spread out over the renovated barn, an old corn silo and two log cabins. The place is West Virginia rustic but Virginia comfortable. The mill is now a restaurant where Caryl turns out tasty Southern-style meals using local produce. (She is a friendly, unflappable soul. The night I was there, she was cooking not only for lodge guests but also sending off dinner for 300 at her daughter's school play.) The mill's second story, where you can still see some of the old gears, has been converted into a game room with pool, foosball and ping-pong tables. There's a screened porch and bar off the kitchen where guests gather for a drink before dinner. John plays bartender while often grilling steaks and chicken on the oversize barbecue outside.

In addition to its guest rooms, the barn has a general living room with a fireplace and sofas, and, outside, another porch where you can read, watch the deer come into the fields at dusk or soak in the hot tub. For people who want more privacy, there are the log cabins built of massive timbers salvaged from nearby West Virginia. (The one I stayed in displayed photos of John and other guys building them.) The cabins have fireplaces, refrigerators, four-poster beds, quilts and rocking chairs. The silo rooms are octagonally framed, with bathrooms attached. As you turn in off the main road and drive nearly three-quarters of a mile to the lodge, you may see meadowlarks flying alongside your car.

The great thing here is to be outside, enjoying the land. It's something that requires a lot of types of footwear:

* Bring waders (and a fishing rod) for the 2.5 miles of the Cowpasture--long a favorite river for D.C. trout and smallmouth bass anglers--that flow inside his farm. Cowden stocks his portion of the water with golden trout. He also puts a floating swimming dock in the bend in the river where a bluff rises 300 feet on the opposite shore.

* Bring hiking boots and a day pack to explore the George Washington National Forest, which the property backs up to. (Poplar Hollow starts a short walk from the lodge and is a particularly nice bit of woods, with a good trail and trees that soar straight up like giant pencils). The 3,760-foot Shenandoah Mountain is only a half-hour's drive.

* Bring sneakers for the 15 miles of mountain-bike trails on the property or a jaunt on the lightly traveled roads. The lodge keeps a fleet of bikes for guests. The 10-mile ride up to the Coursey Springs State Fish Hatchery and back is a good route. You can tell you're getting close by the ever-increasing number of ospreys you see. The hatchery itself has trout that go 12 pounds or more, the kind of fish anglers usually see only in their dreams.

* Bring your riding boots if you like horses, and John will fix you up with a rental horse at a nearby farm for about $20 an hour.

Be warned. As a city dweller, you may at first experience a sense of light-headedness, a combination of the 3,000-foot altitude and the lack of pollution in a county where 90 percent of the land is timber and the chief industry is photosynthesis. On a clear night, the stars pop out like the lights of a planetarium. By the time you get home, your right index finger may ache from waving hello to people you've never met.

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GETTING THERE: Fort Lewis Lodge is near Millboro, Va., about a four-hour drive from the Beltway. Take Interstate 66 west to Interstate 81 south to Exit 240 (Bridgewater). Follow Route 257 west to Bridgewater and Route 42; take 42 south for 16 miles to Churchville. Pick up Route 250 west, go 10 miles to Route 629 and turn left. Follow 629 for 22 miles, through Deerfield to Route 678. Turn right and go four miles to Route 625 and turn left. Fort Lewis is two-tenths of a mile down on the left.

DETAILS: Contact Fort Lewis Lodge at 540-925-2314 (or on the Web at www.fortlewislodge.com). Rates for two, including dinner and breakfast, are $150 to $155 for rooms in the lodge and silo, $210 for log cabins. The lodge is open April 9 through Oct. 23. For details on other attractions in Bath County (and neighboring George Washington National Forest), contact the Bath County Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-628-8092 or www.bathcountyva.org.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Fort Lewis Lodge is near Millboro, Va., about a four-hour drive from the Beltway. Take Interstate 66 west to Interstate 81 south to Exit 240 (Bridgewater). Follow Route 257 west to Bridgewater and Route 42; take 42 south for 16 miles to Churchville. Pick up Route 250 west, go 10 miles to Route 629 and turn left. Follow 629 for 22 miles, through Deerfield to Route 678. Turn right and go four miles to Route 625 and turn left. Fort Lewis is two-tenths of a mile down on the left.

DETAILS: Contact Fort Lewis Lodge at 540-925-2314 (or on the Web at www.fortlewislodge.com). Rates for two, including dinner and breakfast, are $150 to $155 for rooms in the lodge and silo, $210 for log cabins. The lodge is open April 9 through Oct. 23. For details on other attractions in Bath County (and neighboring George Washington National Forest), contact the Bath County Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-628-8092 or www.bathcountyva.org.

The Escapist

Norfolk's downtown is sometimes a tough sell to visitors who aren't maritime-minded. Since March, though, you can add one more big ship to your itinerary of Hampton Roads-area attractions (besides the Nauticus National Maritime Center, 1-800-664-1080, the Chrysler Museum of Art, 757-664-6200, and the sprawling, tour-able Norfolk Naval Base itself, 757-444-7955): That would be the MacArthur Center (757-627-6000), the 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall anchored by Nordstrom and Dillard's with a 20,000-square-foot kids' indoor amusement park, an 18-screen, stadium-seating multiplex moviehouse and 100 other stores and restaurants.

Starting June 9, if it rains on your week in nearby Virginia Beach, consider a visit to MacArthur's 350-seat Rainforest Cafe--a tropical-themed restaurant that features simulated thunderstorms, jungle animals and

. . . oh yeah, food.

CAPTION: Two barns, two fates: Above, a dilapidated barn sits along a road in Bath County; below, the Fort Lewis Lodge.