For a split second I was the wide-eyed guy in the cartoon, frozen in space between sky and earth with just enough time to understand what was coming and no time to stop it.

Mountain biking down a rough trail in the vastness of the George Washington National Forest west of Harrisonburg, Va., less than half a mile into a touted single-track after a seven-mile paved-road uphill, my front wheel had wedged between two rocks, completely halting the bike--but not its rider, who continued via air.

I reached out to break the fall as rocks came into focus, along with a thought: "Don't use your hands! You'll break some tiny bone and have to walk back to the road and coast down to the car, with no real mountain biking to show for the effort!"

The thought, the freeze frame and the flight ended at once, with a landing of left thumb on rocks--the thumb shattered--followed by angry profanity and the hurling of stones into the innocent woods. (I'm right-handed).

Earlier in the day, I'd had clues that this land held mountains as real as any within three hours of Washington. Hint No. 1 was my huff up the unrelenting pitch of Briery Branch Road, which climbs more than 2,500 feet from the valley to the West Virginia border. (Purists may scoff at ascending on pavement, but I was following advice from locals and "Mountain Bike Virginia," a book that actually advises hitching a ride up the road).

Hint No. 2: Just yards shy of the trail head was a parked pickup carrying a multi-occupancy doghouse, the heads of three tenants protruding from portholes. Four late-middle-age guys stood around a second truck just up the road.

"I wouldn't go down 'ere if I was you," one of them said, approaching me to be heard over the wind. "We got a bunch of dogs in these woods an' they're training to hunt bear an' some of 'em are squintin' [meaning they might mistake me for a bear] and they'll bite them legs right off." He eyed my shins. "Can't hunt them bear with toys, y'know."

I pitched my case--seven miles uphill, this way being the only fun way down, limited time in town--while his brow furrowed, and it became clear we were at a standoff. "Well," I said, "guess I'll just have to sprint real hard if I see your dogs."

"Okay," he said, starting away. "Don't come crying to me."

So, as I trudged back up the trail, I worried not about my mangled, bloody thumb but about meeting up again with a man who could now see that his bear- and dog-infested territory had proved too tough for me. But he and his crew had apparently moved on, freeing me to focus on . . . pain.

I don't mean to dissuade serious mountain bikers from frolicking in Harrisonburg's hills (keyword: serious). I have no doubt that the fraction of the Timber Ridge/Wolf Run descent that I "rode" reflected the trail as advertised: tight single track through oak, hickory and pine forest, with beautiful views and, um, sketchy rocky sections.

Timber Ridge, moreover, accounts for only a tiny portion of the knobby wheelers' domain in GW Forest. From the apex of Briery Branch Road, a ruffled quilt of forest unfurls eastward into the valley. A westward glance reveals the true reach of the more than million-acre national forest: lumpy, lonely topography clear to the horizon.

The day before wipeout, I had ridden up Long Run Road, a six-mile, non-technical dirt route, and down hard-driving Rocky Run, a shared-use trail designed (and still used) as an all-terrain vehicle park. The ascent is steady and, yes, a tad long, but well worth it for both the increasingly inspirational views on the way up and the trailwide moguls on the decline.

Intended to sluice rain runoff into the woods, the bumps are a godsend for big-air catchers and enable the rest of us to reach uncomfortable speeds and scorch our brakes just before liftoff. The trail's abundant loose rocks sound like BBs hitting tin cans as they ping off of the bike frame.

After crashing, I drove to the Little Grille, thumb wrapped in a makeshift ice compress, and apologized for the melting drip as I walked in. "No worries," said an employee. "I drip in here all the time, though usually just sentimentality."

His colleague brought me a towel, an endless iced tea and an unforgettable burrito, and all was right in my one-handed world. Fortified, I ambled off with an idea: Next time down Timber Ridge, the cartoon guy will freeze-frame a moment earlier, climb down and walk his bike across the rocks.

The Escapist

Late fall/early winter: a good time to comb the upscale ads for 'tween-season bargains and special-interest packages. For instance:

* If you play your cards--or calendar--right, you can stay at either Keswick Hall at Monticello (1-800-274-5391, near Charlottesville, Va.) and the Inn at Perry Cabin (1-800-722-2949, in St. Michael's, Md.) for precisely half of what the other half pays. This means--Sunday through Thursday only, Nov. 1 through Dec. 29--$125 to $265 a night at Keswick, $122.50 to $397.50 at Perry Cabin. (Doesn't include food, beverages, taxes or gratuities.) Something to keep in mind: Both ultra-luxury inns, purchased in May by Orient Express, have public rooms with inviting fireplaces.

* Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa (1-800-422-2736, just opened a new 140-acre shooting academy, and would like to show it off. The facility offers 30 new trap-shooting stations along a mile-long all-weather road, each with two to three shooting positions and unique views of the Laurel Highland mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. For now, at least, a hundred shots (including rifle and safety equipment rental) is $95. Nemacolin, about four hours away, offers a variety of fall/winter package deals.

The University of Virginia's 12th annual Virginia Film Festival, "Techno Visions," a four-day celebration of man, machine and movies thereof, is tomorrow through Sunday in Charlottesville. Besides the dozens of other screenings around town, organizers have added a Saturday night showing of "Aliens" with festival headliner (and, coincidentally, U-Va. alumnus) Stan Winston, famed Hollywood special effects and creature creator. (Tomorrow night's screening, with Winston and Sigourney Weaver, is sold out.) Call 1-800-882-3378 for tickets, 804-924-3376 or for details.

Cheap-eats tip: Should you tire of queuing at the coolest spots downtown or around the Corner, zip 15 minutes up U.S. 29 north to either Maharaja (804-973-1110, Indian) or Ming Dynasty (804-979-0909, Chinese) for excellent, reasonable fare, vegetarian-friendly and otherwise.


GETTING THERE: Harrisonburg is about 2.5 hours from the Beltway. Take I-66 west to I-81 south to Exit 247B and U.S. 33 into town--and farther west on 33 and Route 42 to the trails of GW Forest.

BEING THERE: A great resource for biking information, sales and service is Les Welch at the East Coast Bicycle Academy (540-433-3013). Other stores nearby include Mark's Bike Shop (540-434-5151) and Blue Ridge Cycle Works (540-432-0280). Local riders strongly advise against biking during general firearms deer-hunting season (Nov. 15-27, 1999); if you do, wear blaze orange. Much of Harrisonburg resembles Anywhere, U.S.A.: gas, food mart, sub shop, traffic, etc. The town's center has retained some charm, despite encroaching neon and grime. Its infrastructural and architectural incongruities are due to the diversity of the locals: farmers, students (James Madison University), families, big-industry workers (Coors and Merck have operations here), plus some old boys and new urban escapees.

WHERE TO STAY: Campsites (primitive and established) are abundant in the national forest, but Harrisonburg has food, nightlife and bike shops not found in the woods. For country flavor, bunk at the popular Boxwood B&B (doubles start at $85 with private bath; 540-867-5772), about 14 miles from the interstate. The home's seven-plus acres include a 1920s chestnut gazebo on the banks of the Dry River. The house dates to 1925, but they say the stone it's built with was worn smooth by the stream 300 million years ago. Innkeeper Nancy Bondurant Jones runs a low-key ship; expect a more hyper greeting from her Schnauzer, Shadrach.

WHERE TO EAT: Harrisonburg's culinary gem on Main Street, Little Grille (540-434-3594), initially evokes visions of grease and hardened arteries--but inside, it's early-model hippie with a menu leaning heavily, but not exclusively, toward vegetarianism. Live music on weekends. Lunch from $6. The Joshua Wilton House inn and restaurant (540-434-4464) serves continental and international cuisine in a formal, fixed-price dining room ($45) and cafe (entrees from $10). For coffee, try the Artful Dodger (540-432-1179), a student hangout with comfy chairs.

DETAILS: Contact the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Convention and Visitors Bureau (540-434-2319, or George Washington National Forest's Dry River Ranger District (540-828-2591).