Sometimes my little hands-on reporting attempts . . . don't work. In June, while researching an article on hot dogs (sadly, this is all true), I "tailed" a man who was hauling his hot dog vending cart from 16th and K streets to, I think, Mount Pleasant. I had visions of a dim warehouse where cackling-mad hot dog vendors, using rusty forklifts, dumped their unsold cargo in a 50,000-gallon holding tank filled with vinegar and formaldehyde, but I never got that far, because the vendor caught on.

The problem was, his car had a serious compression problem, so I had to go unnaturally slow just to stay behind him. He noticed this early on, and as we chugged up the 16th Street hill at a snailish 11 miles per, he checked his side mirror again and saw -- one more time -- two steely eyes peeping over the wheel of my diesel Rabbit. Staring at me now and snarling phrases like "Why, I'llll," he pulled over. I would've pulled over, too, but I have this thing about hairy-backed guys beating up my car with wienie tongs. So I floored it and burbled safely away.

Embarrassing? You betcha. But this failure was nothing compared with my recent three-day auto pilgrimage to a mountain meadow near Woodstock, N.Y., an officially designated sacred hot spot for last month's Harmonic Convergence. A regional New Age coordinator had told me "thousands" were expected there, but, uh . . . well, let's just say things didn't work out, and by Zero Hour of the New Age (6:07 a.m., Sunday, August 16), after 60 hours of near-sleepless questing, I was writhing in the grass and dew, babbling to the heavens, "Why me, ye gods? Why me?"

Looking back, I see that mistakes were made, one after another, ever larger, in a dizzying inversion of the Path to Enlightenment. When I first heard about the Convergence, a month before it happened, I said, "Ha! It's a safe bet that nobody else will cover this thing."

As we now know, that reckoning was off by a mere 10 zillion words, and by Friday, August 14, when the New York Daily News quoted a Manhattan New Ager who used the phrase "meditating our buns off," I knew that, media-coverage-wise, the Convergence would be like the tubby kid in gym class who trips and falls during dodgeball: a victim of merciless bombardment. Still, I pushed on, having convinced myself that my story would be somehow "different" because I had done some very heavy research -- always, however, staying just shy of actually reading any of the New Agers' mumbo-jumbo books or talking to their reigning nutheads. (Hey, there are limits.) Instead, I read a really long pamphlet tacked to the bulletin board at Yes! Natural Gourmet. This explained how at dawn on Sunday a new prophet would arrive to carry on the combined work of Adam, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and two gents I'd never heard of: the Bab and Baha'u'llah. Though the pamphlet didn't say so, I prophesied that this new Superdude's name would be either Bab Jr. or the Bab'a'llooo (sorry), and that, after being scared away by the sweaty crowds from his preferred landing site, Graceland, he would truck on up to the 'Stock and let his light shine on me. (Some people will call this ridiculous; I call it faith.)

In honor of the Rainbow People, I rented a very peppy Chevy Spectrum (the Rabbit was ill), in which I blasted out of town on Friday afternoon. The plan was: Go straight to Woodstock, get a room, talk to some yokels and be rested and in place when the New Age began. This worked great until, just past Elizabeth, N.J., the spires of New York City crowded my peripheral vision, and I thought: Hmmm, you know, a person hasn't really pilgrimaged until he's overcome a few carnal obstacles. Remember how in Herman Hesse's classic tale of one man's quest for truth, Siddhartha, young Sid dallies for several months with an olive-skinned seductress who has a really cool medicine cabinet full of oils and unguents? Like that. Only, I kept it clean: one Yankees game, a few brew doggies and a Saturday day trip to the country home of some friends -- conveniently, their place was only an hour from Woodstock -- where I sinned even more by using illegal "rub spins" on my ping-pong serves. Anyway, you know how these weekends go. What with a full day of sun and water stunts, a tasty dinner and a few soothing vodka and tonics, I hit my pillow hard at 11:30 p.m. and stayed there until 3 a.m., when my friend Kate jostled me awake. "We gotta go," she said.

I'd been begging everybody to go, but only she had the "vision." Ignoring the cracks of the still-boozing heathen, we glugged down two pots of coffee and set off. We hit Woodstock about 4:30 and saw a big roadhouse that looked open. "I'll bet that place is full of Convergence people eating doughnuts," I said, extending my uncanny streak of wrong guesses. We went in and . . . nope, surprise, it was a bar, still serving, and full of zany frat-like people drinking beer through funnels and radiator hoses. Stunned, we drove around for a while in a beetle pattern, lost. Eventually I stumbled onto the correct mountain road, and after a long and winding uphill passage, the Spectrum wheezed into place at a parking lot beside the Tibetan Monastery compound -- the gateway to the sacred meadow. Standing under the starry big top, a hundred yards from the monks' dark dorms, we could hear them intoning ("Ommmm"). It was very nice, and as we stealthily picked our way through the dark woods ringing the meadow, I began to feel . . . serene, like any minute I might give myself over to the New Age life force and start believing in intergalactic Mayan astro-preachers, time as a circle, and . . .

"Aaaaaah! There's nobody here but worthless hippie burnouts!" It was Kate, who had forged ahead while I toe-danced in the woods. And she was right. We walked to a large campfire and I eyed the following: A total of two Rainbow People. One shirtless speed freak who kept up a steady rap of loud, meaningless profundities about America, the Plastic Society. An Earth Mother in a turquoise dress, sitting too close to the fire, who kept saying: "I'm hot. And everybody here knows it." And three dozen assorted smiling jiggleheads who hadn't heard of the Convergence. Gawd. By this time I was circling a patch of grass like an about-to-snooze pooch, and Kate was beginning a long, long listen-session with a David Crosby look-alike who said he'd spent much of his adult life "searching for the seven people who were actually listening -- okay? 'cuz everybody else was partying -- when Hendrix played at Woodstock." The seven people? Think about that: an entire life's quest built on wrong information! A macro version of my own fruitless search! As I drifted out of his realm, I heard him speak of "Jimi's astral spirit -- running alive in these mists when the sun comes up like a big yellow jelly candy." And though I didn't really believe it, I owed it to him to say it:

"Yes . . . surely this is the Bab'a'llooo." ::