YOU CAN WALK into the deepest woods almost anywhere in New Y Hampshire and find old stone walls and occasionally even the signs of a cellar, if you know what to look for. Eighteenth century maps of the state show dozens and dozens of villages that have vanished, remembered perhaps only in the name of a crossroads or a pond, or not at all.

Go to Bath, Maine, and glance up the muddy tidal flats along the Kennebec River, and as far as you can see are ancient pilings, rotted and gray with age, left over from the days when Bath was the biggest shipyard in America.

Drive through the cities and towns of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and you pass the grimy old blank-windowed textile factories that once were the economic heart of a nation but now house--in a corner on one floor--electronics firms or novelty companies, or just stand there, dark and forbidding as some abandoned mill in England's industrial Midlands.

New England is America's childhood. We celebrate it in our greeting cards and sentimental songs. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." Norman Rockwell. Fall foliage and saltwater taffy. We make pilgrimages there, most of us, drawn by something more than family memories, possibly not even realizing that the ancestors we know about, who settled in Ohio or Illinois or points west, themselves had ancestors in New England, the people who lived in those lost villages.

Another summer is coming around, and all over the country, families are planning the traditional trip to what many of them call "the New England states." What are they seeking? What is it that we all return to that stony land for?

It is more than the physical past we are trying to retrieve. Perhaps it is to touch base with something in the national character: a fearless honesty, a hardiness, a defiant indifference to the opinions of the group, a willingness to dare.

For we are reminded that New England wasn't at all the sentimental past to those pioneers; it was the future, the unknown. It was unmapped forests and impossibly rocky fields and harsh weather, with an uncaring or hostile mother country half a world away at their back and painted Indians just beyond their frontier stockades.

It was a dark world, too, a land of cemeteries, where hardship turned men into misers and lined the faces of the women, a fearful place where noncomformists could be hunted down and hanged as witches or pressed to death with those famous New England stones, where the Devil was a daily reality and religion was a joyless thing: renunciation, repression and the doom-ranting thunder of Cotton Mather.

One of the women kidnapped in the Deerfield Massacre of 1704, carried off to Canada to live with the Indians, was repatriated years later. She came back to the Massachusetts town but refused to rejoin her family. Pitched her tepee on the lawn and went on living like an Indian.

This says something about independence of character. It also says something about the kind of life that women were expected to lead in those tight-lipped times. It would seem anything was better than that, anything, even living in a tent in a snowdrift.

There were a lot of people like that independent woman. Could it have been the head-on collision between Puritan rigidity and the free-spirited New England character that produced the great 19th-century intellectual tradition? Emerson and Thoreau, Parkman and Melville and Agassiz are gone, but the universities and academies still are with us. And so are the characters.

That's another thing about New England: Even what changes stays the same.

Since the '60s, young people from all over the country have been returning to its rugged land, buying tumbledown farms for taxes and trying to live the simple life. Many of them visit Scott Nearing, the famous old radical whom Trotsky once reviled, on his farm in Maine. Nearing, who will be 100 this August, shows them his exciting new mulching techniques developed 3,000 years ago in China. The future and the past, the ends of the loop, have met.

At the Maine Apprenticeshop, young people learn to build beautiful wooden boats by hand, preserving for one more generation the skills of a dead century.

Changes. The House of Seven Gables is a tourist attraction. Walden Pond is a picnic ground. Cape Cod, well, Cape Cod is jumping these days, at least in the summer, down the main arteries where tourists collect. If those orange-and-aqua Howard Johnson restaurants were garish in the '30s, today they are merely quaint.

It was the roads that did it. Time was, you took two full days to drive from central New York to the Cape. You spent the night at a tourist home and drove through three dozen Main Streets at 15 mph. Today, freeways siphon the millions clear through to Provincetown in no time.

Yet when you get there, things are somehow pretty much the same. Maybe the big old arks are gone, like the hotel at Dennis with its long airy corridors carpeted in seagrass and wet bare footprints on the silvery gray decks. Maybe the motel chains have moved in on Chatham. Maybe the ferry to the Vineyard is now as big as an ocean liner and packed to the davits with day trippers on summer weekends. But you know it's New England. You went to Camp Viking at Orleans in 1936 and learned about horseshoe crabs from a skinny, hatchet-faced, laconic guy named Nickerson? Camp Viking is still there, and probably a Nickerson or two. There always will be Nickersons on Cape Cod.

You see the changes in the first five minutes, and then you settle down to rediscover the familiar. Harvard is different, and also the same. Boston--you wouldn't recognize downtown Boston, but when you go into the subway the smell is exactly the way it used to be.

Fresh winds constantly blow across New England. The Boston Symphony sends itself to summer camp at Lenox, Mass. For years Rudolf Serkin and some of his friends have been making summer music at Marlboro, Vt. Great musicians are proud to be invited, and music lovers trek thousands of miles to these places to sit on the hard ground in their best clothes. At Marlboro they don't even announce what's going to be played until you arrive for the concert. Very New England: It seems eccentric but is in fact practical because, with students coming and going, it is hard to tell which works will be ready by a given time.

The ski boom brought millions more to these hilly states. From Bennington, Vt., all along the Molly Stark Trail, up into New Hampshire, wherever there are slopes and tows, skiers have come to stay, have started pottery schools and French restaurants and furniture factories, have revived the charming little inns that Duncan Hines used to write about, have brightened the tired old landscape with A-frames and restored clapboard cottages--their boards narrow in the hardscrabble northern areas, broader in the lush valleys to the south.

Westerners coming back to New England say it looks so dark, those giant elms and oaks and sycamores and pines looming over everything: dark and small and private, like a childhood remembered.

It is that, but it is no mere dream of the past. It carries the past with it right into the now, and in a country that is only just learning to value history, it is a place to treasure.