WE GO WEST on Route 50, and the climb begins even before we reach West Virginia. The mountains are majestic, one range after the other, and the air is cooler and feels cleaner. The serpentine roads are well maintained; there are fewer and fewer towns and villages as the neat cornfields of Virginia give way to the pastures and forests of West Virginia. Our destination is the Potomac Highland.

West Virginia is the wilderness just around the corner, the nearest place to retreat from civilization. It has a flavor of the frontier West, of open spaces and overpowering vistas. Bear and deer roam through the dense woods that the roads cut across, and the streams and ponds are full of fish. Looking up, we often spot a solitary hawk patrolling the sky. In contrast, human habitations seem temporary--makeshift shelters tacked on to the landscape. The carpentry is often slapdash, with gaps as wide as a half-inch between two-by-fours joined together; the architecture is basic pioneer Americana, with no more than a dozen models.

"West Virginia is a resort state," is a slogan promoted by Gov. Jay Rockefeller. The promised future includes impeccable golf courses and ski slopes and multimillion-dollar condominium developments. A land hustle is on. Property values are expected to rise, and the sweet smell of speculation is part of the mountain air. But on the winding back roads, behind rust-eaten, collapsed fences, the past is often abandoned: most of the farms seem poor and neglected, and many cabins and barns are no longer inhabited. Large parts of the state are timbered out and coaled out; scraggly bushes cover earlier boom sites.

My family decided on a four-day ramble through West Virginia because we wanted a quiet place to explore by driving and walking, watching and listening. The Potomac Highland seemed ideal because of its proximity; it is the part of West Virginia closest to Washington, except for the panhandle in the extreme east of the state reaching to Harper's Ferry.

We started out from the north and made our way southwest, turning from Rte. 50 to 93. For $1.50, we had ordered a little handbook from the Potomac Highland Travel Council, Star Rte. 1, Burlington, W.Va., 26710, and we chose the spots that seemed the most promising. We had no problems in calling a day ahead for reservations. Road signs were plentiful, and the locals were friendly, always happy to show us the way--and invariably ready for conversation.

It took us less than five hours of a leisurely drive--including a stop for lunch--to reach the Greenland Gap Nature Preserve, a few miles off Rte. 93 and just east of Scherr. Greenland Gap is a mile-long V-shaped valley, formed by a stream that wore down layers of folded rock. A marked trail, an easy five-mile walk, follows the twisting dirt road; a more rugged pathway for hikers leads to a steep, rocky top frequented by snakes.

Bob Snyder is the preserve manager; he supplies a trail guide upon request. (His address is Lahmansville, W.Va., 26731.)

As he guided my family through the preserve, pointing out rare rock formations and discoursing on the unusual fauna, strange noises came from a thicket ahead of us. Suddenly, the bushes parted, and we faced a herd of eight wild mountain goats, several of them with great twisted horns thrust upward at a 45-degree angle. The shaggy beasts were not afraid of us. They cast a glance in our direction, then began a surefooted climb on a nearly vertical hill .

The sun was going down as we reached the western end of Greenland Gap. This was the route followed by pioneers going westward, Snyder explained, and he pointed at the storybook valley ahead of us. "There are many more such valleys," he said, "one valley after another. You are now in the heartland of the Potomac Highland--the birthplace of the Potomac. Oh, it's a beautiful land."

Bob Snyder lives five miles from Greenland Gap, and he is a West Virginian I envy with all my heart. He lives in a log cabin which his grandfather Noah started building in 1856, was added on by his uncle John, a master carpenter, and was re-chinked and modernized a few years ago with the help of his son, an architect. The nearest town, Lahmansville, is named after his grandmother's family.

The barn is full of implements his self-sufficient forebears used: lasts and awls to make shoes, equipment to shoe horses, and a collection of saws. A babbling brook runs by the garden and supplies the sweetest of water, and all the land one can see from the wicker armchairs of Snyder's front porch is his: some 260 acres of lush, rolling pasture for his 40 head of cattle.

Snyder is a ruddy-faced, muscular 70--a retired Foreign Service officer turned farmer and conservationist. He treasures the chairs, hutches, churns and crocks he inherited from his grandparents, and he has added what he collected during his tours of duty: West African spears, Afghan guns and Peshawar daggers.

On a recent evening, he reminisced about the time he had to pack up his belongings and flee his post as chief of the AID mission in Jordan because of the civil war there in 1971. Then he switched the conversation to Grandma Susan who had ridden sidesaddle to Winchester--75 miles to the east--to take cookies and cakes to her husband Noah, in jail because of his refusal to join either the army of the Union or of the Confederacy. Susan was the sturdy mother of 11 children; Noah was frail and nearsighted, and had no taste for military life. Patterson Creek, the mountain range visible from the Snyders' front porch, was the dividing line between the free mountaineers and the slaveholding aristocrats, and in the early days of the Civil War people were given the choice of the army they wanted to join.

"Grandpa Noah needed no slaves," Snyder says. "He had his children to work for him."

To visit the Potomac Highland is to yearn to own a piece of it. After an hour in the Snyder house--one of the stops on the Heritage Tour of historic houses, held annually the last week of September--my wife Lizou and I fantasized about a home in the mountains, only 100-plus miles from Washington. Perhaps we ought to restore one of those frame houses standing alone in a valley, leaning this way or that, their boards a weatherbeaten gray or a ghostly white. We'd run a farm where Lizou would make goat cheese, and I'd take care of the goats and the sheep, the vineyard and the vegetable patch. Our son Danny, 10, offered to look after the horses, and our daughter Malka, 3, chattered about keeping kittens, at least six of them.

Some 20 miles west of the Greenland Gap is Davis, a historic former boom town on Rte. 32. We walked through town. Many of the decaying houses are being renovated, and a few antique shops are selling the furniture and utensils of the townspeople of two and three generations ago.

When in Davis, one must visit the Valley View Pharmacy, run by Jim Arnold, a native who returned home only three years ago, after many years of living in Pennsylvania towns. "Jim serves the best coffee in the state," said one of his customers, a salty oldtimer who suggested that my children try the milkshakes at the marble-topped soda fountain.

Arnold says he is glad to be home again. He rents the place from the local bank, which is in a 90-year-old stone building, the city's finest. We peeked at the bank's elaborately turned wooden furnishings from the turn of the century. The bank manager invited us to see the safe, about 100 years old and weighing more than a ton. He told us that his bank had never had a robbery, and he cranked open the 14-inch thick door--a feat of Victorian engineering in steel and brass.

"A lot of people come to live in West Virginia nowadays," says Anita Barton who runs the tourist information bureau in Davis. "People here give you the hide off their backs--not just their shirts--if you are their friend. They have a lot of pride, and you've got to meet them on their own terms."

Barton, formerly of Wall Street. and now Davis' one-person Chamber of Commerce, calls Davis "a once glorious town with two opera houses before it was timbered out by 1912." She heads the effort to restore one of the opera houses and dreams of opening night, still $1.5 million away. She is proud of the one remaining saloon--an authentic spot worth visiting--and expresses her regret that the bawdyhouse is no longer functioning. She expects up to 8 million visitors to pass through Davis this summer.

We spent the night at the Canaan Valley Resort State Park, 10 miles south of Davis and a 6,000-acre state park with lovely views in every direction. Two-bedroom vacation cabins ($310 for seven nights) and 250 lodge rooms ($41 for a double) provide city comforts--including windows that do not open. Reservations are advisable, particularly during the summer and the winter. The telephone number is 304-866-4121. Or call the toll-free central reservations number for state parks: 1-800-624-8632.

Tennis, skiing, swimming, golf, hiking, fishing are all available. The lawns are immaculate, the staff is courteous, and from the dining room window one may observe white-tailed deer, grazing as confidently as cattle. For the children, there are plenty of activities, including guided nature walks, hayrides and ping-pong competitions. It is a place to take an active family.

Canaan Valley Resort State Park is a summer resort hard at work on its skiing potential. Its base elevation is 3,200 feet and it has 20 slopes. "Last season we had 40,000 skiers, but it was a poor season on account of the weather," says spokesman Steven Drumheller, a former ski instructor. He says Canaan Valley slopes compare favorably with those of its rival farther south, Snowshoe, which serviced nearly five times that many skiers last season.

Some 10 scenic miles north of Canaan Valley Resort State Park is Blackwater Falls State Park. It is one of the wonders of West Virginia, an Alpine Eden, a spot of unspoiled super-Switzerland. It is named after the falls of the Blackwater River, the biggest of which is 65 feet. Below the falls, the river drops through the deep gorge of Blackwater Canyon.

We spent several hours walking up and down the well-maintained boardwalks and stairs. We were overwhelmed by the views of water and rock, enclosed in a forest primeval of pine and oak, rhododendron and mountain laurel.

The park's main lodge has 55 rooms, each with a private bath and television. A double room is $35 a night. The vacation cabins ($47 for two people for the first night, then $33) are rustic when compared to the Ramada Inn-type comfort of Canaan Valley, but they come with modern kitchen appliances as well as utensils and dishes. It is recommended that reservations be made a year in advance, by calling 1-800-624-8632 toll-free or 304-259-5216. The facilities are year-round.

From Blackwater Falls we went southwest, and spent some two hours driving up and down the winding mountain roads of Rte. 32, then 33, and finally 219. We had made reservations at Grady Cassells, 22 miles south of Elkins on Rte. 219, a 100-year-old red-brick farmhouse converted into a hotel.

The lobby--once the living room--was an authentic period piece with its gilded, flowered wallpaper, and the mahogany staircase was suitably elaborate. But upstairs, the molding didn't always match and the plumbing was noisy, and some of the 10 rooms--$20 per night--were still under construction.

We spoke with Tom Murray, the Richmond lawyer in his early 30s who bought the property with a few partners four years ago, with the idea of turning it into "an ideal country inn." He added a large dining room--with posts, beams and floorboards cut locally--and hitched to it a 1912 caboose that served as the bar.

Grady Cassells is designed for atmosphere: It offers a turn-of-the-century idyll in the mountains. It is both posh and shoddy, cute and rough--a movie set for a bittersweet romance. This past winter the owners had a falling-out over additional investment and the bank foreclosed on the property. The place closed up, but Murray bought it back off the auction block. Murray says he made "an excellent deal," paying much less than the original price, and he vows that he will reopen by Sept. 15, with the rooms renting for $30 a night.

Grady Cassells served the kind of food you get in Georgetown. But that is an exception in West Virginia, where food is the most discouraging aspect of traveling: Most everything is deep fried, and the one specialty touted in a number of roadside inns, homemade chili, is shockingly sugary. After two days, my son was dipping his french fries into his chocolate milkshake, saying "What difference does it make, it's all fat anyway," and my wife stopped asking if the place served trout that the local streams are said to be full of.

West Virginia is whitebread country where a Howard Johnson roll is class, and the best local food is potato skins with cheese or sour cream. At Big John's Family Fixin's, two miles north of Canaan Valley, an order of potato skins is 99 cents and well worth a try.

"Now that coal is cheap again, the state is one big pocket of poverty," says one of the regulars in Grady Cassells' bar. "It is an underdeveloped land with great natural resources that outsiders covet." He talks about gas exploration--drilling towers are sprouting throughout the state--and he cites rumors of rare minerals in the bowels of the mountains. Born and bred in West Virginia, he half wishes that "the state takes off." But, he adds, he would hate to see "the Howard Johnsons and the Exxons taking over the landscape."

"There is a local middle class," Tom Murray says. His customers chomping on seafood brought in frozen from Virginia included local coal operators, doctors and lawyers. Murray predicts an influx of outsiders from nearby urban centers will settle in West Virginia.

Snowshoe, off Rte. 219 and 42 miles south of Elkins, is the Gstaad of West Virginia, a singles' haven where everyone seems to be dressed by Eddie Bauer. We walked around for hours, drinking in the magnificent view, taking long draughts of the high mountain air. We played tennis, and ate pasta at the restaurant Auntie Pasta's. We somehow missed riding horses and trying out the heated indoor pool.

Begun in 1973, Snowshoe is an entire mountain developed for skiing, advertising itself as an "island in the sky." On its 8,000 acres, it boasts 900 condominiums, 15 housing developments, two top-of-the-line lodges, several restaurants, riding stables, tennis courts. Spokeswoman Marleen Chittum says Snowshoe can now sleep twice as many guests as two years ago--4,000 people--and it is becoming a year-round resort with the addition of a championship golf course this summer. "We are not yet as good as Vermont," she says, "because we are still young and we do not have as many slopes as Vermont. But give us time and we will be as good as Vermont. We are growing a lot faster."

The original developers, from North Carolina, went bankrupt. Frank Burford, a native West Virginian who bought it in 1976, says "the Snowshoe concept" is the beginning of "a resort state in West Virginia." Burford is a law professor turned coal-mine operator turned resort developer. He negotiated a $10 million loan last summer--a huge loan by local banking standards--which he used to build a 30,000-square-foot convention center. He plans to build more ski slopes, more accommodations, more of everything.

Snowshoe may well be West Virginia's future: a ski mountain with condominiums (now selling up to $200,000) and hotel rooms renting between $50 and $85 per person per night in the peak season, from December to March. There seem to be acres of knotty pine paneling.

Land around the mountain is now selling up to $10,000 per acre (up from $500 before Snowshow started), but few people are selling. "The locals know what their land is worth," says a Snowshoe employe, a former Washingtonian who asked not to be identified. "They are not about to give away their land. They are waiting for the price to go higher. This mountain used to be theirs; they came here to hunt for deer and bear. There was a lot of bad feeling when the mountain went private, and management got upset when they saw locals with their big guns trekking through the ski slopes.

"People come to Snowshoe to swim and ski, to drink and to have a good time. They come from D.C. and Virginia, from Florida and Ohio--all over. Maybe it's that clear mountain air, but they spend money here like crazy. I can't believe they can afford what they spend here."

A visit to West Virginia is something of a pilgrimage, in Henry David Thoreau's sense of the word: a place where "the morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted." Even in swinging Snowshoe, the wilderness is an awesome presence; at Blackwater Falls, it is an unforgettable vision. On our way home, our thoughts echoed Thoreau: We would "retain the landscape" and "carry off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow."