Blazing forth from a royal blue sky marbled with swirling clouds, the winter sun glistened on the tall white steeple of the Episcopal Church. The church tower, in turn, cast a long gray shadow over a snowy hillside where a bunch of kids in bright orange and yellow mufflers squealed in mock terror as their red plastic toboggan raced downward alongside a wall of granite stones that looked to be right out of a Robert Frost poem.

In the church parking lot, a big limousine poured a steaming cloud of exhaust fumes into the frosty air. Alongside the car, an uptight corps of Secret Service agents kept careful watch over a small clutch of people who were chatting easily with a visitor -- a visitor who just happened to be the vice president of the United States.

It was presidential primary season, and George Bush had traveled through the rolling hills and snow-laden forests to talk to the voters of North Hampton Center, N.H., a hamlet so neat and perfect it could pass for Central Casting's ideal of the classic New England country town.

The richly scenic image of that wintry encounter sticks in the mind today as a symbol of the wonderful pageant of democracy played out across this broad land every four years when a free people go about the business of picking a leader for the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.

Of course today's presidential primaries are gargantuan operations managed by casts of thousands at costs in the tens of millions. But in another sense, each primary campaign comes down to a Grand Tour in which a candidate goes traveling -- traveling across the whole of the United States, from the snowy hillsides of New Hampshire in the sting of winter to the sandy beaches of California in the last breezy days of spring.

What would it be like to go along on that five-month tour? If you were to travel the primary campaign trail from beginning to end -- from February's Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary to the final primary contests in California and three other states in early June -- what sights and sensations would you find?

Some stops would be familiar tourist destinations: Miami Beach, the Hollywood studios, Independence Hall, the Alamo -- all in major primary states and all requisite sites for a candidate's daily sound bite and photo opportunity.

But a primary traveler would also see some marvelous bits and pieces of America that the package tours never include: the charm and friendliness of small-town Iowa, the earnest grit of the mills in Pennsylvania's Mahoning Valley, the sandy expanse of New Mexico's Zuni Reservation, the hillsides of rural Ohio quivering with apple blossoms tossed by the winds of early May. These varied sojourns would be punctuated by regular visits to the manicured splendor of Palm Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Grosse Pointe and other upper-bracket enclaves where presidential contenders must drop in at regular intervals to solicit fat cats for funds.

A few hundred people take this trans-American Grand Tour each election season -- the candidates and their assorted hangers-on, the media, the Secret Service. In essence, there are two sharply contrasting approaches to the primary trek. These might be described as the "Mondale Method" (the wrong way) and the "Ayres Attack" (the right way).

The Mondale Method takes its name from Walter F. Mondale's famous plaint when he withdrew from the 1976 presidential campaign. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Holiday Inns," Mondale explained -- thereby describing in a nutshell the fatal flaw with the Mondale Method of primary touring.

In an increasingly homogenized country, the highway from the airport to downtown is identical in every American city. Room 201 in the Holiday Inn in Portland, Maine, is indistinguishable from Room 201 of the Holiday Inn in Portland, Ore. If you merely travel from airport to airport, from chain hotel to chain hotel, from one candidate's campaign speech in one hotel ballroom to the next gasbag's speech in the next gaudy ballroom, you will never really see America. If that was the extent of his traveling, it's no wonder Mondale dropped out.

The right way to take the primary tour is the Ayres Attack. This approach is named for one of most respected election-year travelers, Blackstone Drummond Ayres Jr., a distinguished reporter, gentleman and scholar of Americana who has been covering primary campaigns for The New York Times ever since the hot new candidate on the block was an Alabaman named George Wallace.

During the 1980 campaign, Ayres offered the wisest seven words of travel advice I've ever heard: "The road is what you make it." He meant that it is a terrible mistake to give your life in toto to room-service dinners in roadside chain hotels. Instead, you can make life on the campaign road bearable -- indeed, delightful -- if you will get out of that room and see the country.

Thus it was, while following a presidential hopeful to Buffalo one April day shortly before the New York primary, that I was wakened from a sound Holiday Inn sleep by a phone call at 5:30 in the morning. It was Ayres. "Tommy! Let's go!" he shouted. "Are you crazy?" I groused. "There's nothing on the campaign schedule until 9 o'clock." "I'm not talking about the campaign!" Ayres shouted. "The cab's waiting out here! To take us to Niagara Falls!"

A corollary of the Ayres approach is that you must always dine on the local delicacy -- e.g., grits in Little Rock, jambalaya in Baton Rouge, abalone in San Francisco -- and the local beer: Iron City in Pittsburgh, Ballard's Bitter in Seattle, Grain Belt in St. Paul, Henry Weinhardt's Special Reserve in Portland. You could order a Bud and a burger, after all, if you never even left home. Under this rule, it is strictly taboo to go to Wendy's for dinner if you find yourself in a town that happens to have a local restaurant called Anna and the Pigs -- a spectacular barbecue joint Ayres dug up in the phone book when we were following a candidate through the lush green farm country of central Indiana.

In the assurance, then, that we will keep in mind Ayres' golden rule -- "The road is what you make it" -- let's take a quick look at what the traveler might see along the presidential primary road this year.

Tradition dictates that primary season begins in the "snows of New Hampshire" and the "icy plains of Iowa." This year, a couple of other venues have horned in ahead of those two venerable starting blocks. But neither the Hawaii Republican caucuses nor the Michigan GOP convention -- both last week -- emerged as a significant event, so it's off to Iowa we go for the party caucuses, a week from tomorrow.

Iowa can be a place of surprising beauty when the corn is green and the cottonwood trees lining the riverbeds are full of foliage. But January, to put it gently, is not Iowa's finest hour. The state is cold, sometimes painfully so ("Temperatures across Iowa moderated to levels above zero yesterday," read a news story in The Des Moines Register earlier this month), the rivers are frozen to a slate gray, and a stinging wind slashing across the open plains fills the air with clouds of flying snow.

But the climatic chill is offset by the warm friendliness of the people of Iowa. Take a side trip, for example, to the little farm community of Webster City, where the grain elevator has a big sign reading "Main Street, USA." If you take the time to chat with the locals over a piece of homemade pie at Mother Hubbard's cafe', you'll find that Webster City is indeed a paradigm of the friendship and neighborliness of small-town America.

Dining in Iowa means eating some of America's finest beef -- steaks fit for the penthouse suite, but at bargain-basement prices. There's a place in Des Moines called Iowa Beef where you can get a marvelous 28-ounce steak with all the trimmings for $12.95. Outside the big city, the bargains are even better. At Elwell's Restaurant in Ankeny, for example, I got a huge cut of prime rib, with salad, potato, coffee -- a dinner that would easily cost $24.95 in Washington -- for $8.

New Hampshire has a scenic advantage over Iowa in the variety of its terrain: the ocean beaches, the sylvan lakes dotting White Mountain National Forest and the mountain-top ski areas. The primary campaigns see less and less of this diversity, though, because about three-quarters of New Hampshire's voters now live in the extended suburbs just above the Massachusetts border, and that's where the candidates tend to congregate in the days before the Feb. 16 election.

Still, the New Hampshire primary will almost surely take you to some of the looming century-old woolen mills along the Merrimack River and over to the picturesque seacoast town of Portsmouth, where you'll get an unforgettable lobster dinner.

New Hampshire is a treasure-trove of political lore. In downtown Manchester, you can stroll over to the front steps of the Union-Leader newspaper, where Edmund Muskie's high-flying presidential hopes came crashing down forever in the controversial "crying" incident. With any luck you'll get up north to Dixville Notch, the pretty mountain town where all the residents gather at midnight on election day so they can be the first jurisdiction in the nation to report vote totals.

From New Hampshire, the candidates head out to the snow-swept midwestern prairie for the South Dakota and Minnesota contests on Feb. 23. Dress warmly for this part of the journey: The preferred photo opportunities in these states require candidates to ride snowmobiles across frozen lakes so they can hobnob with ice-fishing fanatics.

In theory, at least, following the candidates south for "Super Tuesday" on March 8 should provide some of the finest scenery of the primary Grand Tour. March in Florida finds the hibiscus and hydrangea bursting forth with color; the onset of spring in old southern towns like Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., is as pretty as any combination of time and place can be.

But with 20 states on the line that day, 12 of them in the south, the Super Tuesday campaigning is more likely to turn into a mass tour of selected southern airports, as candidates wing their way from one press conference to the next. On this leg, you will definitely see more than you would like of Atlanta's Hartsfield and Houston's Hobby. Anyone who has a chance, though, should grab a cab in Atlanta and race downtown to The Varsity, the world's biggest (and greasiest) fast-food outlet, where the fried pies constitute America's finest 45-cent gourmet dessert.

In the weeks after Super Tuesday, the primary tour takes us back to the industrial heartland of the nation for major contests in Illinois (March 15), Michigan (Democrats only, March 26), Connecticut (March 29), New York (April 19), Pennsylvania (April 26), Indiana (May 3) and Ohio (May 3). These events should permit a more leisurely campaign pace than was possible in the South. You'll tour auto plants and steel mills, but the most common campaign venue here will be the suburban shopping mall, which has become America's new village common. Across the broad plains from Ohio through Illinois you'll see the American farmer out in the fields from dawn to nightfall putting in this year's crop.

The New York primary is traditionally marked by a plethora of "celebrity fund-raisers," in which show-business types, ranging from Shakespearean actors to shook-up rockers, put on stage shows (at ticket prices up to $1,000 per seat) to support their chosen candidates. These affairs offer such memorable tableaux as the moment in 1984 when a purple-haired punker in a grease-splotched sleeveless T-shirt put down his guitar and stepped to the front of the stage to talk about Gary Hart's contributions to a sound fiscal policy.

The West Virginia campaign is always one of the prettiest sojourns of the presidential tour, as candidates traverse the meandering valleys just as spring is painting the hillsides with azalea and apple blossom. West Virginia blooms as well with lovely political oratory; the most lyrical candidate endorsement I ever heard came from a rough and tumble West Virginia Democrat, A. James Manchin, in the 1980 primary. "I will scale the peak of the highest mountain in West Virginia," Manchin said, "and climb to the top of the tallest pine, and from that pinnacle I will declare to the broad blue sky above our beautiful state that I support Ted Kennedy for president."

By the end of May, we're on the last leg of our primary marathon. The remaining candidates shuttle between the two megastates, California and New Jersey, that vote on the last day of the primary season, June 7. This is a time of constant transit back and forth from Newark Airport to Los Angeles International. On Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's campaign in 1980, there was a Sunday in late May when we had breakfast in a New Jersey diner, lunch at Tommy's Hamburgers on the beach at Santa Monica and dinner at a pizza place in downtown Newark.

When the last primary votes are counted on the first Tuesday in June, the traveler can call it quits for this fascinating but fatiguing electoral trip across the country. The surviving candidates, though, have miles and months to go before somebody is elected president. Still ahead are the party conventions in Atlanta (Democrats) and New Orleans (Republicans) and then the three months of coast-to-coast campaigning leading up to election day on Nov. 8.

By embarking on this primary election Grand Tour with the candidates, you will see lots of lovely scenery, meet many friendly people, and enjoy the local delicacy in countless bars and cafe's. More important, you will witness at first hand the genius of the American electoral system -- as the cross-country campaign helps us choose the single person who will mold this vast and varied nation into a single united whole.