Look under one of the car-top ski racks on New England's highways and you'll find a disappointed skier.

For the first time since 1966 there was no snow on the ground in Vermont on New Year's Day, and experts agree you'd have to go back through more than 20 years of New England weather history to find a winter as snowless as this.

There has not been a single major snowstorm yet this season and sudden thaws have melted away every light dusting, so Vermont's fields and forests are a disortenting collection of brown hues. It is the same story in New Hampshire and Maine.

Into the breach has come the make-believe.

"Snowmaking has saved this state," Joseph A. Parkinson said somewhat apocalytically today. It has certainly saved the ski resorts which Parkinson represents as executive director of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

"If this had happened 15-years ago, we'd be wiped out," Parkinson said, "Everybody would have gone home and the hotels and restaurants and stores would be empty."

The artificial snow may not be deep and may not delight the skiers, but combined with prepaid vacation plans it is enough to keep many of the downhill types and their wallets here.

For every dollar spent at a ski area, three more end up in the surrounding economy, according to a rule of thumb used by Vermont tourism and revenue officials. Though business at the' slopes is down 25 to 30 percent, Parkinson said, 15 of Vermont's 20 major areas are braving the good weather and staying open, thanks to the artifical snow. Perhaps the most thankful is Stowe, which installed snowmaking equipment only last year.

The 10-day spell between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1 is traditionally a ski resort's main chance. In most winters Vermont can count on over 50,000 skiers coming to the state each of those days, with per capita daily spending of $40 or so.

Parkinson said Vermont enjoyed several $3 million days last year, thanks to skiing populations of more than 75,000 people.

In the absence of natural snow, skiers have been spending less time on the slopes and more in the bars, an informal survey of Woodstock and its environs shows. Those observed did their drinking in some of the best ski wear.

If bars and restaurants aren't suffering too much, neither are the condominium developments and ski villas which have become a large part of the winter scene here. They require prepayment, and most people seem to feel that if you've paid your money, you stick around. About 75 percent of the rooms available in the Sugarbush ski belt area of central Vermont are in prepaid condominiums.

"Most skiers are being pretty understanding," said Candy Moot, the voice on Vermont's Snow Phone which gives ski condition reports on behalf of the Ski Areas Association. "Who can they blame?" she asks.

In the Bernard General Store here, proprietor Ross Harlow said he has met a lot of people with loaded ski racks bristling atop their cars and no place to go. "Some of them are pretty testy," he said, "and I don't blame them."

Across from the general store, Barnard youngsters skate on Silver Lake. This winter is the first in years that they haven't had to shovel snow off the surface. "I hope it doesn't snow and ruin the skating," one teen-ager joked.

Other Vermonters have turned to other sports. At the Crown Point Country Club in Springfield, 60 people turned out for a New Year's Day round of gold. The Times-Argus newspaper reported that one player brought along a sledgehammer to drive his tees into the frozen ground.

Onion River Sports of Montpeller sponsored a New Year's Day running race. Many of the entrants were frustrated cross-country skiers for whom artificial snow provides no relief.

No statistics are available yet, but since recreational spending accounts for about 8 percent of Vermont's employment base, layoffs are certain to cut into Vermonters' earnings.

The weather forecast holds little hope that the bars, game rooms and saunas will soon be put back in their proper place -- on the sidelines. But not everyone is discouraged. To a skier, artificial snow is better than no snow at all.

Bob Riley was hitchhiking from Boston to Stowe today with his skis. "I know it's not going to be perfect," he said, "but I'm completely hooked. I can't get enough skiing.

"Besides, I've already paid for my room."