WHEN IT comes to cross country, which I tried this weekend for the first time, I am an avid downhill skier. That is not to say that cross-country skiing does not have its attractions. For people like me, who think that if it hurts it's got to be good for you, it's a boon to the conscience.

For people like Matthew Ash and Evelyn Hurwitz, however, downhill skiing is to cross-country as drag racing is to a relaxing drive in the country.

Ash and Hurwitz, both of whom work for the government (she as a programmer, he as a lawyer), set out on a West Virginia cross-country odyssey last weekend. They first went to Canaan Valley, only to find that there were no cross-country facilities there. So after taking a lesson in downhill skiing and reconnoitering the area, they headed for Snowshoe, where I was setting up my venture into cross-country.

We were introduced by Tim Moran, one of Snowshoe's three cross-country instructors. A lesson with him, which takes about 1 1/2 hours, is $6, and classes are usually small.

I rented my equipment from Snowshoe's 40-odd pair of Head cross-country skis. It was quite a revelation to find that my 7 1/2 foot fit perfectly into a rather comfortable 7 1/2 cross-country shoe (cross-country shoes look like track shoes, with a longer sole infront and no cleats). The bamboo poles were an inch too long - they are supposed to reach to your armpit - but renters can't be choosers. The rental was another $6.

Moran waxed our skis for us, rubbing a block of blue wax on the bottoms and then smoothing it down with a cork rubbing block. The whole operation took about a minute per pair.

He explained that much of the mystique of waxing in cross-country is in deciding what wax to use, one for the deep snow in the trees, one for the ice in the fields. It can mean rewaxing mid-trip.

Cross-country skis are all wood - often hickory - and most have niether Ptex bottoms nor segmented metal edges. My skis were perhaps two inches wide with a slender, pointy shovel at the front. The binding was similar to an old bear trap binding expect it did not have a tiedown for the heel; cross-country binding only hold the toe of the shoe to the ski so that you can lift your heels as you glide.

Besides me, Hurwitz and Ash, the class included a man who had never been on any kind of skis but felt cross-country appealed to his outdoor spirit; a girl of perhaps 14 who was taking her second cross country lesson in two days "because they don't have any downhill skis my size in the rental shop," and a novice who had heard that cross country was cheaper than downhill skiing.

Moran took us all out, showed us how to get into our bindings and explained the elementary shuffle to us.

Actually, cross-country is more like ice skating than skiing. You push one ski forward, ride it until it stops gliding, then push the other forward and do the same. For novices like me it takes a while to get that glide.

For one thing, instead of balancing on parallel skis, your skis are astride, and your legs spread fore and aft. For another, the blasted skis have no edges to speak of, and the edging I was used to using to grip the snow was an impossibility. Curling may toes didn't help.

But once you get accustomed to the wobbly feeling on the skis, basic movement is not terribly difficult. We all managed to get across the top of the slopes and into the woods with few problems.

The weather may have had something to do with that. Snowshoe is an upside-down ski mountain, with the lodge on top.It lacks some 12 feet of being the highest point in West Virginia, and when there is wind it whips mercilessly. Going across the knob to the woods was close to pure torture. Worrying about our glide or the lack of edges on our skis was the last thing we had in mind. The temperature was hovering around zero and the wind was blowing at about 25 miles an hour.

Once we were in the trees, however, things settled down. The snow was as virgin as you'll find in these areas, and as light as what they wish they had in Aspen. Moran had been that route the day before, but a three-inch snowfall during the night plus the wind reforming all the drifts gave us untracked territory.

Moran broke track, calling back occasional words of advice and encouragement. The most encouraging thing I observed was how he succumbed to the four-foot drifts and fell in up to his ski poles. It proved to me that what I was doing was not as easy as pie. Moran was also proving that breaking track is a tough job.

I was trying to lengthen my stride. I found balancing on my forward or gliding ski a feat, since it was so much narrower than I was used to. And the occasional downhill slopes struck terror in my heart. I had to remember simultaneously to keep my knees bent and my weight on my heels - an anathema to everything I had ever learned in downhill skiing.

We had gone about a mile when the scenery finally made an impression on me. Until then, the only thing I saw was the track Moran was making nad the only thing I heard was my lungs gasping for oxygen. But we stopped for a moment, and after the redness cleared from behind my eyes I could look around at snow-bedecked spruce trees marching in rows behind tall, stately, leafless poplars whose tops were bending in the wind like so many Rockettes at Radio City.

I didn't make the three-mile novice trail. I turned back there, hoping that the numbness in my hands and cheeks did not mean frostbite, gangrene or impending amputation. I don't remember much of the trip back - especially the part back across the knob. I only know that I came in wearing shoes and poles; my skis had been left with some udeserving ski patrolman.

Later, over my fifth hot chocolate, I talked with Hurwitz and Ash. Both of them assured me I had done fine on my first try, but Hurwitz gently chided me for my type-A personality skiing (the aggressive, heart-attack provoking kind). They had both lagged behind, enjoying the scenery and the quiet as much as working on their stride.

"This was a hard day to start," Hurwitz said. "I even heard girls taking their first downhill lesson complaining. It is very difficult to enjoy a sport when you are so cold and when the wind is so strong."

She told me of one day when she and Ash had gone cross-country skiing when the air was warm, the sky was blue and they found a stream that was still bubbling through the snow.

"We followed that stream for quite a while," Hurwitz said. "It was like a lovely leisurely hike during the summer, only nicer because it was winter."

They almost had me convinced. Certainly, despite my exertions, I was not as charlie-horsed as I have been from downhill skiing. And that spot in the woods was exceptionally beautiful. And discovering a private snow-stream is an appealing notion.

However, if I get a beautiful day like that, I'm not going to waste it tracking around in the woods, I'm going to find me a ski slope that no one else is using, and try to make beautiful parallel turns all the way to the bottom.