The deer moved down the hill at grazing speed, stopping every few munches for a nervous look at the woods ahead. He was a big buck, with a rack the size of New Jersey, and he was coming directly at us.

Downwind, our silhouettes blocked by the trunk of a giant oak, we were still enough to hear our hearts beat. At 25 yards, the deer must have heard them, too. With a quick flare of nostrils, he bolted to his right, then disappeared in a white-tailed flash of hooves.

"That one had some rabbit in its ancestry," said my friend, who fired one quick shot at the deer with his camera. "I think I got a nice blurred picture of him disappearing into a bush."

The deer hunting season does not open in Virginia for another three weeks; four weeks in Maryland. Now is a technicolored time to find deer in the area's lush forests, farm fields and mountain valleys, overeating before the first gunshots frighten them into daytime timidity.

It is a safe time for photographers and ambitious hunters. Trails, scrapes, rubs and bedding areas can be scouted without fear of being mistaken for a trophy.

There is an annual debate among hunters regarding the merits of such scouting. Some claim it is crucial. Others argue that once the firing starts, the deer are driven out of their normal patterns. As convincing as the latter argument is, I refuse to give up scouting.

That would leave no good excuse to field-test roadside diners and country inns.

If you are city bound for most of the year, an occasional weekend in a countrified guest house can be a tremendous dose of mental health. It can also be an expensive and uncomfortable encounter with rural dilapidation. That depends on the guest house.

The best of them can cheer you, even after a full day of squatting in a cold woods, waiting for an encounter that never occurs.

The Highland Inn is one of the good ones. It was called the Monterey Hotel and "Pride of the Mountains" when built in 1904 from the hardwood forests that surrounded it. Now, after seven owners and years of neglect, the three story Victorian-style hotel has been totally restored.

The cost of the restoration was $500,000. The cost of a double room for a weekend evening is $39. The dining room serves mountain trout and homemade apple pie. A library and parlor contain 50-year-old Monterey newspapers and Hardy Boy books. The 21 rooms have brass or iron beds and some have original claw-footed tubs for bathing. Each of the floors has a television room outfitted with overstuffed chairs, and an outdoor balcony that runs the length of the building.

Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison slept at the inn during a cross-country motorcade in 1912. German Gen. Erwin Rommel stayed here in 1920 while researching the tactics of Stonewall Jackson. You can ask about all of them while chasing a chill at the inn's Black Sheep Tavern.

But the best attribute of the Highland Inn is what's outside.

"We are surrounded by 3 1/2 million acres of national forest," says George Saunders, a Washington lobbyist who escaped to this sparsely developed mountain county in Virginia a few years ago. Saunders and his wife Tate, the former director of Richmond's Valentine Museum, bought the inn for $75,000, then gussied up the place enough to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About the wildlife. For anglers, there are a dozen, clear mountain trout streams nearby, including a few that merge to become the Potomac River. Monterey is 190 miles from D.C., and southwest of Harrisonburg, Va. The George Washington National Forest to the east and the Monongahela National Forest to the west are thick with hiking trails, wild turkey and deer. If you are lucky enough to bag a deer, the Highland has its own walk-in cooler for storage.

Skiers are half an hour from Virginia's Homestead and an hour from West Virginia's Snowshoe, which rightly claims to have the most challenging skiing south of New England. The Highland has a van to take guests to those ski resorts.

If all that activity leaves you breathless, the town of Monterey has a few diners where you can drink coffee and listen to the folks talk about life in "Virginia's Alps."

"This is not a fast-paced kind of place," says Saunders. "There's not a single traffic light in all of Highland County. I still like to go back to the city occasionally. But after a couple of days, I'm always glad to get back here."