The life of the outdoors editor is a hard one, but it has its rewards, not the least of which is a modest expense account. So it was that on a cold day last week, with nothing scheduled and a column due, I hunted for a quick way to spend a little of the boss's money, only to discover that in the modern world of recreation, you have a hard time spending just a little money.

Ski Liberty lies just 90 minutes up the road in Fairfield, Pa., and in the past I'd scraped a column or two out of there.

So how much for a lift ticket, rental gear and a lesson to get me back on the downhill straight and narrow? Are you sitting down? Fifty-four bucks, that's what, and no package deals except for beginners, the lady on the phone said without hint of apology.

That seemed pretty steep for an afternoon idyll on a mid-Atlantic bunny slope, especially when you throw in the wear and tear of three hours on the road and junky fast food somewhere for lunch.

How about something different, a little adventure? The newspaper had an ad for a soaring outfit in Maryland that takes beginners for rides on engineless airplanes. Sound like fun? Bring your checkbook. Fifty dollars, said the lady, for an 18- to 30-minute ride for one; $80 for 45 minutes.

I don't know whether I'm growing old and crotchety or things have really gone out of control, but I can't bring myself to fritter away $2 a minute on idle afternoon entertainment, even if it's somebody else's money.

How about something free? What a thought. Man goes on assignment for major newspaper, spends nothing and gets story. My colleagues would kill me.

But it was a challenge, and a challenge must be met. I thought about the gadgets and knick-knacks I'd acquired over the years in pursuit of outdoor recreation and peered out the window for inspiration. Ah-ha! Cold. There must be ice.

A skating friend said the C&O Canal was her perennial favorite free place, but the surface there was bumpy and there were open spots. The canal is deep enough to drown in so she wasn't recommending it. "But I had a beautiful skate the other day at Constitution Gardens on the mall," she said.

Sold. The lake at Constitution Gardens is an old favorite, anyway, ever since the Park Service dumped spare bass and bluegills in several years ago. It's been one of the treats of Washington life to wander down on warm summer mornings and fly-fish successfully in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

I even thought of taking the ice-fishing spud, but that would mean buying minnows, and heaven knows what they cost these days. Out of the question.

It was 9:30 before the gear was packed, so I conveniently missed morning rush hour. The drive in on a splendid, sunny, windless weekday was pure pleasure, and as I rolled up Constitution Avenue a tourist obligingly pulled out of a free parking slot.

The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial lay between there and the lake, so I walked the black wall with the skates over my shoulder, staring at my reflection, reading the names and conjuring images of men who might have been skating somewhere, too, on this bright day, but for the vagaries of international politics and bad luck.

The lake was ringed with warnings. "Skating unsafe," they said. And sure enough there was a big hole in the middle, full of mallards and seagulls. But three-quarters of the lake was frozen and my fishing had taught me Constitution Gardens is nowhere more than three feet deep.

So what do you want for free, egg in your beer? I strapped on the skates and stepped out for an hour's plain, pure pleasure, rumbling along on the rough surface, panicking at the tremors of a weak spot and generally doing exactly what I felt like.

There were no enforced breaks for the Zamboni, and being alone I didn't have to make way for some hotshot ex-hockey star buzzing around backwards at twice the speed of light. No music, no rules, no company; just me, the ice and the cold, clear air.

From time to time, a stroller or jogger would drift down from the walking paths to peer at me across the warning signs. I'd skate over to say hello, but they uniformly looked as if they were encountering a madman and strode away. I decided they must be reading the sign wrong, as "Skater Unsafe."

Well, maybe I am. Antisocial, you could say. Anticommercial, certainly. Antiestablishment, getting bald, unwilling to eat junk food; a screwball who'd rather rumble around alone on unsafe ice than spend perfectly good corporate money on some happy, gear-intensive recreational boondoggle.

A cheapskate.

Hey, I like that!