LINDEN, VA. -- After 45 years in the construction business, mostly developing homes and office buildings around Fairfax County, Gene Adkins said he wanted to do something just to bring people pleasure.

So two years ago he set about building a downhill ski area here, just over an hour's drive from Washington in the shadow of the Blue Ridge. He named it Cherokee after his great-grandmother, who was of that tribe. Many headaches and $6 million later, Cherokee is on the verge of opening, maybe as early as this week.

When it does, it will be the most convenient ski resort for Washingtonians and an unusual one by industry standards, conceived and developed single-handedly by a nonsmoking, nondrinking vegetarian wildlife lover who isn't even much of a skier.

"I didn't start skiing until I was in my late 50s," said Adkins, trim, wiry and still wearing jeans at 64. "I bought a condo at Bryce and started going there, and every time I drove by here on the way I'd think, 'Here's a nice mountain half the distance. Why doesn't somebody put a ski slope here?' "

When a hand-painted "For Sale" sign popped up one day, he discovered that 1,100 acres on the north side of South Mountain, in plain view of I-66, were being offered by heirs of John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States, after whom the nearby town of Marshall is named.

Adkins negotiated the purchase for $2 million and went looking for money. "It's not that big a deal," he said of the $6 million invested in the land, two slopes, three chairlifts, scores of snowmaking machines and a nearly completed base lodge. "You borrow all you can from the bank, you hock all your property, all your assets and hope it works out."

Because it's a one-man show, Adkins got to build Cherokee largely as he chose, and as a result it has some peculiarities. For starters, every acre not tapped for the slope or support structures is set aside as a wildlife refuge, which Adkins intends to leave untouched as long as he runs the place.

"We have hundreds of deer, turkeys and quite a few bears here," he said. "I love the animals. We're going to leave it just like it is, in its natural state."

That means no high-priced condos along the slopes, even though that's where much of the money comes from at other ski areas.

"Our location lets us do like we want," said Adkins, an ex-Marine from Charleston, W. Va., who dodged bullets as a scout sniper in a rubber assault boat in the South Pacific during World War II.

"We already have the bedrooms close by {in Washington and suburbs}, so we don't have to build any more. Five hundred thousand skiers go by our front door {on I-66}. If we can get a quarter of them to stop, we'll be very successful."

Adkins also said no beer, wine, liquor or cigarettes will be sold at Cherokee, and the 1 1/2-mile-long main slope has been tailored for intermediate skiers, with no "expert" run.

"I go to other resorts and 90 percent of the people are jamming the intermediate slopes, with just a few hotshots on the expert runs. I thought, 'Why not build for the majority?' "

All of which fits with his general philosophy of a family-style facility. He'll instruct the ski patrol to deal harshly with any out-of-control skiers, he said. "Anyone who doesn't respect the rights of others is going to be off the mountain."

In the construction trade, it pays to be optimistic and Adkins has been in the business a long time. Still, his predictions last week that Cherokee could be open for Christmas seemed far-fetched.

He was roaming the cold, cavernous, barren expanses of the unfinished lodge while a score or more workmen dashed about installing doors, drywall, heating ducts, windows. All rulings on where to cut holes, fit fixtures and make last-minute changes in the plans came directly from Adkins, who made them quickly and decisively.

Outside, thick fog blanketed the 2,400-foot mountain and a cold wind was blowing in from the southeast. No snow had yet graced Cherokee, although the snowmaking equipment was in place and Adkins said the slopes could be covered to a 12-inch depth in 48 hours if the temperature stayed below 28 degrees.

Cherokee originally was supposed to open last winter, but it ran afoul of state and county officials when plans for a sewage treatment facility were rejected.

With new plans in hand, Adkins finally got approval two months ago to begin the lodge, and work has progressed at a fever pace since.

All lifts and skiing facilities are finished, but last week electricity still was absent from the lodge as arrival of a special cutoff switch required by state law was awaited. Adkins seemed unaffected by the general chaos, which evidently attends final stages of most such projects.

He said by the new year he expects ski crowds to be stepping off the two quad chairs at the snow-covered top, where a commanding view stretches from Winchester to the north to "as far as you can see" to the south.

It's the view that Adkins regards as the real selling point of Cherokee. "A view like that is as valuable as waterfront," he said. "It's exhilarating to get off these lifts and see the valley down below.

"I built a lot of houses over the years," said Adkins, "but that's just shelter. When you come up to the top of a mountain and look out, that gives people a lot of pleasure. At this stage, I prefer providing pleasure to providing shelter."

If he could, in fact, Adkins said he'd let everyone ski for free. "But I have to start paying that $6 million back," he said with a laugh.

Cherokee lies exactly 65 miles from 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue by first-hand odometer check. Our Volkswagen made the voyage in a few minutes over an hour last week, which suggests it may have been going faster than it should.

Skiing rates will range from $34 a day on weekends and holidays to $15 for three-hour night sessions under the lights. Hours will be from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

For an update on construction progress and an estimate of opening date, call (703) 635-1242.