'Bushwhacking' by day; cozy inns by night
If anybody asked me if I was interested in ''bushwhacking,'' I used to tell them right out, ''No thanks.'' But a two- to seven-day guided hike from one country inn to the next via the Green Mountain foothills, ''Hike-Ski Tour Vermont'' is tailor-made for urban dwellers like me. Under the personal direction of venerable trail guide Anne Mausolff, folks normally confined to the plains of the Midwest and the canyons of the big cities can find their way nimbly over Vermont hill and dale, spending each night in an antique four-poster bed. Just my idea of roughing it.
Pick your season: summer, it's a stroll through ankle-brushing meadows and across old carriage paths bowered with maples and oaks; in autumn, it's a brisk hike up foothills in air as crisp as a Macintosh and scenery aswirl with ochres and russets; in winter, it's schussing through a quilting of snow, catching sight of rabbit tracks and ribbons of wood smoke spiraling skyward.
In any season, it's learning to follow directions that say only, ''In a quarter of a mile, pass an immense maple on the right, approximately 300 years old. Some 1,000 feet beyond, emerge into open fields.'' In all seasons it's a chance to become acquainted with beaver dams, abandoned sawmills, hidden ponds - a way of seeing the unique footprints of forest and meadow and mountaintop, where previously one only saw the out-of-doors. This is the pleasure of hiking in Vermont as I discovered it.
On my intrepid outing - just enough to sample the rigors involved - I slogged through pine underbrush, tiptoed through brambles, slapped at mosquitoes and infamous black flies, and tried gamely to keep up with my guide as she tramped on, tip to toe in khaki green, two fern fronds bouncing gaily above her ears.
It was a losing battle on my part until we hit a certain beech grove, glorious and grand as a church. We stopped, munched dried fruits, drank water, and poked at bear-claw marks on the tree trunks. I felt like a cover shot for Outside magazine. Bushwhacking was suddenly OK. After that I noticed toads and rabbits with glee and trotted on ahead, oblivious of the heat and eager for every new vista. From my guide I learned about logging techniques, forest management, pioneer days, and practically everything else relevant to this corner of New England.
Ms. Mausolff, a sexagenarian and former librarian at Smith College, began her touring business several years ago after a long career in academia. Haleness and heartiness personified, she looks like a born and bred Vermonter, although she is not. She also looks as if she knows her way around a trail, and she does - as I, a semi-willing participant in ''Hike-Ski Tour Vermont,'' quickly discovered.
Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Mausolff has built her own house by hand, hiked the Himalayas and most of the Appalachian Trail, and walked the entire length of Vermont. She is also a former first aid and mountaineering instructor for the National Ski Patrol, as well as a certified nordic ski instructor. ''An experienced backpacker,'' says the promotional brochure of ''Hike-Ski Tour Vermont,'' obviously stating not the half of it.
On the trail she is a flexible scout, leading guided groups (a minimum of four people) and charting itineraries for the bold who want to go it alone. She also sends independent tours along easily followed country lanes and back roads, but her specialty is leading groups on unmarked trails.
Her current collection of inn-to-inn hikes ranges from three to 10 miles a day, depending on the condition and aptitude of the participants. ''I have a wide range of options here,'' she says, adding that during winter months she ''will not take chances with the weather. People are on vacation - not out to be macho.''
Nonetheless, participants should be prepared to walk, and walk a lot. Whether you come for a week or a weekend, to ski, hike, or bike (she recommends Vermont Biking tours for the truly adventurous on wheels), you will cover several miles - roughly 25 miles a week - inch by rustic inch. It's a different way of computing time and distance traveled. Innkeepers transport your luggage from one inn to the next, while you carry only your lunch (Ms. Mausolff supplies the fixings) and anything else deemed necessary for the trail.
While nearly every ramble crisscrosses the edges of the Green Mountain National Forest, at day's end you will heave yourself across the flagstone entryways of some of the dearest little inns this side of ''White Christmas.'' Highland House, Swiss Inn, the Village Inn, the Darling Family Inn, the Colonial House - all read like an urbanite's dream of comfy country dwellings.
Collectively the inns are a ''Whitman Sampler'' of Vermont hostelry. One is a former country home, another an old farm. Some are rife with antiques - the best room in the Darling Family Inn boasts a canopied bed and a 1740s spinet; others are awash in gingham and calico. Some have pools; others fireplaces and wood stoves. One has a tennis court; another has a hot tub perfect for apres-ski. Still another boasts a lawn filled with maples and a porch full of rockers.
At each inn, the owners or managers live on the premises and most do the cooking themselves. On a week-long hike you can eat everything from Geschnetzeltes (Swiss-style veal) and fresh brook trout to homemade pineapple-nut coffeecake and strawberry shortcake.
''Everybody has a different favorite,'' says Anne with a smile, ''but I always say you can come back and stay longer at the ones you really like.''
Not a bad idea. Beyond bushwhacking, there are plenty of reasons for a return visit. Several ski resorts dot nearby mountain slopes, antique shops pop open with the frequency of dandelions, and the towns of Weston, Londonderry, and South Londonderry are abuzz with country stores, soda fountains, and historical museums. Town greens are punctuated with white gazebos and the occasional summer band. Visiting here is like stepping inside a Frank Capra movie.
''Hike-Ski Tour Vermont'' is a two-hour drive northwest of Boston in Chester, Vt., 15 minutes from US 91.
Prices range from $188 per person for a two-day stay to $1,090 per person for a 10-day tour. Tours include accommodations, three meals, and instruction. (Cross-country ski tours are scheduled according to skill level.) Families are particularly welcome, with discounts given on Mother's and Father's Days. Busiest times of the year are July through October and winter holiday weeks.
For further information write ''Hike-Ski Tour Vermont,'' RFD 1, Chester, Vt. 05143.