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Overdosing on autumn _ almost

DAHLONEGA, Ga. _ There were no rooms at any inns within a 50-mile radius of this mountain town, not unless you had reserved one, say, six months ago. A lot of the classier _ read that expensive _ motels no longer have No Vacancy signs, preferring that you get out of your car, go inside and grovel before an astonished clerk: "Our rooms have been booked for months!"

The pilgrimages to see the leaves had begun, and if you throw in a football game and an October festival or two, the crowds hunting Southern autumn are always thicker and more riotous than the trees.

The leaf experts have made their best guesses: a banner year for leaves, one says. A so-so year for leaves, hazards another. It's been too dry. It's been too wet. Leaf us alone .

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In Helen _ a self-styled, Bavarian town in the Georgia mountains where for 20 years people have been capitalizing on a chamber of commerce decision to go Alpine _ waitresses were assuring customers that even "real Germans" eat the schnitzel here.

Helen milks autumn the way Miami does February, wearing its milkmaid costume a little awkwardly the rest of the year. Businesses exist from October to October. To endure one month of oompah music for a good living would be acceptable, I guess, though the goats and herders on the goofy golf course are a visual irritant.

The most amazing thing about Helen is how the town took to its mission so unanimously. I have lived in small towns, and I cannot imagine city fathers getting universal agreement on anything, including whether to plant pansies or ornamental cabbage in the Main Street whisky barrels.

Helen got at least a majority of hungry merchants to agree to turn the town into a music box starring Hansel and Gretel.

I rolled through the North Georgia Mountains after dark, missing the main events altogether. But I had bigger game and brighter leaves in my sights _ the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In Maggie Valley, N.C., where I spent one short night, a mountain stream gurgled its sensuous song as the charter buses of weekend tourists pulled out for home, spraying diesel.

There was still a line at the steak house, but at least you didn't have to peer over strange shoulders to watch autumn happen. Off the main drag, you could be alone.

For a town Rand McNally populates at 202, there sure are a lot of pancake houses.

Sometimes I think driving to see the leaves is just an excuse; what most people really want to see are the newest trinkets in the souvenir shops. The thimble collectors alone would swell the crowd to unmanageable proportions. Throw in the souvenir spoon nuts and you've got Manhattan on a mountain.

The Blue Ridge is for the hardcore leaf nuts. You can go miles between souvenir shops.

(There is one authentic crafts shop on the Parkway, a lovely place with quilts and wood

carvings and handmade brooms. It is one of those shops where you tell yourself, "I should do my Christmas shopping right here and now," but then you don't and on Dec. 23 you're with the rest of the pack fighting to buy assembly line art for the women and Old Spice for the men.)

What you see from the Parkway are vistas that make you brake. Pretty soon the sheer beauty of it all becomes irritating. The overlooks seem obligatory, each and every one, and you wonder how much beauty one person can stand.

By the time I got home, to an area not particularly known for its leaf pilgrimages, I had overdosed on autumn. Or so I thought.

But walking through a pasture late Sunday afternoon, I couldn't help but notice the red of the sumac against its still-green companions. Maybe it's like that Christmas song about the prettiest sight you'll see is the holly on your own front door.

Maybe the grandest leaves are in our own backyard.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson writes commentaries three times a week for Scripps Howard News Service.

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