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FLORIDA'S FALL RETREAT

Here in Upstairs Florida, a walking stick is as important as hiking boots. Armed with my trusty stick, I metamorphose from a wobbly biped flatlander into a confident triped mountaineer. Boulders become pebbles! Gravity is defied! Oops. Just now, I almost turned my ankle. Even with a walking stick, go slow while traversing Upstairs Florida.

I always have considered the mountains of North Carolina as Florida's top floor, our upstairs. Partly it is because we can make the drive in a day. But mostly it is because Floridians have always flocked to the mountains, usually in the summer, but in the fall, too. On some streets you are as likely to dodge a vehicle with Florida plates as the native variety.

My parents first visited Upstairs Florida when I was a boy and my dad was enamored by what he called "roughing it." A tent? Four of us nestled like the Joad family in a station wagon draped with mosquito netting. Meals weren't prepared on a dependable gas stove but over a rusty park grill. In the rain _ it rains frequently in Upstairs Florida _ Dad employed kerosene to keep the fire ablaze. Our pork and beans always had a nice, oily flavor. My bedtime story should have been a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath.

Eventually, Dad sprung for a tent and stove. Later, he rented a cabin every summer. We'd hike and fish and go to Cherokee to buy slingshots. When my children were growing up, I continued the family tradition. Now my children have children of their own and busy lives, but I am still a kid about Upstairs Florida. My walking stick and I show up every fall.

I love Florida's fall, when migrating birds, migrating fish and seasonal foods announce that summer is finally done. In Upstairs Florida, they also know how to do autumn, and you don't have to be an expert birder or fisher or know where food comes from to appreciate it. Upstairs, autumn has all the subtlety of a smack in the mouth.

The leaves change first in the higher elevations, then work their way down as the weeks go by. Even a color-blind Florida boy can't help but notice the blaze of a dying maple. Snap, snap. I take photographs that never do justice to those neon leaves.

Another pleasure of fall in Upstairs Florida is the apples. I go every other day to Barber's Orchard near Waynesville for my fix. I buy apple cakes. I buy apple cider. I buy apple butter. They'll sell you a single apple if you insist, but usually I fill a little bag with whatever has just come off the trees that morning; McIntoshes for my wife and galas for me.

In Florida, in my city life, I use my pocket knife as a letter opener or to break the seal on a compact disc. In Upstairs Florida, I whittle without shame. I smooth the rough spot from my walking stick. As I admire the mountains from the porch, I cut my apple.

Picnicking is an important skill in Upstairs Florida. Load your pack with sausage, hard cheddar cheese, a vine-ripened tomato and an apple from Barber's. Take that penknife along on the hike.

Motor vehicle traffic is horrible in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but that's where the best trails are. In the parking lots, tourists dressed in their best L.L. Bean outfits pose for photographs. Very few actually threaten their boots with a hike. We saw only a handful of hikers when we followed the Appalachian Trail 4 miles to a dramatic outcrop called Charlie's Bunion. When we stopped panting from the climb, we ate our lunch and admired the scenery. The downhill return, though faster, was no picnic. No bunions, but my feet yodeled all the way to the truck.

I always carry my bike to the mountains. Years ago, I started pedaling the Blue Ridge Parkway, the linear national park that stretches more than 400 miles through North Carolina and Virginia. My favorite segment is only 8.25 miles long, but it climbs 3,000 feet. I'm in good shape and I have low gears on my bike, but the gears aren't low enough. I gasp, wheeze, snort, spit and chat with God during the 80-minute climb. The ride down takes 20 minutes. I never have to pedal.

In the parking lot, as I secure my bike in the truck, I am often surrounded by tourists who want to know what riding on the parkway is like. Well, I tell them, coming down is exhilarating and a little scary. Going up is so hard I always wonder why I do it.

Everybody's second question is, then why do you?

The highfalutin answer is because I can. When I ride that hard, I know I'm alive.

But the more truthful answer is that I know this place in Dillsboro where I can get good barbecue. When you ride your bike hard in Upstairs Florida, you don't have to count calories.

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