"PEOPLE CAME HERE thinking that because they picked their own, they would get the apples free," says Ruth Rinker in her orchard near Winchester. "They came here thinking that God gave us the apples."

But that was seven years ago. Since then, the consumer-pickers have learned, perhaps becoming more like the poet Henry Thoreau talked abo a farm, while the crusty ut, who departs "having enjoyed a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only."

It's a fall day in the country these poets are looking for. The fresh and unbruised fruit they pick is a bonus, or an excuse to get out of Annandale or Silver Spring. There are those nice little surprises the rural countryside offers. The signs along U.S. 50 are so different from the city's urgent WALK - DONT WALK. On the road to appleland, there are signs like: MOWING NEXT 2 MILES - the terse HAY - and, near Winchester, in rural under-statement, APPLES AHEAD.

It sets the mood for a visit to a quieter way of life. From a rise in the Rinker orchard, you can see the Massanutten Valley and a mountain's outcrop called Signal Knob. Nearby, you see the rows and rows of apples to pick, shine and eat, or take home and bake - Red and Golden Delicious, Ida Reds and Grimes Golden. You don't find Grimes Golden much anymore, but a few places still have them. The spicy flavor is just different. Clarence Hill, superintendent of a Winchester fruit research station, says pruning is a problem for the Grimes, and the Golden Delicious has replaced it.

"Apparently it's going to be lost. It had something special. The same is true with other varieties.

"The market distribution system in part has to do with this. They want large tonnage. They don't want small lots [of many different varieties] at different stores.

"In Columbus' day there were hundreds of varieties that ripen as early as possible and come in as late as possible. Storage was not as developed."

More fuel for the fire in the heart of the consumer-picker.

Across the road from the Rinker place, a steady drone rose from the field, where a mechanical picker was hard at work, literally shaking the apples off the branches, tree by tree. A mechanical arm reached out and grabbed, and the tree shook in a ghoulish St. Vitus' dance. The air was filled with leaves. The apples dropped onto a mat extended like a firemen's net, and within a few moments, all the fruit was gone from the tree.

Johnny Appleseed wouldn't have approved. KNOWING YOUR APPLES

There's something to be said for knowing where your apples come from - and when they were there last. Those big Red Delicious apples you bought in August for 79 cents a pound were actually picked the previous October in the state of Washington. They spent the interim in controlled - atmosphere storage where carbon dioxide kept them from maturing.

You're on your own. Here's where to go picking.