The car rumbled through the darkness of the covered bridge as a host of pigeons fluttered from the rafters. Daylight flashed on the other side and the driver's stomach made a fillip as the car sped downhill on the road.

Beside the bridge a man wearing Bermuda shorts and a tan was working his way along the roadside with a grass edger, attacking the straggling blades on the inclined approach to the Utica Road Bridge in Frederick County. A goat looked on with interest.

It's the time of year to ramble the countryside looking for signs of the past, of slower-paced days. When the family takes an outing to look at the leaves and breathe the fall air, rustic bridges provide a backdrop for photos, as well as being the subject of them. There's sure to be at least one family member who has never seen a covered bridge up close.

Covered bridges are relics of a time down by the old mill stream, "spooning bridges," where grandpas and grandmas courted. Poets wrote about them: Longfellow described them as "a brief darkness leading from light to light." And in that brief darkness, one New England custom holds, make a wish and don't look back.

Some think wooden bridges were covered to keep the road clear in snow; but really the roof protects the bridge supports -- the trusses or arches -- from weathering.

A good example of one form of covered bridge truss, the Town lattice, is near the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Sauck's Bridge, also known as Sach's Bridge, was built in 1854, miraculously surviving the Civil War Battle. It's closed to traffic, which is a relief as it seems to sag a bit. Perfectly safe for travel by foot, though. No loitering, warns a sign at the portal.

Bridge structure is of great interest to hobbyists who travel around for the sole purpose of photographing covered bridges. "Some people take great pains to photograph a certain part," said Myron Miller, a "bridging" enthusiast in Hershey, Pennsylvania, who owns thousands of slides of covered bridges, European as well as American. "Some take underneath, some inside, or up above. Then some would rather photograph in the winter than summer because the leaves obstruct it. Some people wade out into the stream and stand on a stone or hang upside-down on an abutment. Some people have fallen into the water taking pictures."

What's the appeal of covered bridges? To Miller, "It's something of the past that is still with us.I like the way they're built. Of course, I'm very partial to Theodore Burr Bridges -- they're stronger." Burr built many of Pennsylvania's covered bridges with his patented combination of arches and several diagonal trusses. Near Gettysburg, in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, a Burr bridge is still in use; and due east near McSherrystown, another can be found, closed to traffic but not tourists.

Then there was Ithiel Town, who used the lattice for strength and patented it in 1820; and William Howe, who, within the basic design of wood diagonals, introduced vertical iron rods, a sign of what was in the future for bridges.

The covered bridge on Utica Road in Frederick County is another Burr-type bridge. D.W. Holsinger bought the piece of land it straddles 15 years ago; where he built his house was once a swamp, and barely a hundred yards away over the trickle that is Fishing Creek is the red wooden bridge. Originally built in 1850 over the Monocacy River, it washed ashore during a flood in 1889; it was dismantled, then pieced together again a few miles away in Utica Mills.

"It's nice," D.W. Holsinger said, pointing towards the covered bridge, "but it's thankless."

"We'll get 50 to 60 people in groups. People don't realize how much traffic it draws. The ones that get nasty and rowdy, throw beer cans in the yard, I can't abide. We enjoy people coming out and seeing the bridge if they take care of it, same way we do."

He trims the grass closely on the approach to the bridge because he wants to keep black snakes out of it.

Local people drive through it, of course, to get where they're going. Others come to see it because it's one of six remaining pre-1900 covered bridges in the state of Maryland.

Nearby, Loys Station Bridge is flanked by a park with outdoor grills, playground and a small pavilion. More than a hundred years old, the bridge will hold a schoolbus, though one at a time. One warm fall day, a grandfather could be seen sheperding his young grandsons alongside Owens Creek, which runs under the tall wooden bridge. "I've only been living up here for 20 years," he said pulling on his pipe. "I don't know too much about it."

And Frederick County has a third bridge, just north of Thurmont on Roddy Road. Farmers drive their tractors through and children splash in the creek below. There's room for picnickers to stretch out with their daydreams. As for the other three in Maryland, a Howe truss bridge spans Little Gunpowder Falls Creek at the Baltimore Harford county line near North Franklinville, and two others are in Cecil County.

But the wooden bridge is dying, more often hit by natural disasters -- when little creeks become floodwaters. Some bridges, like Meem's Bottom Bridge in Mount Jackson, Virginia, have been almost lost to a flood but rebuilt using the original arches and trusses On the north fork of the Shenandoah River, the bridge is approached by a county road lined with maple trees whose branches link overhead to form a long cathedral ceiling. Driving through the bridge it's dark and quiet, a held breath.

There never were very many wooden bridges hereabouts, where stone was the preferred building material. And despite Holsinger's custodianship, the bridge on Utica Road has had to suffer the same sorts of indignities as other covered bridges. That unfortunately includes vandalism: Lovers and the class of '74 have signed the old wooden arches. Then some people have tried literally to burn their bridges behind them. "I see smoke coming out of the thing," said Holsinger, "I'll stop the fire and call the law out." The county showed its interest this spring when it replaced the old tin roof with a glinting aluminum one.

For those who take their bridging seriously, there's the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, in Massachusetts, anc closer to home, the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has had about 1,500 covered bridges; it boasts the largest number of authentic covered bridges in the United States: 229, according to Miller, who is the Burr Society's treasurer.

Awareness has increased in the last five or ten years, said Miller: "They used to tear a bridge down, make a superhighway. But now they bypass them."

When the Burr Society first met, in May 1959, in Harrisburg, three dozen people showed up. It still has almost two dozen charter members; in the meantime, membership has grown to 513.

People who are into bridging usually collect bridge memorabilia: wooden models, plates, scrimshaw, postcards, tiles and paintings and tietacks, wallpaper. One enthusiastic couple even had a covered bridge put on their wedding cake.

Closed or open, a covered bridge is off the beaten track, almost forgotten, leading the searcher on a shunpike tour of old buyways or back roads. "It's part of a bygone era," said Christine Ellsworth of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges. Sometimes a covered bridge will suddenly materialize over a pond in someone's back yard. "People are building them," said Ellsworth, "but the ones they build now are just showcases."

"Some people just like the looks of them," said Miller. "Some in their childhood lived near one, played on one, even knocked the boards out to put their fishing pole through."