They stood for hours in the mud, the snow and the brisk winter air today with their American flags and yellow ribbons, waiting for a glimpse of the returning American hostages, waiting to give them a hero's welcome.

Some like John Uvegas of Trenton, N.J., arrived at 3 a.m. so he could get a good spot to give a message to the returnees. "To our exalted 52 heroes: Forget. Enjoy," his placard said.

"I was a prisoner of war in World War II. I know what these people have gone through," said the retired postal worker. "I want to impress on them to forget -- to try to set all of this as much out of their minds as possible. And the one way to forget is to ejoy yourself."

Others, like Pauline Wyman, described themselves as hostage junkies. "I'm here because I've followed the hostages ever since they were captured. I followed the POWs the same way. My husband is in the service and the same thing could happen to him."

Emotions spilled forth in placards, shouts and occasional tears along the long, picturesque road to West Point, which some today renamed "Freedom Road." Yellow ribbons, banners and streamers were everywhere -- sometimes on every tree, signpost and parka for miles. The crowds spoke best through the signs they waved: "God Bless You. The People Never Forgot You" . . . "We Care. We Love You" . . . "Nuke the Ayatollah" . . . "4-4-4No More" . . . "Live, Laugh, Love" . . . "This is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life."

It was an extraordinary outpouring of emotion. It was as if all the pentup rage, frustration and that all-but-forgotten American commodity, patriotism, had suddenly burst forth over the snow-covered lower Catskill Mountains.

Everyone wanted to get into the act. About 200 young people painted the words "Welcome Home" in red food coloring in the snow along the flight path to Stewart Airport and stood waving as the plane flew overhead.

Six volunteer firemen drove up from Paramus, N.J., in a red hook-and-ladder truck and hoisted a 75-foot-high banner over the roadway. "We just felt these people deserved a warm welcome," said fireman Kenneth Keppler. "We're trying to represent feelings of all America."

At New Windsor Containment, the final encampment of George Washington's Continental Army during the American Revolution, 60 large American flags fluttered from masts on either side of the roadway -- one flag for each of the returned 52 hostages and eight others, at half staff, for the eight men killed in the futile attempt to rescue them last spring.

Standing amid the flags, the Brigade of the American Revolution, bedecked in colorful uniforms, saluted as the six green-and-white buses bearing the hostages swept past. A mile down the road teen-agers waved crudely drawn placards bearing the names of each of the returnees.

At Vails Gate, where the returnees saw their first American fast-food restaurants in more than a year, thousands of well-wishers pushed forward, shouting and waving American flags.

It was an all-American outpouring, laced with symbolism and the inevitable touch of commercialism. Yellow carnations sold for $1.50, "Ram Iran" buttons for $3.

Tim Tenney, a Newburgh, N.Y., soft drink distributor, had a 24-foot-high Pepsi Cola balloon flown in from Wisconsin. He parked it and a big white delivery truck at the intersection leaving Stewart Airport. A banner on the truck proclaimed, "Pepsi from Pueblo, Col., Welcomes Billy Gallegos."

Coke, not wanting to be outdone, hung a much smaller banner beside the truck, "Welcome Home. Enjoy Coca Cola," it said.

People had difficulty expressing their precise emotions, or their reasons for driving miles to wait for the hostages to pass. Some, like Marjorie Yaschur of Holmsdale, N.Y., simply wanted to be part of history, and what she regarded as a rebirth of national pride.

"I've been watching this all on television for months and months. I now feel part of it," she said."My two kids can't believe all the cameras around."

"It simply feels good to be an American again," said Bob Hickson of Yorktown Heights, N.Y. "I think integrity has been restored to our nation."

"There's a tremendous feeling of patriotism here," Hickson said as he stood shivering in the throng outside the gates to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "I think it's a symbol of something that has been missing in this country since the Vietnam war."

This is rural mountain country. The terrain is rugged; the population sparse. At places along "Freedom Road" the cliffs of Storm King Mountain rise 75 feet straight up from the roadway and there are no homes or businesses for miles. But at every bend or wide spot in the road people gathered beside their cars and the fire trucks from a dozen nearby small towns. "It's Super Bowl Sunday," explained one sign. "America 52. Iran 0."

The buses bearing the returning hostages and their immediate families slowed down only slightly as they moved through the cheering crowds. The State Department had let it be known that the returning hostages and their families wanted a quiet, private reunion. But the Sunday Record in nearby Middletown, N.Y., warned in a front page editorial today that people simply couldn't hold back their emotions.

"Residents of the Mid-Hudson region are particularly excited by your homecoming because we can feel the currents of history brushing our lives," the editorial said. "It's a rare experience for folks who normally know great events as only a whisper in the night.

"We will react with overwhelming joy -- tears, even from the most cynical -- as you alight at Stewart Airport. For many of us, there will be a feeling of liberation from a long national nightmare."

The long trip the former hostages had begun in Germany at 4 a.m. didn't end until 5:02 p.m. when their buses arrived in this sleepy little town of Highland Falls. Four thousand people, almost equal to the entire population of the village, had lined the streets, starting just after noon.

The atmosphere was festive, almost joyous. Throughout the afternoon people sang "America the Beautiful" and chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A."

"There's a warm feeling here," said Misty Arochas, 20, who wore a "Kiss Me -- I'm an American" button on her winter coat. "This is how you can tell we have a nice country. Everyone cares so much."

It took only minutes for the buses to pass through the crowd and up the steep rise to the Hotel Thayer, which will be their home for the next two nights. The former hostages and their families were barely visible, waving back from behind the bus windows. Not a one left the hotel to even wave to the crowd.

But Roger Carr, a 25-year-old postal clerk, declared, "It was well worth the wait. You could see by their smiles and their waves that they appreciated us. They know there are people who really care for them."