WOODSTOCK, VT. -- His visions of scarlet sumac and shimmering gold maple leaves dissolving into a blurred stare at the back of a Plymouth Voyager, William Peterson's thoughts turned rapidly to violence.
"I'm really beginning to understand why people in Los Angeles shoot each other in traffic jams," said the tourist from Helena, Mont., as he and his family sat like stones in the center of this little town, the leaf-peeper's Lourdes. "It's hard to keep your mind on the trees."
It is difficult for everyone. Once again, visitors have besieged Vermont, seeking to absorb its kaleidoscopic fall beauty. They have come in Scenicruisers, Winnebagos and Country Squires, on motorcycles, bicycles and foot, a vast army fanning across the national forests to occupy every road, highway or footpath in the state.
Vermont always relies heavily on the steady flow of tourists, eager in the summer to hike and swim in the Green Mountains and in the winter to ski its snowy slopes. But no time is like the foliage season. Nearly 1 million tourists will visit Vermont in the month that ends this week, chasing Kodachrome dreams of burnt sienna hickory trees and luminous yellow oaks.
The price of lodging, when it can be found, triples. The state Chamber of Commerce has broadcast several appeals for residents to take in boarders, and the canny locals, eager to benefit from the windfall, sell anything that can be brought to hand. Every town green, and most private lawns, seem covered with flea markets selling old copies of Vermont Life, rusted hand tools and every conceivable size of Fiesta bowl or Mason jar.
"It's a treasure," said a delighted woman with Illinois license plates on her car as she lugged what appeared to be a common lobster pot to her trunk from a flea market on the Rochester village square. "Do you have any others?"
They usually do, and even in recession-weary New England, people seem eager to grab the merchandise, whether it is a vintage dot-matrix printer from 1980 or a broken loom from a much earlier time.
"This is it for us for the rest of the year," said one Rochester merchant, without apology. "In the winter, we hibernate. There is not much to do and nobody to buy a thing. So this has to tide us over."
Throughout the state, travelers struggle to find the one part of nature that others have left untouched. Tour buses inch across the Robert Frost Memorial Drive. Dozens of private Cessna planes, many of them offering to help visitors "experience Vermont's autumn" with aerial viewings, buzz the sky like a squadron of mechanical gnats.
Gift shops -- which in this state can crop up in gas stations, stationery stores, sporting outlets and even restaurants -- are everywhere. At the Just Vermont Shop in Hancock, busloads of Midwesterners gaze in wonder at the assortment of wooden cows, cow socks, cow mugs, Bart Holstein T-shirts, and most frequently discussed of all, the Holstein cow wind chimes.
The massive migration taxes state police. Few added crimes are reported during the height of tourist season, but accidents soar as drivers dazzled by the leafy splendor forget their business and plow into one another.
"It's a problem all right," said Officer Scott Fide of the Middlebury police. "You know, mom and dad are out there gaping at the trees and the next thing you know, they're in the back of somebody else's car. Luckily, traffic is usually heavy, and people like to drive slow. So the damage is limited."
Towns, villages and even roads compete to offer the quaintest views and most picturesque inns. Every third building appears to be an antique store, but just so nobody has a problem finding one, they all have racks with such free guides as "The Specialty Shopping Guide to Route 7" or "The Route 100 Touring Guide."
Cultural amenities abound. Hundreds of visitors trek daily through the New England Maple Museum in Pittsford, for example, taking in the history, dating to the Roman Empire, of what one exhibit calls "Vermont's oldest and most misunderstood agricultural commodity." There are also opportunities to buy light-, medium- and heavy-grade maple syrup as well as maple candy drops, maple-leaf clusters and about a dozen types of maple-based candy coatings and cake mixes.
Inns take on a special importance during foliage season. Book a year in advance to stay at The Waybury Inn in East Middlebury, which, as its brochure makes clear, was the inn pictured every week during prime time at the beginning of "The Bob Newhart Show."
But like the inevitable rush of the leaf-seeking tourist, the Newhart connection can be a double-edged sword.
"The buses stop here every day," said Marty Schuppert, who with his wife Marcia, is a genial host. "Dozens of people jump out, take their pictures and leave. You get used to it after a while, but it can be a little unnerving."
Asked whether comedian Newhart has patronized the 19th century establishment, Schuppert softly shuddered, saying, "He's never been here, but we certainly have invited him."
For the tourists themselves, the beauty often -- but not always -- overcomes the frustration of wading through civilization in search of nature.
"We have been out here for 16 straight days," said Joe Jameson of Savannah, Mo., who with 42 friends was in the midst of a whirlwind visit to New England. "We've seen every tree in the East, I guess. Every one. Nice trees, too. But I think I got the point about a week ago."