ELKINS, W.Va. — Sirens! Fire engines and rescue vehicles, lights flashing, stretch far down the road into the dark distance. Onlookers, wearing wool hats or earmuffs as protection against the October night's chill, press gloved hands to their ears to deaden the shrill sounds.
What kind of an emergency in this town of 8,000 could warrant a response on this scale?
But the pace of the procession is so leisurely. And the firefighters are smiling, waving and tossing candy to the crowd lining the street. Behind a 1940s-vintage fire engine a marching band appears, led by a row of baton-twirling teen-age girls, their cheeks rosy from the cold.
It's the Fireman's Parade of the annual Mountain State Forest Festival, featuring fire engines from every town within 100 miles.
The Forest Festival, a celebration of fall foliage, is held during the first week in October. With luck, the festival and the arrival of autumn color coincide.
The scenery alone is worth the trip. Although Westerners may laugh at West Virginia's claim to the title "Mountain State" (its highest peak is under 4,900 feet), these modest mountains provide spectacular views of hundreds of thousands of red maples, yellow birches, orange poplars, burgundy oaks and green spruce.
In addition to the remarkable fall colors the festival offers offbeat backwoods charm. One example is the tree-toppling competition, where woodsmen from throughout the East and Midwest converge to compete for cash prizes.
These lumberjacks, each assigned a "tree" in a forest of telephone poles planted in neat rows, strip down to T-shirts in the frosty morning air.
They compete in speed and accuracy: Who can chop down his tree the fastest and make it land closest to his nearby target stake? Some of these men look as if they could lift one of the 30-foot poles if it weren't planted so firmly. Admission is free, as it is with most festival events.
A bluegrass banjo and fiddle contest draws musicians from Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and West Virginia into the National Guard Armory.
The scene there becomes a cross between the Grand Ole Opry and a sit-in, with the audience ranging from hillbillies to college kids wearing "country-look" boutique clothes. Admission is $3.
The Fireman's Parade is just a preview of the Festival Parade the next afternoon, which features three hours of bands, antique cars, horses, and floats pulled by tractors.
One recent float depicted a caricature of a mountain family, including grandma on the log cabin porch playing a fiddle and dad sitting in an outhouse. Other entries include several logging trucks, each loaded to the top with half a dozen enormous logs.
The drivers are generous in responding to children's requests for blasts from the air horns. A reserved seat (about $4) is a good idea for this popular event.
Quilts and weaving are on display all week. Woodcraft exhibits range from hand-chiseled art to totem poles carved by a chain-saw sculptor.
In a jousting tournament, competitors demonstrate remarkable skill with lances. Riders on galloping horses spear a series of one-inch rings suspended from wires: needle threading on a grand scale. Admission is free.
Colgan Airways serves Elkins with commuter flights from Washington-Dulles Airport (daily except Saturday) and from Pittsburgh (Saturday only).
The mountains are so beautiful in autumn, though, that I recommend renting a car and enjoying the 4 1/2-hour drive from Dulles. You'll follow a twisting, tree-lined mountain road from the Shenandoah Valley through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests.
In the final 50 miles before Elkins there is not one town with a population of more than 100.
The Old Stone Tavern in Moorefield (about halfway between Dulles and Elkins) is the best place to stop for lunch or dinner. The antique-furnished upstairs rooms (no longer in use) provide a glimpse of what accommodations were like in 1788 when it was operated as a country inn. Home-baked pie is a specialty. Most dinners are under $10.
Elkins has six motels, including a Best Western Inn ($38 for a double room). The AAA-approved Elkins Motor Lodge ($41 double) has the best restaurant in town, the 1863 Tavern, with dinners from $7.25. Prime rib with stuffed lobster tail is available for $24.95.
The Cheat River Lodge, six miles east of Elkins, sits by a rippling trout stream. The lodge is a six-room motel plus two large cathedral-ceilinged log cabins, all operated as a bed and breakfast by Roxye Marshall.
One of the cabins is on 5 1/2 wooded acres with a quarter mile of private river front.
Guests at the other cabin can fish while relaxing in a seven-foot river-side Jacuzzi. The cabins rent for $68 and $80 a day on weekends, including continental breakfast; the Jacuzzi is $40 more.
Elkins is a lovely little town, but try to allow time to explore the surrounding countryside and enjoy the fall colors.