COARSEGOLD -- This foothills hamlet bursts with signs of autumn: golden hills, flaming auburn leaves rustling in the wind, acorns falling on roofs so furiously that they sound like gunfire.
"They're all over the roads. You're either swerving to miss them or swerving to hit them, depending on how you're feeling," says Rose Sartoris, owner of Rose's Frosty on Highway 41.
She's joking about the last bit.
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Locals in this town of 17,000 in Madera County don't approve of running down the not-so-itsy-bitsy spiders. As most everyone around here can tell you, mid- October to mid-November is tarantula mating season.
In Coarsegold, it's considered very bad form to off one of the thousands of hairy, multilegged Lotharios out in pursuit of passion. The tarantulas on the roads are males on their way to the burrows of females.
Tarantula trysts involve locking hooks and fangs, and the females sometimes kill and eat the males, but people in Coarsegold find it a romantic season.
Indeed, the beginnings of the Coarsegold Tarantula Festival -- the 10th annual event is today -- trace back to a new- comer from Oakland who didn't properly appreciate tarantulas.
"In 1979, I was pulling out of the driveway with my three little girls and I saw this thing," recalls Tarantula Festival founder Di- ane Boland. "I backed right over it, and the neighbor came over screaming, 'I can't believe you people who move up here from the city and start destroying things.' I felt terrible."
Years later, Boland started the festival as a way to draw visitors to her village of artisans and educate creeped-out newcomers such as Sue and Joe Byers.
When the couple -- publishers, editors and writers for the Coarsegold Gazette -- moved here 10 years ago, Sue saw her first tarantula and called the sheriff.
"No one seemed to know what to do. I tried to drown it in an ice-cream bucket, but that didn't work. I was too afraid to step on it. This was all before I went to Diane's tarantula interventions, of course," she says.
The festival begins at 10 a.m. with a best pumpkin dessert contest. Coarsegold is cattle country, and a lot of ranchers start work long before dawn. Pie by midmorning is the norm.
In a nod to the festival icon, there's a hairy leg contest, one for men and one for women.
"Don't even ask. It's a mountain woman thing," Boland says.
The man and woman deemed to have the hairiest legs each receive a shaving kit and a $25 gift certificate to The Mining Com-pany Restaurant.
People figure Chuck over at the vacuum shop is a shoo-in for the men's division. "He's a very hairy man, and he's won before," says Sue Byers.
The festival's highlight and culminating event is the tarantula race. Contestants must provide their own creepy crawler.
"It's amazing to me how many kids show up with tarantulas they found in their yards," Boland says.
This year, Boland has caught only one tarantula -- and it differs from those she's had before.
"They really do have personalities. The others have all been nice and cozy -- not this one," she says.
She thinks that maybe she caught him before he made it to his conquest, leaving him edgy.
He -- possibly she? -- is brownish-black with tiny red hairs that can poke. It has fangs and eight hairy legs that move like a double-jointed ballerina might.
For the races, each tarantula crawls through dryer tubes. Boland says the tarantulas need to be separated or they fight. She is willing to demonstrate how the racing works, except the Tarantula Festival founder is a little squeamish about actually touching her tarantula.
"They feel like velvet, and I'll scoop one up without thinking about it if I think it's in danger, but normally I don't do spiders," she says.
No one else working on readying the festival stage will volunteer, so Boland delicately positions the tarantula in the tube and blows on it to get it moving.
All tarantulas -- including the local eutylenum species -- are venomous.
But the locals have a bite without much sting. Boland says getting poked by the hairs feels like a cactus thorn, and she doesn't know anyone who's ever been bitten. Experts liken the pain of a fang bite to that of a bee sting.
After the festival, contestants set their tarantulas loose in woodsy places far from traffic.
Megan Wright, 20, a waitress at The Mining Company Restaurant, says she has reason to believe the tarantulas are thankful for the attention and care.
When Wright sees a tarantula on the road, she scoops it up and puts it somewhere safer, such as her yard, or near the restaurant.
Wright points out that she's no animal rights activist -- the Reedley College political science major wants to be a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
One morning last week when she walked out to her red car, it was white -- completely covered in tarantula webs.
"I believe that was my sign," she says.
"I think it was their little thank-you to me."