YOU came to New Hampshire to see the autumn foliage. You are not alone. Somewhere 15 cars ahead there's an elderly man wearing a porkpie hat. His wife is three feet away from him, staring straight ahead. He has a death-grip on the wheel of his Buick, and is driving exactly 23 m.p.h. in a 50-m.p.h. zone. Autumn foliage in New Hampshire attracts more tourists than any other event in this country. People come in droves. Mostly in private cars but in organized bus groups as well.
``It can really be horrendous,'' says Betty Lund, who is with the New Hampshire Office of Vacation Travel. ``Some people are even forced to sleep in their cars,'' she adds.
The problem is reservations. Or more precisely - the lack of them. According to Mrs. Lund, people expect to just pull into a local motel or bed-and-breakfast when they're tired of driving. Even by midsummer, however, most places are already booked for the foliage season. ``So tell people to make their reservations early,'' Lund keeps emphasizing.
A majority of people head directly for the White Mountains area. ``There are other parts of the state that are just as beautiful,'' Lund stresses. One area she recommends is around Mt. Monadnock. It's a lot less ``touristy'' than the main routes through the White Mountains - away from all those ``Whispering Pine'' and ``Mountain View'' motels with their Cyclone-fence-enclosed swimming pools on the front lawn.
It's also close enough to Boston to do in a day. And it's an area that offers not only rich autumn color but some of the most charming old towns, quaint village greens, craft shops, and antiques in the United States.
A good starting point is the junction of Routes 119 and 495 in Littleton, Mass. Immediately turning west on Route 119, you'll see Gary's Farm Stand - as good a place as any to get your pumpkin door stop or Indian corn.
Continue on through Groton. If you're looking for an overnight stay, you might check at the Groton Inn to see if there's a last-minute cancellation. Just beyond the inn is a shop with the label Jos. Kilbridge, Antiques of Early America and the China Trade. A stop here is an education. There are several buildings filled with the finest antiques.
Heading out of Groton, everyone seems to stop at Johnson's Drive-In for ice cream. They even have real fried clams - avec stomachs. If you're from out of state and don't have the stomach for them, as it were, they also serve ``clam strips'' - which, to anyone from New England, is like eating fried rubber bands.
Next door is Fairview Farms, another place to pick up a pumpkin, a 40-pound Hubbard squash, or a few ears of Indian corn.
Head on up Route 119. Stone walls, lacy with soft lichen, parallel the winding road. Now comes Townsend. This town is to antique pickers what an oak tree is to a squirrel. Here and there, tucked under the fiery sugar maples and chartreuse elms, are some of the best old shops around.
Got time on your hands? Make a stop at 435 Main Street in Townsend. Here, in back of John and Barbara Delaney's home - a handsome abode that used to be artist Winslow Holmer's summer residence - is their shop housing the largest collection of American tall case clocks in the country. There may be 100 antique clocks ticking off the hours. Maybe more. ``I have no idea how many,'' said Sean, youngest of the two Delaney boys. Sean's job was to mind the store and wind the clocks while on summer break from college, an activity that leaves little time on his hands.
``Know what time it is?'' the watchless youth was asked. ``Take your pick,'' said a grinning Sean with a sweep of the hand.
Back on the track, the drive gets more rural. Willard Brook State Forest is colorful and just the place to picnic and cool your feet and bottles of soda in the streams under pines, birches, and maples.
You're still in Massachusetts, but not for long.
Follow Route 119 along over the border, through Rindge all the way to Fitzwilliam, the first New Hampshire town of uncommon beauty. It's typical in many respects, with its small common surrounded by a few fine old homes, exquisite town hall, church, and library. The Fitzwilliam Inn is more than likely to be booked, but you may want to poke your head in. The inside is more attractive than the outside.
Check out the bed-and-breakfasts. The Amos A. Parker House is especially attractive and well run. Bedrooms have been done over all shiny and white by the owner, and you can hop from room to room on antique Oriental rugs on your way to the attached barn to relax. Breakfast is likely to be Eggs Benedict. Forget the Fitzwilliam Inn for dinner. Instead, head for the Old Forge. It's just a few miles away on Route 202 East. Franz, the owner, is German-born and knows from knockwurst.
From Fitzwilliam, some of southern New Hampshire's most attractive, historic towns are yours. Neighboring Peterborough, beautiful in its own right, is famous for its Peterborough Players and musical groups.
In Sharon (Route 123), don't miss the Sharon Arts Center. It's easy to get to, on beautifully maintained, narrow, winding roads through sweet-smelling pines studded with lemon-leafed birches. Some of New England's finest craftspeople are represented there.
Another must-stop is Jaffrey (Route 202) - especially the historic old center, which includes a knockout Congregational Church and Meeting House, and the Little Red Schoolhouse.
This old center is a showpiece in autumn, but the best way to see the foliage is just down the road and from 1,000 feet in the air.
Silver Ranch Airpark (on Route 124) is just across from the Silver Ranch Livery. ``It's a great way to see the area,'' says Lee Sawyer, who runs the small air park with her pilot-husband, Harvey.
Between them, they'll set you up in a little Cessna, and off you go. ``People like to fly over Mt. Monadnock because they don't want to climb it,'' says Lee.
The Sawyer family has been living in the area for ``13 generations - that includes our sons,'' says Harvey as we take to the skies. Harvey knows every house, steeple, and stone wall beneath him and enjoys nothing more than showing them off. We head over Monadnock at 100 m.p.h., waving to those stalwart folks who climbed to the summit.
``You wouldn't believe it, but when the leaves are off the trees you can see miles and miles of stone walls down there,'' says Harvey as we fly over acres of heavy forest. ``One-hundred-fifty years ago that was all farmland. Now it's eight-five percent forest....
``See all those brick houses and buildings. That's Harrisville,'' he says, banking the plane to the right. ``The whole town is a historic district.''
So eager is Harvey to show off his familiar carpet of color, he goes well beyond our scheduled half-hour tour. ``I guess you can tell I like to show the place off,'' he says, leaning back and yelling over the roar of the engine. He points out all the lakes, beaver ponds, streams, and wetlands hidden from the country roads - places he lived, hiked, and fished as a kid.
We fly over the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge, and the many white church spires in Hancock, Jaffrey, Peterborough, and Fitzwilliam. And could that be the man from New Jersey holding up traffic on Route 119 below us? At 1,000 feet in the air and at 100 m.p.h., we can only speculate, somehow hoping it is!
If you go
For projections on dates of the 1988 foliage season, contact the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, (617) 727-3205, or the New Hampshire Office of Vacation Travel, (603) 271-2665.
For information on tour flights, call Silver Ranch Airpark in Jaffrey, N.H., (603) 532-8870. Rates run up to only $25 for a 50-mile, half-hour tour. Shorter rides cost less.
Route 119 is considered a leading source of early American antiques. Pick up a copy of ``Antiques and Americana'' at any antiques shop in the area. It lists the antiques highlights.