M ENTONE, Ala. ? When a woman selling a Stairway to the Stars ? the wooden whatnot a jillion high-school shop students made in the 1940s ? tells you she's 90 percent sure it's a creation of the famous late folk artist Howard Finster, you know you've arrived at the World's Longest Yard Sale.

I don't always know when I'm being hustled, but sometimes I do.

The World's Longest Yard Sale isn't all about creative merchandising, thank goodness. That's just part of it. Some folks are just cleaning out their mama's closet, or meeting new people, and telling the truth about what they have to sell.

I don't try to cover many of the 400-plus miles of this annual marathon sale. That's too much like work.

Each year I come straight to Lookout Mountain and Mentone because it's cool here, and the sweet old cabins at DeSoto State Park remind me of my first trip away from home by myself.

I was 13 years old and on choir tour. We traveled by chartered bus to this same park, an exotic destination for Montgomery youngsters. We saw the majestic waterfall, spent the night in a group cabin and swam till we ached.

Not much has changed in the park, thank goodness. I settle onto my rollaway bed on the screened porch of the old cabin and look out at the woods and the heat lightning. Talk about your Stairway to the Stars.

I imagine a million children have slept on this same porch, telling ghost stories till they can't keep their eyes open. The ceiling timbers have been painted a thousand times, and the rocks are the brownish color of sea foam.

I sleep like a baby and awake to see deer standing just outside the screen door.

I'm a competitive person, I suppose, but that doesn't matter much at yard sales. I don't even have to get up early and arrive first. Nobody else wants what I want. That's the simple truth.

Even the ladies I'm traveling with, excellent sports all, laugh aloud at my more bizarre purchases.

This year I buy three framed displays from Ohio State's Department of Agronomy. I assume they were retired from duty years ago.

One is labeled "Common Impurities of Farm Seeds No. 2" and has real seeds floating in 24 penny-sized holes. Another is "Seeds of Forage Crops."

The third, a huge display, is called "Important Commercial Grasses" and has knee-high pieces of wheat, Kentucky bluegrass and other major weeds mounted on an ivory background.

I find them compelling and every bit as beautiful as Roseville pottery or Waterford crystal. My friends suggest they look a bit like a junior-high science project. But give me framed grass over cut grass.

I have confidence in my cutting-edge taste. I was shabby chic before shabby chic was cool.

My only problem with the yard sale is lack of restraint. I feel bad looking and not buying. I've been on the other end of that equation too often, and it feels horrible when strangers take one look at your worldly goods, shake their heads and walk away empty-handed.

So I find myself trying to select some little something at every single yard sale. It gets expensive, and the van gets full.

In no time, I have a mirror surrounded with rope and shellacked shells, a book on how to be a cartoonist, a broken clock that exhorts children to read, a rocker with a weak rush seat, a duck decoy, a cup and saucer from Nova Scotia, a copper pot with a welded-on handle, two well-loved lamps and some stained bark cloth.

Part of my yard-sale ritual is decorating the little cabin with the goods bought during the day, and decorate I do. Something about the stone hearth and the log walls makes even the most questionable of my purchases look fantastic.

At least to me. And in this business, that's all that counts.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson writes for King Features Syndicate.

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