Tarantula fest is big hairy deal

COARSEGOLD, Calif. — This foothill hamlet is bursting with signs of autumn: golden hills, flaming auburn leaves rustling in the breeze, acorns falling on roofs so fast and furiously they sound like gunfire.

And tarantulas.

“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 part.

Locals in this town of 17,000 in Madera County, Calif. 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.

The festival begins with a best pumpkin dessert contest. In a nod to the festival icon, a favorite event is the hairy leg contest, one for men and one for women.

“Don’t even ask. It’s a mountain woman thing,” Tarantula Festival founder Diane Boland Boland says.

The man and woman deemed to have the hairiest legs by virtue of thickness of growth and texture of individual hair each receive a shaving kit and a $25 gift certificate to The Mining Company 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. The most entries was four years ago, when 32 tarantulas raced.

So far this year, Boland has caught only one tarantula — and it’s different from tarantulas she’s had before.

“They really do have personalities. The others have all been nice and cozy — not this one,” she says.

She muses aloud that maybe she caught him before he made it to his conquest, leaving him edgy.

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