There was supposed to be a big motorcycle rally going on this weekend but there were surprisingly few bikers around.
We drove the hour-and-a-half to get to Helen and listened to some podcasts along the way.
I’d passed through many quaint little mountain towns while I still had a motorcycle; at best, they’d have a gas station and a Subway, but Helen is so much more. All of its architecture follows a very Alpine style, to the ends that the entire place looks like a German village. It’s definitely one of Georgia’s more curious attractions.
There’s a lot of stuff to do there too. I’d been coming here for years to go tubing down the Chattahoochee, but those trips dried up as Georgia experienced a drought that drastically lowered the water level of the river. It eventually became painful to go tubing. The water level had lowered so much that a trip down the river would mean a very battered bottom from all the rocks.
Beyond that though, there are a lot of tchotchke shops, fudge shops, a funnel cake shop, and an assortment of restaurants. There’s mini-golf, go-karts, tattoo parlors and more as well. There used to be a shop where one could buy swords and knives and things but I’m not sure if it’s there anymore.
Nearby is Unicoi State Park, which is a nice little park with a walking trail that terminates by a waterfall. We have been before but didn’t make it there this time.
When we got there we were pretty hungry, so we headed straight to the Troll Tavern. They have the standard sort of pub food you could find anywhere else, but I like their steak and cheese sandwiches in particular. There are three or four restaurants located on the river, but I think the Troll Tavern has the best riverside seating (if you’re lucky enough to grab it– don’t count on it during peak seasons).
I’m pretty sure there’s even a bong shop or two somewhere around here. I don’t know how or why those were ever legal, but it’s amusing to think about how much previous generations freaked out about marijuana use. Marijuana was popular while we were in high school, meth was some biker shit from the 70s that nobody had even heard of and cocaine was expensive and rare. To our kids’ generation, marijuana is old hat– crystal meth is an appetizer and we’re routinely finding 12-year-olds in possession of heroin.
Our parents complained too much. Kids today are growing up with methamphetamines and the Internet. I wish smoking some weed was the worst we had to worry about for our children’s generation.
If you like blown glass, there are a few shops that specialize in that sort of thing too. The Glassblowing Shop outside the Troll Tavern has regular demonstrations of the process of glass-blowing. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
While we were there, the glassblower was creating handmade barometers. They contain a small amount of fluid that is said to expand with changes in the weather, so when it reaches a certain threshold you can expect rain to come. How well it works, I don’t know. The concept is very interesting but we didn’t need more clutter around our kitchen.
Helen is a town, but the touristy part of it is only one main strip. There are shops scattered throughout the back alleys branching off of it but those types of stores get into some pretty esoteric and new-agey stuff. It’s a pleasure to wander and take in the smells of the fresh pastries and sausages being cooked up around the clock.
Horse-drawn carriage rides are available to take you around the strip, and possibly through some of the side streets. I don’t see the appeal; after driving as long as one must have to to get to Helen, the last thing I’d want to do is pay to sit in another vehicle. I’d rather hit the pavement and vacuum up some funnel cake.
It is funny though– most places with horses also have to contend with horse poop everywhere. These horses have bags hanging behind their butts to catch all the droppings, so Helen is remarkably free of dung despite the constant horse travel.
Helen has a lot of color and decor on display, a trait uncommon with most cities in the South that we’ve seen. For the most part, they’re just boring brick-and-mortar wastelands with the same franchises as you’d find anywhere else. While Helen does have its share of franchise hotels and a Wendy’s on the outskirts of town, even the franchisees have to bow to the city’s bizarre codes enforcing the uniform appearance of a German mountain town.
American-trained architects don’t seem to incorporate much artistic flair into their designs. Frank Lloyd Wright is notable for his designs, but it’s easy to succeed when you look at the garbage everybody else creates and do something wildly different.
There are a lot of statues around Helen; they are nice touches that help to give the place even more character. It’s fine details like these that really make a location interesting. It’s nothing special in and of itself, a fake German town in the middle of nowhere, but it stands out as a popular tourist spot simply because somebody decided to ignore convention and do something different.
We arrived in Helen via a different route than we normally take. We took the same route back out. One thing we didn’t notice on the way in was a strange gazebo perched upon a peculiar hill.
The hill turns out to be a Native American burial mound. The owner of the land on which the mound is located built a gazebo upon it in 1869. Preservationists did not take kindly to its presence, but the gazebo/mound combination is certainly a lot more notable than the mound itself. The lone gazebo atop this strange perch is what caught my eye as we drove past, so its wow factor is probably what made it worth keeping around for the last 150 years.
It’s nice to see relics of cultural significance around America. Helen’s pretty cool but once you’ve been once or twice, you start to see it for the tourist trap it is. The only thing to go back for is the funnel cake!