I See Georgia: Helen
The most recent excursion on our “I See Georgia” tour was different than any that preceded it. On every other trip, we had a destination in mind; well laid plans in place. But this time, unsure of where we wanted to go, we decided to just get in the car and drive. So it was that we found ourselves in North Georgia, cruising along Highway 441 with no idea where we might end up.
We’d decided to head North, hoping for cooler temperatures. After back-to-back visits to towns at or below the fall line, we needed a break from extreme heat. We left Athens just after noon, bypassing Commerce and Homer before crossing the Eastern Continental Divide at the small town of Baldwin. When we passed a sign stating: “Welcome to North Georgia,” we were officially in the mountains.
We cruised though Habersham County, hitting the outskirts of Cornelia (more on this town later!) before passing right through the heart of Demorest. The entire area lies on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, and soon we were in undeveloped land, climbing, descending, and climbing again; all the while watching the sun filter through the tall, ancient trees which lined both sides of the road.
Eventually we decided to go to Helen. Helen is unique, not only in Georgia, but in the United States. A former logging town, it changed its entire image in the late 1960s, when it was remade as a German style “Alpine Village.” Every structure in town, from City Hall to motels to chain restaurants, is built in classic, South German style. Who needs the Alps when you’ve got the oldest mountain chain in the U.S., the Appalachians?
As a kid, my family went to Helen now and then. Back then, the big thing was to head into the mountains at the beginning of fall, when the leaves began to turn from green to red, orange and yellow. You had plenty of time to look at the leaves too, as you sat in traffic waiting to get into town.
That’s the things about Helen; there is only one main road which passes through the town. This often leads to massive traffic jams, given the thousands of tourists and bikers who visit. But this time would be different. There shouldn’t be too much traffic at this time of year. It was late July, and the only reasons leaves might be changing color was because they’d been scorched by the heat!
I firmly held on to this belief until we turned onto Highway 75 and immediately came to a dead standstill. Apparently leaves weren’t the only reason people flocked to Helen. We inched along, sometimes going several minutes without moving. At last, Helen came into view. Now we just had to find a place to park.
This was easier said than done. Every lot we passed had a posted warning informing us that it was for only for customers of the adjacent business. Finally, a sign appeared promising public parking. I turned off onto a side road and followed the signs to a lot. We pulled into a space and were about to walk away when we realized that there was a $2.00 fee.
I dug in my pockets and only came out with a few cents. Neither of us carries cash on a regular basis, and both of our wallets were empty. I dug in the car’s console and came out with a handful of change. When I counted everything, I came up with a grand total of 94 cents. Shit!
The only option left was finding an ATM. A quick online search brought up a bank nearby, so I set out in that direction while Dena checked out our options for food/drinks in the area. I walked along the highway until I came to the bank, where I paid a $5.00 service charge to make a withdrawal. Transactions were limited to multiples of $20.00, so I was forced to find a place to get change.
There was a Wendy’s right beside the bank, so I ducked inside, figuring I could buy a drink to break the 20. I figured wrong. The line at the counter was like a Ryan’s steakhouse on Mother’s Day. In no way, shape or form was I going to wait half an hour at a Wendy’s.
I stepped back outside and began a frantic search for somewhere to make change. Every restaurant was a sit-down place with a line; every shop a boutique with expensive merchandise. I walked back to the main drag and found Dena. Together we headed down the street, looking for a solution. Finally, we came upon an ice cream shop that claimed to offer fountain drinks. We waited in line and ordered a diet coke.
“Do you want ice?” the guy asked.
“A little,” I replied.
“Sure you don’t want a lot?”
“The drinks come in a can.”
I paid $2.00 for my “fountain drink” and was finally able to deposit the parking fee in the collection box at the lot. Hot and tired from running all over town, and in need of a little relaxation, we put our names on the list for a table at a place called The Troll Tavern. A few minutes later we were seated in the shade, under the bridge by the Chattahoochee River. A few minutes after that, we had beers in our hands.
Sticking with the German theme, I opted for a Paulaner Oktoberfest draft. It was cold and refreshing, with a rich malt flavor. We sat, watching hordes of people float by in tubes, munching on fries while sipping our beers. Not a bad way to while away an afternoon.
After a couple of beers apiece, we decided to walk around town a bit. We went up one side of the street, then down the other before stopping at Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen. Fighting the crowd to get to the counter, we ordered white chocolate pretzel clusters, then sat outside to enjoy them. They were delicious, with the perfect balance of salty and sweet.
By the time we finished our treats, it was late afternoon and time for dinner. We retreated to the car and headed for a place we’d discovered online: Fender’s Diner.
This retro, fifties-style diner is located in Cornelia, once a prominent stop on the Tallulah Falls Railway. It features two things: American style favorites on the menu, and classic rock and roll on the jukebox. We sat in a booth and ordered the daily special: hamburger steak with sides and bread.
When the food came, we dug in. The steaks were juicy and delicious, the sides hot and fresh. All around us were relics of America’s past: everything from an old sign advertising Black Kow soda to an antique gas pump. The checkered tile floors and mint green walls only added to the ambiance.
Full and happy, we left the diner. By now it was almost dark, and the time had nearly come to head home. But first, there was one more thing we had to do. We walked along Irvin Street to the old train depot, where we found Cornelia’s most famous landmark, The Big Red Apple.
Dedicated in 1926 as a nod to the importance of the apple industry to Habersham county, the 5000-pound monument sits on an eight-foot pedestal in a plaza near downtown. Things like this make our visits to towns worthwhile. People like to make fun of attractions like the apple, but they are the essence of small town America.
That does it for now. Thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information about Helen, visit the official website at http://www.helenga.org/. To learn more about Cornelia and the Big Red Apple, visit http://www.corneliageorgia.org/.
Next time: We’ll travel to central Georgia to visit the quintessential small town: It’s the “Hollywood of the South,” Covington!