HELEN—There is a special feeling you get when you are in this Bavarian-style town nestled in the Georgia mountains. A warm feeling in your belly that makes you tingle all over. It is called beer.
This town is famous for serving German beers behind every door. It’s also famous for Bavarian architecture, Appalachian views, and some truly breathtaking tattoo parlors.
But wherever you go someone is always selling beer. Even when visiting, say, the men’s room, where they sell five-dollar pints from vending machines in each stall.
It’s a tourist-driven town with shops that advertise things like 101 flavors of hot sauce, body piercing, CBD oil, and deep fried Twinkies.
The nearby vistas of the Chattahoochee River are serene. So is the earthshaking noise from gangs of thundering motorcycles riding Main Street like the allied forces invading Europe.
Even so, I found many nearby scenic views pretty enough to inspire a hymn like “Beulah Land.” Which, since we’re on the subject, is a song I have performed at more funerals than I can count.
When I was a kid, our small church only had a handful of singers to choose from for funerals, weddings, baby dedications, and 4H competitions. You had Maude Tolbert, a proud grandmother of six who’d been tone deaf since the Lincoln administration. And Robert Vanderbilt, whose repertoire consisted of three songs: “He Touched Me,” “There’ll Be No Thorns In His Crown,” and “Are You Rapture Ready Or Will You Burn In Hell?”
So I sang a lot of funerals. The most requested song was always “Beulah Land.” I learned to sing it when I was a kid. It never fails to make me cry. And looking out at this Appalachian valley, I understand the lyrics a little better.
So there isn’t much to do in Helen unless you plan on visiting a beer palace or getting an elaborate pectoral piercing by a man named “Snake.” Many tourists opt for both.
But the town is kind of cute. Every structure, including fast food joints, features Bavarian architecture. Wendy’s, for instance, looks like a Swiss chalet. In the restaurants you almost expect waitresses to speak German. But they don’t. Most have accents like Reba McEntire.
“You oughta see Helen during Oktoberfest,” says one waitress. “Folks from Europe come because they like our festival better than Germany’s.”
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Oktoberfest, but the waitress says she doesn’t either since nobody who attends Oktoberfest can remember anything about it after it’s over.
Tourism is the main industry here. Half the visitors are Atlantans who enjoy a getaway from the hustle and bustle.
“We come because it’s quirky,” says one Atlanta retiree. “And at least in Helen we’re not dealing with Atlanta’s *&$@# highway construction.”
He’s right. Atlanta has been undergoing highway construction since the end of the Revolutionary War. When I was a kid, we lived in Atlanta for a hot minute. I remember my uncle taking us to see the famed highway-department bulldozers that were supposedly in the final scenes of “Gone With The Wind.”
It’s hard to believe that long ago Helen used to be an average logging town. It was, to put it literally, a run-of-the-mill town. Until they hit hard times and almost faded into oblivion.
In 1969, the town made a bold move to resurrect itself by redesigning the downtown into a South German village with high-pitched roofs and ornate eves. It was a risky move. Maybe even a little crazy. But it worked.
Today, tourists come from all over the world for festivals and attractions. Especially during cold weather. I am told that as soon as the leaves change color, Helen is nothing but busy.
One of the highlights of the year is the “Southern Worthersee,” a Volkswagen and Audi event modeled after a famous auto tour in Austria.
Helen also has famous Christmas lights, art festivals, and obscene amounts of day-tourists wearing cutoff jean shorts and tank tops made entirely from fishnet. And as if that isn’t enough, last year they filmed a Hallmark Channel movie here.
They have a Mardi Gras parade too. It’s not a huge event. The locals gear up in the off-season every February to throw a Germanic Mardi Gras that Helen’s residents take seriously.
“Most people think Mardi Gras comes from New Orleans,” says Phil, local historian, dressed in lederhosen, drinking a Hefeweizen beer. “Actually, American Mardi Gras started in Mobile. But earlier religious celebrations predate even America.”
“Carnival,” as it turns out, is a festival that was around a long time ago. In Germany, for instance, they celebrated “Winter Karnival” centuries before Mardi Gras.
It was a time of merrymaking before Lent—the ancient religious observance wherein early Christians demonstrated their faith by giving up social media for six whole hours.
Historically, Germans called this festival “Fasching.” Phil says it is an important celebration. They still carry on this tradition in Helen. Phil can hardly wait. In fact, Phil gets so excited talking about it that he has to go fetch a dry pair of lederhosen.
After Helen, my wife and I are told to drive up Highway 356 to Unicoi State Park for more spectacular views. The park doesn’t disappoint. It stretches for 1,050 acres and features a lake topped with icy mountain fog. And without a doubt it is stunning.
Even during this cold weather, I am warm all over for some reason. In fact, I am so overcome that I begin to weep. Yes, weep. And I can’t help but stare at this Appalachia, humming through tears, “Beulah Land, I’m longing for you…”
Then my wife shoves me and says, “That’s it. No more beer for you.”