2021 Travelogue: To Helen Back
Having locked down for the last year, for sound personal medical reasons, it was time to do something. Anything. It seemed that most of the country felt the same way and people were going here and there and doing this and that, as businesses fully reopened, and the mandates said buh-bye.
I had been reading a novel and the main character described walking down a hotel corridor and noticed the room service trays left outside the room doors, the remnants of late-night eating or, even better, breakfast in bed. And suddenly I just had to have it – French Toast, bacon, sausages, fried potatoes, that good high-dollar hotel coffee, all brought to my room while I lounged about in the luxurious hotel robe.
We have always loved traveling, near and far, both long and short trips, destination nowhere near as important as the journey. We have flown to Hawaii, and spent a glorious week in Central California, did the Vegas trip (to see Britney Spears, of all things). But, more importantly, we have made the trek to Macon, Georgia to see the Allman Brothers Big House Museum, drove up to Pall Mall, Tennessee to pay homage to Sgt. Alvin York, spent a weekend in Birmingham, Alabama at a Victorian Bed & Breakfast. The point has always been to see and do and experience and share the journey with each other, like we have been doing for 37 years.
So where to go, what to do?
The Alpine Village of Helen was calling my name, and for three reasons:
1) Even though we have lived here 26 years, we have never made the trip. I spent half of my childhood in Germany and was attracted to the idea of a German town in the mountains. Also, knockwurst.
2) The Valhalla Resort beckoned. Here was a luxurious, small, privately owned resort, complete with room service and robes, nestled back from the bustling tourist area of Helen.
3) To break the spell of COVID, get on the open road, and experience the freedom and joy of unrestricted travel.
We packed light, loaded up the Escape and headed south, by going north to Cleveland and following Hwy 64 along the river into the mountains of Georgia. That drive alone is worth the effort, with winding roads bordered by forests and rocky riverbeds. Folks were out and about, too, with rafting trips underway and kayakers challenging the rapids.
Rolling into Helen was, shall we say, less than I hoped for. Basically, Gatlinburg Lite was my first impression, but the journey was the point, so I kept an open mind. We made the short drive through the town, err, Alpine Village, and decided to grab some lunch before we checked in. Having ditched the Ford in a parking lot for $5, we set out on foot to see what all the commotion was about. Because this place was hopping, abuzz with activity as the tourists toured, on the same journey of discovery as us.
I’ve been everywhere, man, as Johnny Cash sang, but I have never seen such a diverse crowd of people. Young and old, black and white, Asian, Hispanic, African, Indian. I heard German, French, Spanish and languages I did not recognize. There were fit people and not-so-fit people, families with young kids, straight folks and flamboyantly gay. I would say all of mankind was represented in a couple block area. It turns out Helen is a weekend getaway destination for Atlanta, itself a remarkably diverse city. Refreshing to see so many people of such divergent backgrounds all milling about.
Quickly realizing that it was all gift shops, and we don’t do gift shops (except for the obligatory refrigerator magnet), it was time to find lunch. There was no more obvious place to eat than the Heidelberg Restaurant. I lived within a few miles of that castle for a ½ dozen years and have fond memories of it. I also have fond memories of knockwurst and spaetzle and sauerkraut, served up with a good German beer, Hofbrau in this case. And they delivered, and it was perfect, with great service, wonderful atmosphere, and surprisingly reasonable prices, for a tourist town.
It was apparent, though, that Helen was not Germany by any stretch of the imagination, but we had checked off Point 1 of our three-point agenda, to visit Helen, and headed off to see if the Valhalla would meet expectations for Point 2.
This beautiful place was built just a few years ago, four stories of suites, no kids allowed (hey, we did our time), and plenty of amenities for those that want them. You can swim, golf, do the spa thing with rocks and mud and cucumbers on your eyes. But what we really wanted was to hang out and be served. Our hostess, Judy, told us we were welcome to come down and dine in one of the restaurants, but most of all we were welcome to just relax.
So we did.
It may seem odd to escape lockdown by locking down, but it did not seem odd to us. Our fabulous suite had everything, including a fireplace and a balcony with a mountain view. We had brought plenty of wine. Room service was available 24/7. We had robes and slippers. We were going to live like rock stars, without the drugs and destruction. I excitedly filled out the breakfast door-hanger to make sure we got served in the morning, and then things got really exciting. We read books and took naps. Hey, we’re old and comfortable with ourselves.
Breakfast arrived right on time and our server asked if I had cleaned the room. An odd question, but he said he just left a room that had been, um, rearranged. We like to talk about being rock stars, but we are actually quiet and neat people. I had made the bed, so we could enjoy breakfast in it, which is what we proceeded to do. Even bacon is better when served up at a luxury hotel, sunlight streaming through the window, white robed and comfortable on a pillow stack, pretty lady nearby doing the same. Rock stars, indeed.
Point 2 accomplished, we packed up and headed out, throwing $5 tips everywhere like the rock stars we were. It was really a fine time of refreshing, even if Helen was not all I had hoped, and now we had that same beautiful drive ahead of us to take us home.
Until I saw the Veterans Park at the Welcome Center of Helen.
Diana slammed on the brakes and whipped us into the parking lot. We love these little parks, you will find them in most small towns, tributes to the men and women that have made the commitment to defend the Constitution from all threats, foreign and domestic. And this small park was a stunner, compact but beautiful, a solid effort to respect the military. Remember, this is a town of 510 people.
And that is where I discovered a nobody from nowhere.
Private Glaze shipped out from Helen in 1945, off to fight the Germans in France. He was there less than a month with Company A, 275th Infantry Regiment serving near Lixing, France when he did what infantry soldiers do – he got in the fight. He voluntarily, and single handedly, crawled to attack a machine gun nest that had decimated another company of soldiers, getting wounded in the process. He kept crawling and was able to lob a hand grenade into the nest, destroying it, and saving Company A in the process. Unfortunately, he did not survive the assault.
Private Rondall Glaze received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism. And this nobody from nowhere now stands tall, in bronze, grenade in launch position, so that all can remember him. I am sure those that survived that day think of him as a Somebody from Somewhere, as he gave them their lives to live as they headed back home to their own nowhere.
Helen, Georgia was a dying mining town of less than 400 residents when, in 1969, they decided to reinvent themselves as Alpine Helen. Zoning code mandated the look, modeled after the small town of Fussen, Bavaria, and it is now the third most-visited city in Georgia. A town with only 300 private homes hosts over 3,000,000 visitors each year.
One of the joys of traveling, of getting off the beaten path, of seeing the unusual and insignificant, is that you can find yourself in the process. We are all nobodies from nowhere. As I took the picture of my little Sailor (YNC/EXW Diana Fleshman, US Navy, ret.) with her toes on the Navy stone, I was reminded that she was a nobody from nowhere, Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee. She traveled the world, worked for President Reagan, went to war in the Middle East, raised four kids and became an adored Kindergarten teacher.
And neither are you. We are all somebodies from somewhere. You may not make the newsfeed, and no one may care what you think, and you may be dismissed as having no impact like, say, a celebrity or a politician or a basketball player. But they are nobodies from nowhere, too. We all are what make up this world, we are all important. The diverse crowd in Helen, Georgia on a Sunday afternoon proves it. Private Glaze proves it. The people’s lives you touch, the kindnesses that you show, the small contributions to your town, all add up to a great truth:
We are Somebody from Somewhere.
Our goal this Summer is to travel off the beaten path, looking for the nowheres and the nobodies that came from those points on the map. And by doing that, we will accomplish Point 3 – breaking the grip of a lockdown that has kept us all apart. I hope you will come on the journey with me and read my travelogues. I might just discover a nobody from nowhere – you.