When we were on the plane to Atlanta I kept trying to convince my mother that we could drive all the way to New Orleans to spend our first night, because the quicker we finished the Deep South the more likely we would have time in the end to visit Tennessee. I?ve been interested in Folk and Bluegrass music ever since my dad played for me an album of Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, and here was my chance to hear it firsthand in the land of its birth?Appalachia. Many an ethnomusicologist has visited the mountains of the American South for the modern version of this or that Eighteenth Century Scottish ballad, and I couldn?t wait to join their ranks tromping through the hills whence Bluegrass takes its name. I won the argument in the end, and because of that nine hour drive on our first day, we left Charleston with four days to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains.
My father drove into Helen, Georgia on a cobblestone road past pastel-painted buildings with long pointed roofs into the center of town where we thought ourselves sure to find some mashed potatoes, hush puppies or macaroni and cheese. I was thrilled to find that, in the South, macaroni and cheese is placed in the ?vegetable? column on menus, practically commanding me to order it with the pulled pork. But looking around Helen, we found neither fried chicken nor collard greens?not even the loathsomely ubiquitous Southern boiled peanuts. Restaurants instead advertised sauerbraten, schnitzel or liverwurst and fresh-brewed lager. We finally found salvation at the North Georgia BBQ, where I had some of the best beef ribs I have ever tried, and I have tried many.
Rejuvenated, we resumed our walk and finally found a visitor center. I went straight for the ?Music!? brochure, but was disappointed yet again; instead of Bluegrass, I found a local band called ?Alpenmusikanten,? and the advertisement that should have proclaimed the folk festival for which I had so hoped had been usurped by an Oktoberfest. My worst fears were confirmed when I finally looked up at the sign over the front desk: ?Alpine Helen: experience Bavaria, no passport required!? Now what was an Alpine-themed town doing in Appalachian Georgia? Had the residents of Helen, in observance of their Teutonic founding fathers, decided to return to their roots and ways of old? Had an enterprising enclave of German tchotchke-vendors fled das Vaterland to ply their trade in the verdant fields of the New World? As it turns out, Helen?s Bavarian theme was the idea of some local businessmen in the 1970s, and their re-creation is really quite impressive. There I was, standing on Brucken Strasse, surrounded by lederhosen, cuckoo-clock repairmen and edelweiss painted on the walls of light blue wood-paneled homes.
We asked a tourism official what we, a family of four, should do with our day in Helen while staying on the cheap. The reply was immediate and unequivocal: ?Tube the ?Hooch!? We dutifully drove back upriver to the ?tubing? shack, paid $3 a person, and were each given an inflated hot pink inner-tube. We scrambled down the muddy riverbank, preparing to get in even as we saw the first flash of yet another afternoon thunderstorm. It was really more of a creek than a river, but even the Chattahoochee looked menacing as lightning crashed and rain churned up the waist-deep rapids. And yet no one but us seemed discouraged: people rushed down to the river in droves with their day-glow tubes, plunging into the freezing cold water, the very old to the very young (more than one young woman tubed baby in hand). The U.S. census estimates the population of Helen to be 531 persons, but we must have encountered more than that on the teeming river, often physically. We floated right through the center of town, sometimes coming into range of alpine accordion music blaring from the river-front restaurants, then floating on by as it grew softer in the distance.
My family might have felt embarrassed floating in our day shorts and T-shirts had not everyone else looked as out of place as we. Many tubers were curled into little fetal spheres, tubes floating on as though they were empty, bouncing aimlessly off this rock or down that rapid. Looking downstream, our fellow tubers looked like numbered balls in a lottery, perfectly round, some flailing wildly with their arms trying to change their course, others quietly resigned to the strength of the mighty ?Hooch. My father heroically stalled an escaped tube with a child inside until the parents floated by, my mother fell into the water repeatedly (not that it really mattered, since the rain had increased to a full downpour), and I came out trivially bruised on my posterior.
The truth is that Helen, Georgia didn?t really change my life. I left a bit disappointed, and I never did get a chance to hear any live Bluegrass despite my best efforts. But what I did get from Helen was an amusing and curious experience and a good story. It was a worthwhile trade: everyone knows that Georgia has live Bluegrass, but who would have thought to find a Bavarian town?