See You In Helen, Georgia: Week 1

Greetings from Helen, Georgia, as we enter week 2 of our travels. We’ve been here for six days now, with four more to go until we move on to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s been an interesting week.

We spent nearly the entirety of last Monday driving straight from DC to Georgia. To my intense relief, we avoided I-95 and took an absolutely gorgeous route along I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, then slicing through the Smokies in the northeastern tip of Tennessee and western North Carolina, through the Cherokee, Pisgah, Nantahala, and Chattahoochee National Forests and into northern Georgia. Linus made the trip OK (other than a last-minute puke on a mountain curve…sorry buddy) thanks to a nice dose of sedatives, which I wouldn’t have minded myself. But after about 10 hours, we arrived at our little cabin literally sitting on the side of a mountain.

Our cabin, with my “office” on the left by the car

The place is essentially a medium-sized studio with a loft that neither Morgan nor I feel like climbing a ladder to. It’s truly lovely other than persistently bad internet, which has been a big source of stress for Morgan as she tries to attend meetings and such. Thankfully, weeks of research on mobile internet backups came in handy, and we’ve been able to get online through my backup Visible data plan. It’s truly been a lifesaver; an unlimited Verizon hotspot for only $40 a month, and cheaper once we get on a party pay plan. Speaking of which – sign up using our code and you’ll get a $5 month to try it out, and we’ll get a $5 month too.

On top of it all, we both got sick for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic – Morgan with suspected E. coli, and me with just a bad cold. I suppose it’s a good idea to get this out of the way early, right?

More broadly, it’s been challenging adapting to the mindset that this is not vacation – it’s life now. It’s been a lot forcing myself to think differently about how I spend my time. On vacation, I’d feel compelled to be out as much as possible, seeing and doing as many things as I can before it’s over, or at least being intentional about how I’m relaxing. But in real life, you work, you cook dinner at home and stay in on a lot of nights, you spend too long scrolling Twitter, you live on a real budget instead of justifying a little extra spending by figuring you should treat yourself while on a trip. I understand all this. But underneath, my brain is still constantly prodding me…”hey, you’re in Helen. You might never get back here. Forget writing that article – go hiking all day and then get some drinks.”

Rainy Night (and Day) In Georgia

I had some pretty grand outdoor plans for our first few days here – a few hikes, outdoor bars/restaurants, maybe even learning fly fishing. Naturally, it intermittently poured rain for the first four days we were here. For the first few, it was a particularly weird pattern; I would wake up to the sound of an absolute deluge on the tin roof of our cabin, lay in the dark and hope it’ll stop, and then finally give up and figure out other indoor plans for the day. Naturally, around midday, the skies would clear and I’d be left wishing I’d just gotten out on the road earlier like I planned.

This is not to say we didn’t have a great time, even in biblical levels of rain. We made our first sojourn into Helen on Tuesday night after work, and it is exactly as charming as expected.

The main strip is full of German restaurants, bars, shops selling tourist gear, and lots more small businesses. On weekdays, it’s relatively quiet. But on weekends, traffic stretches a mile or more out of each end of town as people crawl through, spending equal times gawking at the architecture and avoiding drunken tourists wandering into the road.

I love German food and German beer. A lot. But to be completely honest, if I don’t see another bratwurst, schweinbraten, or kassler rippchen for the next year of traveling, that’ll be just OK with me. We had absolutely delicious and gargantuan meals at The Heidelberg and Hofbrauhaus, and I made a stop on my own at Muller’s Famous Fried Cheese Cafe, where I essentially ate a giant mozzarella stick stuffed with ham that was approximately the size of a small tablet computer. At least it came with a salad.

The Helen area is also home to a few wineries, most notably Habersham Winery just south of town near Sautee Nacoochee. We can highly recommend the Peach Treat and Concord, both of which taste exactly like they sound.

Luckily, the weather cleared for a lovely weekend, the first official one of our trip. We started our day zip-lining at Unicoi State Park, a really excellent spot for outdoor activities about 5 minutes outside of Helen. It’s centered around Unicoi Lake, an artificial lake made by damming Smith Creek as it flows between two hills. I very much enjoyed zip-lining, or at least the 25% of the time I was actually on the lines. The other three-quarters of the time was spent waiting on tiny platforms about 40 feet up in the trees that shook violently whenever someone landed. Both Morgan and I were ready to get back on the ground by the end.

We also made a quick visit to Dahlonega, the center of America’s first real gold rush. You can still tell – our parking spot is dusted with gold flakes, and creek beds actually sparkle in some places. I was expecting to check out the Gold Rush Days festival, but due to my inability to read a calendar, we were there a week early. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty nice small town, with shops and restaurants centered around a public square with a former courthouse-turned-museum. Quite a few towns in this area are laid out exactly the same way, which can get a bit bizarre after a while.

The hiking here has easily been one of my favorite parts. We’re a 5-minute drive from two state parks, and a half-dozen other trails (including the Appalachian Trail) are located just a few minutes further up mountain roads. I’ve been able to get out for at least a short hike almost every day. The trail to Duke’s Creek Falls was particularly amazing to hike in semi-spooky fog, and Morgan and I tackled the Lake Trail around Lake Unicoi over the weekend.

Lake Unicoi, Helen, GA – Oct. 2021

We also took the short walk to Anna Ruby Falls, one of the most popular hikes in the area to a set of twin waterfalls that feed Smith Creek. I also met what I at least hope is the most deranged-looking Smokey the Bear in the entire National Park System.

I grew up in northwestern New Jersey, so Appalachian mountain landscapes are pretty familiar to me. But there is something truly and distinctly different about the woods here. I can probably count on two hands the number of animals I’ve seen in the woods, other than the roughly one billion spiders whose webs we’ve walked through. I’ve seen a decent amount of bear poop, but thankfully no bears – so far. There is quite a bit of Sasquatch discussion down here, but he’s eluded us as well. You rarely even see birds or squirrels. It’s just very, very quiet out there, which makes you hyper-attuned to any sounds you do hear.

In unrelated news, I’ve been reading Deliverance while I’m here, a very nice story about a group of friends from the city who go on a canoe trip in northern Georgia and meet some kindly mountain folk. I haven’t finished it, but I’m sure nothing bad happens and they all have a good time.

See you in Helen,

Nick

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