As the heat of summer started to ease, I packed up the bike one Friday, needing to experience another road trip before the cold winds of November would arrive. A weekend escape to the kitschy fun of the alpine-themed town of Helen, Georgia, seemed very appealing.
It only enticed me more that it was Oktoberfest season, and I knew Helen would be a pretty lively place to make my basecamp while I packed in a full weekend of riding and sightseeing.
One of my favorite routes to the Peach State takes me down Moonshiner 28 from Highlands to Warwoman Road, a secret favorite of many riders including myself. The tight, technical turns gradually ease as you approach the town of Clayton where Warwoman joins U.S. 76 in the lower portion of the Southern Highlands Trail. This scenic route is a 364-mile National Scenic Byway through four states in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It crosses the top of the Peach State near, or en route to, some of my favorite motorcycling destinations.
Outside of Clayton, I noticed several motorcycles outside of a freshly remodeled and rebranded roadside tavern. The big, new sign proclaimed: “Route 76 Road House Bar & Grill.” It had been nearly a decade since I last stopped here for a beer one summer, plus I’d skipped lunch before departing. It really doesn’t take much to make me grab a fistful of brakes and join my fellow riders for a sandwich and a cold one.
Inside, the place was completely redone since my last visit so long ago. I was glad to see a big group of touring riders and their spouses enjoying lunch. I also couldn’t miss the wall dedicated to the 1989 movie “Road House.” There was even a TV, surrounded by movie posters, playing the Patrick Swayze movie. The adjoining wall featured Elvis posters and the 2022 movie with Austin Butler playing.
“Of course, ‘Road House’ is my favorite movie. It’s on loop 24/7,” owner Mark Eskew said. “I also have Elvis movies, all different Elvis movies going. Elvis is in the building, always.”
Eskew, who rides a 2012 Harley-Davidson Street Glide and sports the best porkchop sideburns I’ve seen in years, recreated the old biker bar into a more upscale grill.
“I wanted something different. Being a biker, being a musician, I thought I wanted to open up something different, something cool,” he said. “We’ve got a big menu, with lots of appetizers, too. I wanted to do really good, upscale bar food. Really good, but unique. We have sloppy Joes. We have fried baloney sandwiches. We have fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. We’ve got unique stuff on the menu that nobody else carries.”
At Route 76 Road House, all of the sauces are made in-house from scratch. None of their meats are frozen. The TVs show all the big games, and a small stage hosts live music on weekends, Eskew said. The popular bar and grill tends to keep Eskew from riding as much as he’d like.
“I love riding out 76,” Eskew said. “I love Warwoman out to South Carolina and 28. I like going to Franklin, picking up the Highlands Road by the waterfalls.”
After a satisfying lunch, I fired up my Yamaha Tracer 9 GT and pushed onward.
I can rarely ride the scenic two-lane roads toward Helen without making a few interesting stops along the way. Lake Burton, Seed Lake and Lake Rabun feature some narrow roads along the shoreline, perfect for a leisurely cruise as the sun glints off the water.
Being a history buff, the historic 1895 Stovall Mill Covered Bridge in Nacoochee north of Helen always draws me to flick down the kickstand and admire the small span over Chickamauga Creek. Not far away the Nacoochee Indian Mound, built more than 500 years ago by the Mississippian Culture, sits majestically in a cow pasture. The ornate gazebo atop it dates from the 1800s, placed there by a white settler. One tourist asked me what it was as I paused next to my bike to admire the mound. They were a bit dismayed when I told them the romantic-looking gazebo sits atop the graves of 75 or more Native Americans.
I roll into Helen just as the sun sets, ready for a Friday night enjoying the festivities of this holiday-obsessed town. During the day, the zoning-enforced Bavarian theme can make the town look a bit anachronistic, but when the lights come on each evening, Helen’s charm really emerges.
For dinner, I stop into Two Tire Tavern, my favorite spot for food-and-drink in Helen. Owner Dan Terlizzi remembers me from my frequent trips through the region and always offers a warm welcome. The end of the year is a busy season for him and all the merchants of Helen. The town, the setting for many a holiday Hallmark Channel movie, can certainly inspire the holiday spirit.
“It’s not as crazy as Oktoberfest, but it has just as much to do,” Terlizzi said. “At Thanksgiving, they turn on the Christmas lights. This is the Christmas wonderland in Helen. It’s heavily decorated. They have Christmas events, fairs, they have a carnival. The Mountain Coaster is open year-round. It’s a great time of year to come here. We celebrate New Year’s Eve. They drop a keg at the FestHalle.”
I set out on foot to enjoy the evening’s Oktoberfest celebration, hoisting a stein and mixing with the lederhosen- or dirndl-clad revelers. The clopping sound of horse-drawn carriage precedes the rumble of a pair of Harleys down Main Street. In the distance, I hear the chicken dance playing. The endless strings of lights glow softly as my cares vanish.
Saturday arrives — without any ill effects from Oktoberfest — and I head southeast toward Clarkesville. (Yes, I couldn’t help but hum the famous song by The Monkees). Today would be spent exploring a few museums and looping back to Helen for more evening festivities. A friend and fellow motorcyclist tipped me off to a car museum in Clarkesville that’s worth checking out.
In an old antique mall and flea market, Miles Through Time hosts about 100 cars and motorcycles on display. It’s rather unique as a museum since it’s more of a co-op than one united collection. It all started when Sean Mathis inherited his grandfather’s 1959 Cadillac.
“It’s not my collection. It’s literally just that car,” Mathis, 39, said of the high-finned pink Caddy. “Thirteen cars have been donated by individuals or museums. Right now, we have about 100 cars on display. Most of them are on loan, family heirloom vehicles.”
Other museums, large collections and just some ordinary automobile enthusiasts have loaned their vehicles to Miles Through Time so the public can appreciate them.
“That’s the story we want to share. You can Google stats, I want you to read the story of THAT particular car,” Mathis said.
There’s everything from Model Ts, muscle cars, sports cars and a few rarities — including a one-of-one Ford Ghia Arioso concept car — on display. The collection changes occasionally as other cars rotate in for display. Amid all the eye-candy, I spot a forlorn Bricklin, a car I’ve always admired from my 1970s childhood. Next to it is a barn-find Delorean. Both are slowly being restored by volunteers and donations from supporters. Next to a few gleaming vintage Porsches sits a well-worn late-’80s Ford Festiva.
Really? A Festiva? In a museum?
“Not that that car is cool to most people, but it signifies a certain time in a lot of people’s lives,” Mathis said. “It triggers the memories, and that’s the point of that car in here. You know somebody who had that car if you’re over a certain age. You’ve got people who come in here to reminisce, and you’ve got the younger generation who needs to come in here and find something that triggers their interests. That’s the whole point of this museum. We’re preserving and educating automotive history, but we’re actually trying to make it so this stuff stays interesting to people. The older generation that really cared about the Model Ts over there, as they start to disappear, there’s no one to replace them. Then the cars become lost in time, and nobody cares. That would be a waste.”
After snapping way too many photos of my favorite cars, I remount the bike and head for my next tourist destination — the Currahee Military Museum in Taccoa. Just mention “Band of Brothers” to any World War II history nerd, and they’ll know the story of Camp Taccoa, where 18,000 paratroopers trained during the war.
In the old railroad depot in downtown Taccoa, the Currahee Military Museum celebrates the brave soldiers who helped liberate Europe from Hitler’s grasp.
“Most people come here because of ‘Band of Brothers.” This wouldn’t be here without the series,” said Jason McFarlin, a museum board member. “We’ve had others like the “Dirty Dozen, which was based on the Fifty Thirteen, who trained here. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was based on an actual person who trained here, but the ‘Band of Brothers’ series is really what made it take off.”
The museum features several actual items from Camp Taccoa paratroopers along with period-correct equipment and weapons.
“Of course, the centerpiece is the stables. It was brought over in 2004 from Aldbourne, England. That’s where they stayed before D-Day,” McFarlin said. The wooden structure was disassembled and flown from England by the U.S. Air Force to its new home in Taccoa. Carved in the wooden beams are some names of the American paratroopers who billeted there.
In a case next to a mannequin outfitted in full jump gear complete with deployed parachute sits an item viewers of the miniseries will recognize.
“That’s kind of a centerpiece right there, the actual shirt,” McFarlin said pointing to the small white Camp Taccoa T-shirt. When HBO was starting to make the series, a costume designer measured and traced the original to make exact replicas for the show. Across the room is the actual geological survey disk that once sat atop Currahee and soldiers had to touch before running back down to camp. A new one replaced it in the 1970s.
Before leaving, I ask McFarlin for directions to the original camp site, where a C-47 transport plane is on display along with some recreated barracks. It pleased me to hear visitors can drive the gravel road to the top of Currahee Mountain. The Yamaha easily tackled the three miles up, three miles down.
After another evening enjoying downtown Helen, I packed up Sunday morning and headed out for more mountain escapades. Today’s itinerary included Brasstown Bald and Bell Mountain, two destinations with incredible views from their summits.
Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, sits north of Helen off Route 180 and makes for a pleasant ride. The admission fee to the federal park includes a free shuttle bus ride to the summit, which contains a spacious visitors center, restrooms and exhibits about the area’s geology, climate and history. There’s even an actual logging-train locomotive inside the mountaintop center.
There are 360-degree views of four states — when the weather cooperates — from the 4,784-foot summit. As is my luck, clouds obscured portions of it during my visit, but I could just make out Lake Chatuge to the north, another of my favorite North Georgia riding destinations.
Towering above the lake, Bell Mountain sits about 20 miles from Brasstown Bald near the town of Hiawassee. This summit offers more impressive views, in my opinion, than Brasstown’s taller peak. Plus, it’s free to ride to the top. There are no signs pointing the way, so riders must find their way to Shake Rag Road off U.S. 76. A narrow, paved road snakes its way to the graffiti-covered rocky summit of Bell Mountain. Riders are rewarded for tackling those sharp bends with a spectacular view of Lake Chatuge.
With the weekend coming to an end, I returned to U.S. 76, the Southern Highlands Trail, and made my way home, with Georgia still on my mind.