The Great Schlep, Part 1: Alpine Helen

Anyone who is Jewish and has children is well versed in the tradition of Jewish Summer Camp. Even people who only tangentially know Jews with children know of this annual ritual which is as deeply embedded in the American Jewish consciousness as matzah at Passover. No, I’m not talking about day camp at the local Jewish Community Center. I am referring to full-on, no holds barred, weeks long sleep-away camp requiring months of preparation and an arduous trek of several hundred miles on the part of the parents. THIS, my friends, is what Jew Camp is all about.

Being that we are a good Jewish family in the American south, we felt compelled to send our daughters to Camp Coleman this year. The girls were ecstatic, as all of their friends attend this camp and regularly regale them with tales of campfire songs, Israeli dances, krav maga training, lifelong friendships, and an international staff which rivals that of Disneyworld. Of course, Coleman is over 350 miles from our home, so we knew some serious schlepping would be involved.

“Stay in Helen”, all our friends advised. “It’s the closest place with hotels.” This is all they told us, the lousy schmucks. They did not tell us that the picturesque Alpine Village of Helen, GA was a direct portal into the Twilight Zone.

Having stuffed the Family Truckster with four burgeoning, oversized duffel bags, two egg crate mattress pads, sleeping bags, pillows, backpacks, two tweenage girls and two adults, we set off the day before camp opened for Helen, Georgia. A destination I had incorrectly assumed was a typical southern town.

Just a few of the delights to be had in Helen.

We arrived in Helen (pop. 500), some six and a half hours after leaving the house to find a plethora of Bavarian flags and Gothic half-timbered buildings.

“How quaint”, I thought as we passed the first few structures.

“Really? More?”, I said aloud to no one in particular as we inched our way past several more buildings adorned with German detailing along Georgia 75, the ONLY road in Helen.

“What the literal Hell?!” I exclaimed as we rounded a bend to find the full splendor of a Bavarian village before us, right smack dab in the middle of the north Georgia mountains. On all sides we were confronted with shops with shingles hung out front adorned with beer steins and lederhosen. Even our hotel, a Baymont Inn and Suites, looked like someplace the Brothers Grimm would have stayed. In addition to the bizarre architecture, flags, and signage, it seems we had arrived in Helen the same weekend as both a Shriner’s convention and a motorcycle rally. The juxtaposition of tattooed, leather clad bikers with throngs of pot-bellied white men in Hawaiian shirts and tiny cars was enough to incite vertigo. I began to fear for my sanity.

We checked into our hotel, a three star number having tried to upgrade its appeal by installing granite shower surrounds and countertops, and went to explore this mecca of the absurd. As we walked the three blocks to the “town square”, we crossed the Chattahoochee river on a pedestrian bridge so narrow everyone had to walk single file, and at times, turn sideways to accommodate the oncoming foot traffic.

“Ugh! Too people-y!”, I exclaimed.

“I love it!”, Jack, the girls’ father, gleefully retorted. “It’s so weird“!

Weird ass main stree
Schnitzel, anyone?

Weird is a gross understatement.  It looks like something out of one of David Lynch’s nightmares. The Alpine Village’s cobblestone sidewalks abut dingy stucco buildings with faux half-timbered facades complete with signs in German, and were overrun by a sea of sweaty, overweight Americans in flip-flops shuffling between the schnitzel haus, bier garten, and the funnel cake shoppe. This place makes Portland, Oregon look like Stepford.

As if being involuntarily transported to Bavaria weren’t jarring enough, we discovered that the area is also home to Babyland General Hospital, a former plantation which houses thousands of Cabbage Patch Dolls in a cozy institutional atmosphere. We declined to visit. Obviously.

Creeptastic Cabbage Patch “nursery” at Babyland

In the early evening we returned to our hotel room, blissfully unaware that the Unfortunate Ombre Incident lurked ominously in our immediate future. I had promised the girls to color their hair in ombre fashion prior to camp, and had procrastinated to the point of no return. I had dutifully packed my Amateur Cosmetologist’s kit before we left, and I set about mixing and applying color to their tresses. The Youngest went first, her hair being shorter and thinner than her sister’s. She wanted pink fading to blue to highlight her asymetrical bob. After employing a grotesque number of rubberbands, I managed to get her hair colored, rinsed and dried. She was delighted and pranced around the room posing before every mirror in the place. I took a well -deserved moment to pat myself on the back.

Two hombres behind our ombres.

Having completed my victory lap around the generically furnished room, I began working on The Oldest’s hair. This child, without exaggeration, has enough hair on her head for three people, and it is half way down her back. She wanted her ombre to start at chin level with aqua fading to blue. I set off plastering color on her hair, brushing as fast as I dared. A hour later I sent her to the shower to rinse it off. After what seemed like a very long time, she emerged from the bathroom, having been careful to use a towel from home to dry her hair so as not to stain any of the hotel’s towels. She too, was pleased with her result and after drying her hair we all went to bed.

As I lay sharing a bed with The Youngest and watching Forensic Files on my phone, Jack got up to use the bathroom and returned very anxious.

“The bathroom is trashed!”, he exclaimed.

“What?”, I replied, sleepy and confused, popping my earbuds out, irritated that he had interrupted a particularly gripping explanation of forensic geology.

“There is blue dye all over the tub and it won’t come off”, he said, his voice rising with anxiety, his hands clenched tightly into fists. He sighed and pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes. I knew that visions of being charged for an entire bathroom remodel were surging through his head.

“I’ll take care of it”, I mumbled as I put my glasses on and paused Forensic Files.

I shuffled to the bathroom to find blue hair dye clinging to the aged film of soap scum on the granite surround and the worn porcelain tub. The white cloth shower curtain was peppered with what I recognized as low-velocity spatter in a stunning shade of royal blue. Norman Bates could not have done better.

“Huh”, I muttered to myself. “This is stuff is almost as good as Luminol”.

Resignedly, I grabbed a washcloth and swiped at the offending azure stain on the wall with no effect. I rubbed harder, which made no difference at all. I applied hot water. Nada. I stepped back to asses the scene and consider my options. Clearly, the stain would come off the walls and tub with abrasive, but it was after 11 pm in the insane Alpine Village of Helen, and nothing but the Edelweiss Bier Garten was open.

“What I wouldn’t give for some baking soda”, I mused silently. I heard Jack sigh loudly from the other room, his anxiety becoming palpable. I stood for a moment before my overstimulated and exhausted mind spat out the answer. Toothpaste.

I squeezed the tube along the tub like a firefighter at a three alarm blaze and began scrubbing the gritty goo into the stains. Victory was mine! The white porcelain gleamed spotlessly back at me as if to thank me for releasing it from its layer of sticky residue. I repeated the process on the walls with equal success. I gleefully polished the granite to a high shine, giddy with mint fumes.

I nonchalantly washed my hands and returned to bed, causally mentioning to Jack that I had handled it. Skeptically, he strode to the bathroom to inspect my work.

“That’s impressive!”, he exclaimed, clearly relieved.

“Yeah, well, I’m an impressive girl”, I replied as I smugly snuggled back into bed next to The Baby.

In the morning, I surveyed the gleaming fixtures and once again took the briefest of moments to pat myself on the back. The shower curtain was a lost cause, but I had a fix for that as well. I strongly suspected that the housekeepers at the Baymont don’t often get tips, so I left some cash for the cleaning lady, hoping she might wordlessly understand my meaning. Several days have passed, and nothing has been said about the curtain. The housekeeper was probably so happy she didn’t have to clean the tub, she’d have given us two shower curtains.

My gloating complete, we again piled in the Truckster and headed the few miles down the road to Camp Coleman. There we were greeted by warm and enthusiastic staff who assured us that our girls would have an amazing Jewish summer camp experience. Several of the counselors complimented the girls’ hair, and they beamed with pride. I knew then that I would happily scrub a thousand hotel bathtubs with toothpaste to see them smile that way again.

We will return to Alpine Helen in two weeks to pick up The Baby. I’ll be leaving my hair dye at home, but I am packing extra Prozac.


#mombre #ombrehair #alpinehelen #Jewcamp #Jewishsummercamp #CampColeman #toothpasteFTW



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