In the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, there is a piece of America that transported me into one of my favorite books, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.
Sometimes on a regular day out – well this one was a daytrip to see waterfalls in the mountains of Georgia – one comes across the most unexpected people and places. While driving to see the Tallulah Gorge, I took a last minute side detour to a scenic overlook. For me, there was so much more than the overlook here – by the side of the road there was the kind of place that I think Tim O’Brien and his platoon would have made for themselves in Vietnam, a place that would transport them, if only momentarily, to the America, the home, and the things they longed for so desperately. It was almost a mise-en-scene for a play or a movie about the longing for Americana that the boys in Vietnam must have felt – except this was real, and the boys were – well – middle aged bikers by now.
The roadside shack, with a flag and a bald eagle on its roof, proudly calls itself “Hillbilly’s Hot Nuts & BBQ.” The shack was adorned with every possible American thing a boy would long for in Vietnam –all kinds of Harley Davidson models, banners, and paraphernalia, music records, Coca Cola bottle cut outs, a smiling Marilyn Monroe, a sexy Marilyn Monroe with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Humphrey Bogart in a café, a sultry Rita Hayworth selling Coke, Coke selling Coke and hot dogs for 15 cents, Big foot crossing sign, a Native American chief with a glorious feathered headgear, a faded Uncle Sam, a black and white electric guitar – it was all there. And to the right was a place to sit, relax, chitchat, and as the picture shows – enjoy a Coke. Here a large flag covered the entire back wall, and a welcome committee, in the form of a faintly Asian looking mannequin, stood in front of the shack.
The entire space seems more like a setting for a Vietnam war movie than a roadside shack next to a scenic overlook. But there it was, and bikers rode up to it, bought their roasted Georgia peanuts and Coke and hung out for a while chatting with each other. One of them even happily posed for a picture when I asked if I could get a picture of his bike.
And I was reminded of Tim O’Brien and his platoon; young American boys longing for the comforts of home in Vietnam, and I imagined that this is what they longed for. Suddenly, this place took on so much meaning for me – it was not just a roadside food shack, but a place for the boys who returned home, and for those who did not. None of us will ever understand what they went through in Vietnam. They have only each other to turn to; the shared experience is theirs only, the rest of us are outsiders looking in, trying unsuccessfully to understand. And places like the Hillbilly Nut & BBQ Shop, make it possible for these brave men to stop for a few minutes, talk to each other, perhaps reminisce about someone who didn’t make it back – before they ride off into the mountains.