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The other side of the mountain - Joel Hall

I've noticed that a lot of my columns are about travel. I guess part of the reason is because traveling to exotic places is one of the things that I miss the most about the life I had before working at a daily newspaper.

Don't get me wrong, working in Clayton County definitely takes you off the beaten path. During the course of my reporting, I've visited a goat farm, followed around Civil War re-enactors, installed insulation into walls, tailed politicians on a golf cart around Lake Spivey, dodged lunchtime traffic in Riverdale to interview picketers, and visited just about every church in the county.

My weekends aren't always as exciting, though. The crazy stuff I am asked to do in the middle of the week usually leaves me completely drained by the weekend, and sometimes I have a tendency to shut down.

When I lived in Japan for two years as a "salaryman" or wage slave, my weekdays were stressful, too. To combat this, on the weekends, I would often pack three pairs of socks, three pairs of clean underwear, two shirts, and just take off wherever my economy-sized Japanese car would take me.

Sometimes, I would go to the ocean. Sometimes, I would look up in the mountains and see a plume of chimney smoke and follow it to the source. Sometimes, I would just get lost and find my way back.

I don't do that too often anymore. Gas is expensive, the mountains aren't so close, and there are a lot of places in Atlanta where you don't want to get lost. However, I got a chance to see some mountains again last weekend in Dahlonega, Ga.

Coming from Virginia Beach, Va., where everything is as flat as a pancake, and the highest peak around is a 100-foot-high mountain of trash (ingeniously named Mt. Trashmore), I always appreciate the mountains whenever I am near them.

Until last weekend, I had no idea that Dahlonega existed, but it really is a gold mine, literally and figuratively.

Only about an hour north of Atlanta on Georgia Highway 400, Dahlonega is actually the site of the first American gold rush, predating the 1849 gold rush in California. This quaint little mountain town sits atop a rich vein of gold, which is still being mined today.

I had no idea what to expect when I got there, but I fell in love with the town as soon as I crossed the bend and saw the Appalachian Mountains. I was starving by the time I got there, so the first thing I went to look for was food.

I stumbled upon the Smith House, an old fashioned inn, sitting on top of what was once a gold mine. In the far wing of the house, a glass barrier stands between you and the bottomless pit in which the miners once explored for gold ore.

On the bottom floor of the inn, the Smith House offered a smorgasbord of Southern-fried delicacies. For about $20, you are seated at a long oak table with complete strangers and offered mountains of fried chicken, ham, and pot roast, alongside mounds of creamed corn, mash potatoes, fried okra, and collard greens.

Passing around baskets of buttered rolls and cornbread, I felt camaraderie with the man across the table adjusting his pants and praying to make it through dessert.

After about two hours of food and conversation, I realized the day was quickly escaping me. As I waddled into the town square, I saw many people, young and old, shopping, eating, and enjoying life in this picturesque mountain village.

In a short distance, I was able to find all the things I crave when I am in Clayton County. An antique book store, a privately-owned coffee shop with an open mic night, a small private theater company, and a independent instrument store with sheet music, blues harmonicas, and just about every string instrument worth buying.

I was really amazed that all of these treasures existed only an hour away. It's easy to stargaze and dream of far off places, but going to Dahlonega reminded me that there are still adventures in my own backyard.