I See Georgia: Athens
“The thing about Georgia is it never leaves you, no matter where you go in life. Athens…the Arch…the history of Georgia- it’s just part of the fiber that is me. Growing up in Athens and being a Bulldog is special. It is part of your soul.”
NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who played collegiately at the University of Georgia, once spoke these words about Athens. While neither of us ever played a sport at UGA, we definitely agree with the sentiment. Athens is a place that sticks with you, no matter where you go or what you do.
We live in Athens, and have for years. We both attended UGA. This is our town; our home. While we’ve been spending our days in the city for such a long time (on and off since birth for at least one of us!), we were about to embark on a mission unlike any other on our “I See Georgia” tour. We were about to spend a day visiting our own hometown.
Like Rome, a previous destination on our tour, Athens is named for its European counterpart. Known as “The Classic City,” Athens is home to the University of Georgia, as well as a thriving music scene that has spawned such bands as REM, The B-52s, and Of Montreal. In 1991, Athens merged its government with Clarke County’s, resulting in the city becoming the sixth largest in the state with over 120,000 residents.
We began our exploration with a Saturday night visit to Clocked! The retro burger joint, located in the heart of downtown, has long been one of our favorites on those days when we need some comfort food. We entered the diner, located just steps from the legendary 40 Watt Club. It was pleasant outside, so we chose a patio table.
Clocked’s menu features a variety of specialty burgers, offering everything from the Ring of Fire, with pepper jack cheese and jalapeno peppers, to the Peanut Butter Bacon. We spent a few minutes looking over the menu before deciding on a Meteor Burger, a Pimento Cheese Burger, and fries.
When our waitress brought the burgers, they were as good as they’d always been. The patties were juicy and delicious, and the fries were hot and crispy. The Meteor Burger featured melted feta cheese and bacon, while the pimento cheese was reminiscent of the “Wicked Pimina” we sampled on a burger in Rome. We polished off the food, and then leaned back, content to watch people pass by on the way to a night out in Athens.
The next morning, taking advantage of a day in our hometown, we slept in; rising only when we awoke of our own accord. We sat around for a bit, sipping coffee and discussing where to go first. When we finally got going, it was past time for some food. In Athens, Sunday is the day to grab some brunch. So we parked on Prince Avenue and headed to our favorite late morning/early afternoon haunt: The Grit.
This vegetarian restaurant, located in an old brick building just outside downtown, is a favorite, among both the vegan/vegetarian crowd and the omnivore set. The walls are covered with paintings by local artists, and the specials are listed on a chalkboard behind the counter. We settled in for a satisfying meal of comfort food, and that is exactly what we got.
Between the Cowboy Omelette with cheese, sour cream and salsa, the Special Omelette with pureed sweet potato and avocado, the breakfast potatoes, and the biscuits with yeast gravy, we more than satisfied our cravings. Our stomachs full, we leaned back as we planned the rest of our day.
Eventually, summoning all our will power, we left The Grit and headed out to explore Athens. Our first stop was Oconee Hill Cemetery, founded in 1855. We’d long planned a visit to this historic burial place, but for some reason we never got around to it. Now, on a hot day in late May, we parked just inside the cemetery gates and got out of the car.
Oconee Hill Cemetery is located directly across East Campus Road from Sanford Stadium. We’d spent more than a few Saturdays inside the stadium, cheering on our beloved Georgia Bulldogs. Now and then, during breaks in the action, we’d glance down at the cemetery, remembering our plan to tour it, before returning to full-on fan mode.
Now, here we were, ducking under a scuppernong vine and gazing at a tombstone dedicated to a dog named Prince who was interred in 1932. We left the arbor and walked through the old cemetery, passing tombstones for both civilians and confederate soldiers.
We walked on, crossing the Oconee River at one point as we headed deeper and deeper into the cemetery. Though we’d known about the place for so many years, we had no idea it was so big. Row after row of tombstones jutted from the earth, memorializing people who’d left the mortal coil over the last 150 or more years. The cemetery is a powerful place, both historical and haunting at the same time. So much to see and so little time.
While we could have spent the entire day at Oconee Hill, there were other destinations to visit. So we said goodbye to the cemetery and headed for our next stop, the Georgia Museum of Art. The museum was another place we’d always meant to visit. Originally opened in 1948 in the in the basement of the old library on UGA’s North Campus, it now occupies a contemporary 79,000 square foot building on East Campus.
We parked in the parking deck and entered the blissfully cool structure which offers free admission. We walked up the stairs and found ourselves in a quiet hallway lined on both sides by galleries chock full of paintings, sculptures and the like. With just an hour left before closing time, we chose a room featuring the works of Kristin Casaletto.
Casaletto, who is from the Midwest, moved to Mississippi to accept a teaching position. Her new environment led to a series of paintings that focus on the history of racial violence in the region. There were also self-portraits and various other pieces. We immediately fell in love with her work, especially Apocalypse, a piece that depicts a skeleton being pulled into whatever hell might await.
We were so absorbed by the Casaletto exhibition that we barely had time to see anything else. We took a quick walk through a few more rooms filled with paintings, baskets, furniture and sculptures. Way too soon, it was time to go. The museum will definitely be on our agenda for a future visit.
Next up on our agenda was a visit to one of the more unusual landmarks you’ll find anywhere. We followed Broad Street, then turned on Finley, where we bounced up old cobblestones, passing through a quiet residential neighborhood, until we reached “The Tree That Owns Itself.”
Legend has it that, sometime in the late 1800s, Colonel William Jackson, in an effort to protect a white oak that grew on his property, deeded to the tree the land on which it stood. Today, no one knows if this deed actually exists, or ever existed, but nevertheless, the tree remains.
Well, not exactly. The original tree fell over and died in 1946, but a new one, grown from an acorn dropped by the original, was planted in its place. So the legend continues.
We parked on Finley and walked over to the large oak, which is surrounded by posts and a chain. At the base of the tree lies a plaque, which reads as follows:
FOR AND IN CONSIDERATION
OF THE GREAT LOVE I BEAR
THIS TREE AND THE GREAT DESIRE
I HAVE FOR ITS PROTECTION
FOR ALL TIME, I CONVEY ENTIRE
POSSESSION OF ITSELF AND
ALL LAND WITHIN EIGHT FEET
OF THE TREE ON ALL SIDES
WILLIAM H. JACKSON
We spent a few more minutes walking around the neighborhood, then got back in the car. Following Finley Street, which actually makes a bend to go around the tree, we headed downtown.
Downtown Athens is an eclectic place; an area chock full of restaurants, music venues and (especially) bars, located directly across the street from the University of Georgia. For years people have chided UGA for the significant number of athletes who run into trouble with the law. But honestly, what chance does an eighteen-year-old from a one-stoplight town in South Georgia have when faced with such an active nightlife scene?
We parked and walked around town, enjoying a beautiful (if slightly warm!) May day. Athens is known for its music scene, and if any place is emblematic of the musical history of the city, it has to be Wuxtry Records on Clayton Street.
We ducked inside the record store and browsed through the large collection of CDs and Vinyl. Wuxtry is famous for past employees Peter Buck of REM and Danger Mouse, and was named by Rolling Stone as one of the best record stores in the USA in 2010. Virtually everyone who has ever worked at Wuxtry is, was, or will be in a band. So it was no surprise that the guy behind the counter, with whom we ended up talking for half an hour, plays guitar in a band called Nate and the Nightmares.
After leaving Wuxtry we walked around, passing such Athens landmarks as the 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre, where we’d seen everyone from Sevendust to Arlo Guthrie, until the heat drove us in search of something cold to drink. Luckily, even though it was Sunday, a number of establishments were open for business. We ended up at 5, a bar on Hull Street.
The walls inside 5 are adorned with paintings of famous local bands, and the menu offers both food and drinks. Since it was the middle of the afternoon, we bellied up to the bar and ordered our personal favorite beer, Creature Comforts Tropicalia.
Have we mentioned how much we love Tropicalia? We order it nearly everywhere we go. An IPA with a hint of citrus, this local brew is always in demand; so much so that people drive into town from miles away to make sure they get some. We sat outside, sipping our beers as a late afternoon crawled by. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday!
With only an hour or so of daylight left, it was time to do something that we’d avoided doing for our entire lives; an act that was so touristy, so cliché, that no self-respecting Athens native would even think of engaging in it. We made our way to the corner of College Avenue and Broad Street, to have our pictures made in front of the UGA Arch.
The Arch, installed in 1864, is the official icon for the university. Over the years, nearly everyone who has ever visited Athens, from students to football fans to tourists, has posed for a photo there. Now, it was time to join the club!
We approached the steps leading to the Arch and stood gazing up at it. Legend has it that if an underclassman walks under it, he or she will never graduate. Since we weren’t students (at least not anymore!) we risked angering whatever spirits enforce such rules and took turns standing under the iron structure, taking pictures in various poses.
Fresh off of our blatant disregard for superstitious nonsense, we chose to push our luck further by walking around the campus. North campus, which is the oldest part of the University, is a beautiful place, featuring grand halls, flowing fountains, and green quads. We paused beside such iconic landmarks as Herty Field, where the first Georgia football games took place, and the chapel bell, which fans ring following Bulldog football victories.
By now, darkness was fast approaching, so we headed for the final stop on our tour, Gyro Wrap. This hole-in-the-wall local favorite has some of the best comfort food in town. Neither of us has ever ordered anything there other than the place’s namesake, and tonight was no exception.
We ordered wraps, curly fries, and another Creature Comforts creation, the pilsner, hops-intensive Bibo. We sat at the counter, sipping our beer until the food arrived, hot and delicious. As we gorged on the wraps and fries, we found ourselves in a conversation with the staff concerning Darren Aronofsky films, especially his 2000 masterpiece Requiem for a Dream, a harrowing tale of addiction and its consequences. If you’ve never seen this one, do yourself a favor and check it out. But beware; it’s not for the faint of heart.
By the time we left the restaurant, night had fallen on the Classic City, and the time had come to head home. Somewhere between the restaurant and the car, a line from The Probability of Miracles by author Wendy Wunder came to mind:
The magic thing about home is that it feels good to leave, and it feels even better to come back.
As we left downtown and headed for our house in Five Points, the quote rang true. For the last two months, we’d spent nearly every weekend visiting a city with which we had virtually no experience. While the visits were and continue to be fun, there is nothing quite like being at home. And as we cruised along Lumpkin Street, we knew that we were exactly where we belonged.
That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information about Athens, visit the official tourism website here (or better yet, just ask one of us!):
Next time: We’ll head Southeast to visit “America’s Most Haunted City.” It’s the oldest city in Georgia: Savannah!
By Keith and Dena Maxwell