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Athens, Georgia

By Walter J. Jones

If you’re yearning to escape the crushing monotony of the workaday world but find your romantic dreams of strolling along the Champs-Elysées or spearing wild game with the natives of Bora Bora somewhat cost prohibitive, it may help to remember that rewarding journeys are best measured in experiences, not miles. So why not head out to some of those relatively nearby locales which, although they may not be first on your list of dream destinations, nevertheless yield small treasures to the perceptive traveler.

Athens, Georgia is just such a place. Insulated from the rest of the world by lush evergreens and gently sloping hills, this tiny college town bristles with big city energy, thanks in large part to the youthful exuberance of the over 30,000 University of Georgia students who call the area home. A summer evening’s stroll along College Ave., the main thoroughfare of the city, quickly reveals the hidden charms of Athens. Small record shops’ fluorescent interiors spill out onto the sidewalks beyond, their open doors enticing passersby inside to search out that rare 6-inch or barely remembered B-side from years long past. Back on the street, the sounds of laughter and fragments of overheard conversation float up into the crisp night air, mingling with the aromas of fresh coffee and the distant strains of music before disappearing among starlit pines.

And that music, of course, is what Athens is famous for. Although it’s been a few years since local acts REM and the B-52’s exploded to national prominence, you’ll still find a diverse and vibrant scene here. Just check out the ever present kiosks overflowing with flyers advertising the town’s countless college bands; not only a loving testament to the “anything’s possible” spirit of youth and Athens, but a nice way to discover a great band on their way up, or alas, on their way to obscurity.

When the shows are over and the bars close down, another Athens emerges; one that you probably won’t encounter in most guides to the city or even notice if you’re not paying careful attention: Late at night, the normally bustling downtown roads transform into a still sea of reflected neon, laced by the amber glow of streetlights. Now is the perfect time to load into the car and experience the ethereal pleasures of a midnight drive. In just a few minutes you’ll quickly find your way out of the city proper, into a dreamscape of wide open fields and tin-roofed farmhouses, re-painted in their most elemental beauty by the brushstrokes of moonlight and shadow. All that’s required is a full tank of gas and an open mind.

After all, traveling isn’t just about gawking at pyramids; it’s about how you choose to allow a place to affect you, to get under your skin. It’s primarily the imagination of its inhabitants that put Athens on the map, and with a little of your own, you’ll find you don’t have to venture too far off the beaten path to satiate your wanderlust.

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