Growing Up in Athens

In my very first memory, I am sitting in a child seat on the back of one of my parents’ bicycles, reaching out my hand to feel the warm wind pushing between my starfished fingers. It is spring or summer, and the sun is high and golden in the clear blue sky above. The location is Connett Road, the site of my parents’ first home and later the place where I would complete my last two years of enrollment at The Plains Elementary School.

I did not know it then as a toddler, but Connett Road would later come to have a greater significance in my life. After my parents relocated to the southern edge of town, they made that thoroughfare the boundary of the part of town I was allowed to traverse unattended; I could walk or ride my bike to the end of any of the side streets that provided access to Connett, but I was not allowed to cross that larger, more heavily trafficked road myself—not until I was older, anyway, and commuted to and from school each day. I still remember how my hands were difficult to uncurl from their handlebar-gripping position after cold-morning bike rides. I can also vividly recall the rainy days when I would make myself as small as possible under my umbrella, shrinking my world down to the round patch of dryness under its canopy. The inclement weather didn’t bother me, though; I always liked the fresh air and the freedom of moving from place to place under my own power.

Railroad crossing at Eclipse Company Town

It’s probably not surprising, then, that in high school I routinely found myself back on Connett Road—but on foot this time, training for cross country and track races. A visit to Connett usually meant a longer run; on rare occasions we might head up the torturously windy Lemaster hill, or do repeats on the seemingly endless driveway where Lemaster and Connett met. It was more common for us to take a right and head towards Poston Road; in my final years at Athens High, our destination was the then-new Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which finally offered us a scenic and car-free place to stretch our legs.

By the time I moved away from Athens at the age of 18, I knew every inch of that trail between Athens and Nelsonville; I had covered it not only on foot but also on my beautiful green Giant Iguana bike, built from scratch for me by friends at Cycle Path, and purchased with money saved up from, among other jobs, cleaning dorm rooms at Ohio University. It was worth the effort, though, because I was able to explore both The Plains and Athens like never before. Somewhere near Mile 14 is where I encountered my very first indigo bunting; I immediately turned around and rushed home to consult guidebooks on the identity of this impossibly blue bird.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wildlife was, perhaps inevitably, an integral part of my outdoor experience in Athens: The Appalachian foothills are teeming with beautiful and fascinating species, though, ironically, I did not fully appreciate this until I left the area and learned more about its biodiversity during university classes and summer jobs in neighboring Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. Even before that education, though, I knew enough to expect belted kingfishers near the Richland Avenue bridge, great blue herons in the reeds along the Hocking, and American kestrels hunting the fields along Route 50. I knew that box turtles hid in the damp, shady areas of our yard, and that the best place to find garter snakes was out behind my mother’s herb garden. I also learned early that it was a bad idea to walk barefoot underneath the sweet gum and chestnut trees.

There were other unpleasant encounters to be had farther from home, out at Dow Lake. Although I loved visiting Strouds Run on a hot day in order to have a picnic and a refreshing swim, I was very uneasy about water that wasn’t entirely transparent; I have never liked the feeling of unseen fish bumping into my thighs, or slimy aquatic weeds wrapping themselves around my ankles. My best friend and I once dared each other to swim out to the buoys, but turned back in a panic when we reached the thick algal growth floating a few feet from our destination. I was much happier renting a canoe or a kayak and staying well away from the greenery in the water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even better was visiting the lake at night (not technically permissible, by the way), lying on the shore and looking up at the mind-boggling multitude of stars over my head. While watching for meteors one night, a friend and I were awed by the sight of an owl gliding silently overhead, its black silhouette just a shade or two darker than the sky above. If I concentrate very hard, I can vaguely remember when my parents took me to a hill overlooking the shores of the Hocking River in 1986 so that I could look through a chunky portable telescope and catch sight of Halley’s Comet—an astronomical phenomenon that I will be able to see again in 2061, if I am lucky. Years later, with classmates from an Ohio University astronomy class, I drove out to the ridges west of town and was gobsmacked by my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

For me, however, the best ridges were The Ridges, which I first visited sometime in the mid-1980’s, when my father drove me over one day after school for a surprise outing. At the time, I had no sense of where or what the ridges were; although I had spent plenty of time at the Dairy Barn and had always been aware of the imposing Athens Lunatic Asylum up on the hill, I was too young to fully realize that the hills we were walking connected these two points. My dad and I hiked all the way to the top of Radar Hill, which, at that time, still featured structures indicating the origins of its name. I know now that our trek wasn’t that long, but it seemed like an epic journey at the time, and quite an adventure—a previously unknown wilderness bathed in warm autumn light, with no other people in sight.

CRK on Radar Hill

I didn’t visit The Ridges again for about 5 years, when it was the destination of one of the first training runs I participated in after joining the Athens Middle School cross country team. When I first began running, I couldn’t even make it from Peden Stadium to the old asylum without stopping for a breather; soon I was able to get to the trailhead, then to the first old water tank, then the second, and finally the top of the hill. I was so proud of that achievement, and it made the view all the more beautiful.

Although my teammates weren’t overly fond of the inclines and rough footing up at The Ridges, I went back often. It was a good place to see red-tailed hawks, vultures, and eastern bluebirds—the last of which being species that I would end up studying as a graduate student. On the final run that I did in Athens before heading off to college, I found my way to the top of Radar Hill at dusk and stood looking out at the rows of hills stretching off into the distance. The nearest were dark, almost black; the others were increasingly paler shades of blue, with the furthest and lightest buried in a layer of summer haze. I suspected it was a sight I would not easily forget, and to this day I can conjure memories of it as though I had only just visited the previous evening.

The Ridges from Radar Hill

Blue, however, is not the color I most associate with Athens. Despite all the copper autumns and white winters I weathered during my time there, it’s the verdant springs and summers that stand out strongest in my mind: the soft grass on the amphitheater outside Scripps Hall; the inviting shade of the College Green on a sweltering summer’s day; the banks of the Hocking River and the heads of the male mallards swimming in the river itself; the trees arching over the bikeway to form a tunnel between the access points at Currier Street in Athens and the Eclipse Company Town in The Plains. When these visions spring to mind, I can almost smell the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and hear the rhythmic buzz of cicadas.

Hocking River from bike path

I now find myself living not only in a different country, but also on a different continent; a trip home requires a 5-hour train ride, 10 hours of airplane time, and another hour or so of driving. It’s a long way. I live in an undeniably beautiful place, but the aesthetics are very different. This is a seaside town filled with granite houses whose moss- and lichen-covered roofs provide perches for endlessly braying gulls; twice a day the sulfurous smell of coastal mud permeates the air as the tides recede, and the maritime winds set ships’ rigging clanging before seeking out the cracks around our doors and windows. There are no cheerful red Athens bricks underfoot, no Carolina wrens nesting in the flowerpot by the door, or jewel-tone hummingbirds buzzing in to sip sugar-water from the feeder in the window, or wild green woodlands beckoning for exploration. I’ve been here long enough that it has begun to feel like home—yet, at the same time, spending 17 years away from Athens hasn’t removed the feeling that that little part of Ohio is also home. Maybe it always will be, no matter where I actually reside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sometimes I stand on the shore of Cornwall with my feet in the sand and I face westward, my mind traveling down through my legs, under the waves of the ocean, up over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back down again, to the northeastern shores of North America where my ancestors caught their first sight of the continent, and finally on into the Appalachians. It’s comforting to know that there is an unbroken connection between here and there, no matter the distance or the terrain that must be traversed. Inside me, wherever I go, I carry all the sights and sounds of smells of Athens: the chickadees eating the suet my parents set out, the daffodils growing beside the old farmhouse where I grew up, the grove of evergreens at the base of Radar Hill, the cry of a pileated woodpecker on the shore of Dow Lake. There is no better proof that you can take the girl out of Appalachia, but you can never take Appalachia out of the girl—something for which I will be eternally grateful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This essay was submitted to Growing Up In Athens, a project aiming to compile stories from multiple generations of native Athenians.