THIS IS ATHENS
(an entry in the Start it Up Athens! storytelling competition)
This is Athens, the seat of Athens County, Ohio.
So is this…
(The Hocking River, as seen from the bike path)
(Athens City Hall)
I was born here in 1981 and spent the next 18 years of my life enjoying all that Athens—by which I mean the town and county both—has to offer. I left town for college in the autumn of 1999 and have spent my time since then living in and visiting a number of other places. However, despite my growing experience with life outside of Ohio, I find that I still think of Athens as the gold standard against which to judge other towns. I even refer to it as “home” sometimes, regardless of the address listed on my passport.
Here are a few of the reasons why.
One path to the heart is through the stomach, and Athens has many eateries whose atmospheres and delicacies are unique; although I have tried to recreate certain dishes in my own kitchen, or locate replacements at other restaurants in other towns, there are some culinary delights that can only be found in Athens itself.
(Good Fella’s pizza—criminally good)
When I was in high school, my friends and I would visit Good Fella’s, which not only had addictively good pizza, but also sold it for as little as a mere $1 a slice. I always used to request a corner slice so I could have maximal crust. The best place to enjoy it was on the bench outside the door, where we could sit and people-watch while eating.
(A bag full of taste—a Larry’s Dawg House footlong with ketchup only, just the way I like it)
Larry’s Dawg House is another Athens institution—one that I especially appreciate now that I live abroad in a country that just doesn’t do hot dogs. Nothing says summer like a milkshake and a footlong from Larry’s. During my last visit home, I could hear the sounds of a Little League baseball game wafting on the summer breeze as I ate my hot dog for dinner. You can’t get much more American than that.
Of course, Athens has more to offer than just junk food (though junk food is so hard to reproduce that it is what I always crave the most when I am out of town). I still remember the pre-Prom meals I had at the Ohio University Inn (at what is now called Cutler’s Restaurant) and Lui Lui, along with the New Year’s Eve celebrations at Zoe’s, Latitude 39, and (the now-closed) Blue Alligator. During my husband’s first visit to Athens, he and my parents got acquainted over a gourmet meal at Stephen’s; when my in-laws came to town to meet my family, my husband and I took them to Salaam in order to break the ice—and the pita; later that evening I got to know my siblings-in-law better at Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery. It’s amazing how many delicious options there are given the size of the town.
When I’d rather prepare my own food, I like to swing by Athens’ famous farmer’s market to see what fresh local delicacies are available. Perhaps my family’s favorite purchase, and our most common, is a bag of Gillogly Orchard’s winesap apples, which have no equal for mixing tartness and sweetness all in one perfect fruit. Other essential local products include Frog Ranch salsa, Herbal Sage tea, Integration Acres pawpaw jam, and Crumbs Bakery crackers. The less fragile of these were often included in CARE packages that my parents mailed me during my college years, and my family still stock their cabinets with these treats when I come to visit.
(Graffiti in the first stall of the women’s restroom in Casa Nueva)
Also at the farmer’s market, as well as in uptown Athens, is Casa Nueva—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the jewel in Athens’ culinary crown. Judging by the graffiti in one of Casa’s bathroom stalls, at least one other person shares this opinion. This is the restaurant where my parents had their first date and where they still celebrate the end of nearly every working week; it is where my husband and I held the unofficial pre-party for our wedding celebration, and where my friends and I rendezvous whenever we are in town. Usually at least once a week I see a Facebook post from an Athens native who is yearning for a Casa burrito or quesadilla; personally, I always crave their jasmine rice salad with sesame soy dressing. Perfection.
(One of the practice rooms on the top floor of Glidden Hall)
Thanks in large part to the presence of Ohio University, Athens is never short on culture, including music, dance, theater, literature, and art galleries. As a little girl I was a frequent visitor to Glidden Hall, where I took piano lessons and sang for many years in the children’s choir.
I also accompanied my parents to “Mem-Aud”—now more lengthily known as the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium—to take in the diverse shows that cumulatively made up the Performing Arts series. In recent years, I have made special trips home in order to see Mem-Aud performances by some of my favorite musicians, including Nickel Creek, the Avett Brothers, Feist, and Kathleen Edwards; one of my annual holiday visits overlapped with a talk by Jeff Corwin, and I even got to help my dad interview author David Quammen prior to his lecture on Charles Darwin. Having lived in a number of other college towns since leaving Ohio, I can verify that Athens’ quantity and diversity of performers is unusually impressive; I hope the OU students appreciate all that entertainment and enlightenment right on their front doorstep.
(The Dairy Barn—once a home for cows and now a home for art)
My family also spent quite a bit of time at the Dairy Barn Arts Center, where we not only enjoyed the art on display, but also volunteered at the front desk. Even before I began to appreciate art on an intellectual level, I enjoyed browsing the gallery during annual shows such as Quilt National. Author Peter Catalanotto once visited the Dairy Barn to give a reading of his children’s book Dylan’s Day Out, followed by a brief drawing workshop. If I recall correctly, my artistic efforts were abysmal, but I can still remember the thrill of being so close to a real, live Famous Person. As a child I also adored the Dairy Barn’s cow-themed paraphernalia; I proudly wore my hoof socks and cow shorts until they were threadbare.
(The colorful boxcars of the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway)
The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is a boon to those who enjoy the culture of the past as well as the culture of the present. During elementary school, I once had a chance to ride the railroad and see historic reenactments at Robbins Crossing, the beautiful mid-19th-century pioneer log village assembled on the Hocking College campus (I’ve also visited the village at Halloween, when it receives an eerie makeover). For those who would like to accompany their history lesson with some athletic activity, there is always the option of traveling to Robbins Crossing via the beautiful and impressively long (17.9 miles) Hockhocking Adena Bikeway—a route I have traveled countless times over the years, both on foot and on wheels; during the early summer, travelers can take a page out of my book and munch on some of the sweet wild raspberries lining large sections of the path.
Nelsonville is also home to Stuart’s Opera House, an integral part of the local music scene. During a visit to Athens a few years ago, my parents generously bought me a ticket to Stuart’s see the unique Luminescent Orchestrii, a New York band fronted by Athens native Sxip Shirey. Also deserving a mention is the Fur Peace Ranch; although it is located in Meigs County rather than Athens, this is a cultural resource that is regularly visited by many Athenians. I am lucky enough to have seen Mary Gauthier perform there several years ago, and I still proudly sport the FPR T-shirt I purchased that night.
(Recording and broadcasting equipment in WOUB’s Studio A)
Perhaps my favorite cultural location in Athens is actually not so much a “destination” as a starting point: the offices of WOUB radio, part of Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication. To others, WOUB is an essential source of news. To me, it is also the place where I spent many hours as a little girl, visiting my father in the newsroom. I used to find the studios fascinating and thought it was delightful to sit and erase old newscasts from used tapes (yes, it was so long ago that things weren’t done electronically, and yes, I was easy to amuse). Now that I’m older, I can also enjoy the content being broadcast over WOUB’s airwaves—everything from new and unusual music to important updates on local issues to nationally broadcasted NPR shows.
Athens has always been a fun place to shop, offering products ranging from clothes and jewelry to locally made crafts. In fact, there are so many potential purchases that I usually travel with an extra suitcase in order to accommodate all my indulgences.
(White’s Mill, founded in 1809)
One retail landmark is White’s Mill, a 203-year-old entity that currently houses a lawn and garden (and so much more) shop. I have bought more gifts at White’s Mill than I can even count. My previous purchases include bluebird boxes (for my grandparents), Ohio-made pottery and baskets (for my mother and in-laws), bird food (for many different people), and Christmas tree ornaments (for myself!). However, the thing I buy most often is jewelry—from the Mill’s extensive selection of (mostly) silver pieces made by Native American artists. My mother and I have started a tradition of visiting White’s Mill each time I’m in town and adding to our already impressive collections.
Another important source of unique and elegant gifts is Court Street Collections, which as a little girl I knew to be the place to find something perfect for my mother. Years later, I realized that this shop also contains many things that suit my tastes; a piece of their stained glass currently hangs in my home across The Pond. Other favorite shopping haunts include Artifacts Gallery and Mountain Laurel (or, as I still think of it, Mountain Leather—where, indeed, I bought many leather goods over the years).
(Haffa’s Records on West Union Street, Athens)
I have always had a weakness for music, and my addiction has been fed over the years by Haffa’s Records, reportedly Ohio’s last independent record store. In addition to selling brand new albums, Haffa’s also has an extensive collection of used music, including vinyl. I have frequently taken advantage of the store’s willingness to buy used CDs, or—more importantly for me—offer in-store credit for them. On many occasions I have entered the store with a large stack of old CDs, only to leave with an even bigger stack of new ones.
(The Rocky Outlet, and the many faces of its ungulate mascot, in Nelsonville)
A more recent addition to the Athens County shopping scene is Nelsonville’s Rocky Outlet. This store opened while I was away at college, but my parents made sure I was introduced to its wonders the next time I visited home. Although it does feature a wide variety Rocky brand boots, as you might expect given the name of the establishment, you can find a huge variety of other things here, as well; it’s rather like an old-fashioned general store. I’ve bought jewelry, sandals, clothing, picture frames, Christmas ornaments, coffee cups, spice rubs, and handmade candies. Part of the fun is not knowing exactly what will be stocked, and so getting the chance to stumble across unexpected must-haves (such as my beloved pink satin-lined black velvet jacket, bought on sale for a mere $7.50 a couple years ago).
(Passion Works flowers in the shop on West State Street)
Of all the unique shops that Athens has to offer, perhaps the most heartwarming is the Passion Works Studio. On sale there are interesting and unusual pieces generated by “collaborations between artists with and without developmental disabilities.” Money raised through the sale of these products is used to help fund arts programs and to provide opportunities for people with disabilities—thus furthering the studio’s goal of “inspir[ing] and liberat[ing] the human spirit through the arts.” One of the shop’s most recognizable products is recycled metal flowers, which can be found decorating many facilities in the Athens area—and at least one house in Maryland, thanks to a gift to my in-laws from my husband and me.
(Looking back at The Ridges hiking path from Radar Hill)
In my humble opinion, there is no place more beautiful than Appalachia, and many of Athens’ aesthetic charms stem from the fact that the county is nestled in the rolling foothills of this lovely mountain range. Shortly before I left for college, I stood atop Radar Hill (in the area of Athens now known as The Ridges) and looked out at the hills stretching away into the distance; I knew then that no matter how many picturesque landscapes I might see in the future, that vista would always be one of my favorites. In fact, it is such a favorite that I make sure to see it at least once every time I visit town.
(The old Beacon School building at The Ridges)
I have had a soft spot for The Ridges since my dad first took me there when I was in elementary school. I love not only the woods and grasslands, but also the former mental health center’s dilapidated old buildings at the base of the walking trail. I was even lucky enough to tour one of these shortly before Ohio University began its remodeling process; the interior was both eerie and intriguing—the perfect setting for a horror film or psychological thriller.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned to fully appreciate the natural wonders of The Ridges—its field sparrows and indigo buntings, eastern bluebirds and American kestrels. I once took my mom and one of her students on a bird walk there in order to share my ornithological enthusiasm; during my last visit to Athens, my parents accompanied me as I went on an expedition to find and photograph wildflowers. The area seems especially lovely now that I spend the bulk of my year in a place that is cooler, rainier, and much less lush.
(Multiple views of Strouds Run State Park)
When I was younger, I found relief from the sunniest and hottest summer days at Strouds Run State Park. As much as I loved swimming in the lake, I was always disconcerted by my frequent physical encounters with aquatic wildlife—I still have vivid memories of shrieking after brushing up against harmless little fish. I also remember how my best friend and I dared each other to swim out to the buoys that marked the boundaries of the swimming area; both of us made it but then high-tailed it back to shore after panicking about how deep (we thought) the water was.
(Canada geese on the Hocking River at sunset)
For those who would rather see the water from afar, there are many places to stroll along, fish in, or boat upon the Hocking River. It is especially picturesque at sunset, when it reflects the pinks and purples of the darkening sky. I particularly like the view along the stretch between White’s Mill and Ohio University’s iconic Convocation Center; in the summer, you can enjoy the view there while being serenaded by the resident red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows.
(The Athens Angel)
Several years ago, Athens was listed as one of the most haunted places in the world. Although I am unconvinced that this distinction is deserved, I will acknowledge that the county contains many cemeteries—some of which are, contrary to all the ghost stories, actually quite peaceful and pleasant. One of these, on Athens’ West State Street, contains a monument that I have always found arresting—an angel statue dedicated to the unknown dead. I usually refer to her as the Athens Angel and have found it interesting to see her demeanor change over the years as she has been increasingly covered by moss and lichens.
(One of the Athens Block bricks that you find all over town, from Court Street to The Ridges to the Dairy Barn parking lot)
It would be easy to extend my list of Athens landmarks, especially if I included not just favorite spots but also sites where I set personal benchmarks—for example, the parking lot where I learned to drive, or the Ohio University dorms that I cleaned during my first ever paid job. After you’ve spent nearly two decades in Athens, there is a point of interest around nearly every corner; it is a place full of memories—and, for newcomers, a place of memories waiting to be made.
My parents would probably both agree with that sentiment, having arrived in Athens about forty years ago unaware that they would meet each other, get married, start a family, and put down deep roots in the county. Theirs is only one of many Athens love stories, though of course it is my favorite because it is the reason I am here today. Mine is another love story, but of a different variety: The story of a resident’s affection for her home, persisting even after she has left it to live somewhere else. Athens is an eclectic and versatile place, so there are probably as many love stories in town as there are people. For those that haven’t been already, Athens is worth a visit. What kind of story is waiting there for you?
(Clouds over Athens at sunset)
All photos by Caitlin Kight. Thanks to everyone who allowed me to take photos on their premises.
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