"So, where do you want to go on the way back?" Dan asked me after the wedding and the North Carolina festivities.
"Athens, Georgia," I said, after a little pause. I knew right away where I wanted to go on the way back, but I was a tad afraid of being subjected to ridicule. I forgot for a moment that I was talking to the man who planned for us to see the world's largest ball of twine on a previous vacation, who had us detour to a fruit stand in New Brunswick to check out the giant potato statue named Harvey.
"What's there that you want to see?" he asked, with some incredulity in his tone.
"I just want to see it," I said. "I want to see what could possess so many people to form bands and create a music scene in such a place."
At my Houston high school, we rocked out to "Rock Lobster" at school dances, even though most of us were only a few years older than the song. When I had to move from metropolitan Texas to a small college town in central Pennsylvania, I began to check out early R.E.M., some Love Tractor, more B-52s, even some Pylon, especially after I read this book. There wasn't much in the Susquehanna River that would spawn a music scene in the place where I spent my last two years of high school. What made Athens so special? And why was I born a little too late to really enjoy it?
God bless my husband, my fellow traveling fool and uber-budget trip planner. The man was either a car in a former life or a travel agent. We headed to Athens on Sunday, stopped off at a welcome center in town, and found that the pamphlets listing the Athens' attractions made little mention of that '80's music that had put it on the map for most other Americans on the planet (heh...should have taken a preparedness page from Dan and printed this out before we went there). The place is dominated by the University of Georgia campus, especially their stadium, and a public art project inspired by their bulldog mascot. I wonder how many people in Athens own bulldogs?
Turns out the most interesting things about Athens for us were the Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail (hey, we've got a kid, and he was fascinated by the birds of prey), and the (Son of the)Tree That Owns Itself (I have no idea if the tree pays taxes). We got some gut-busting food at the Varsity for lunch, and then went on our merry way towards Tuscaloosa, where we were staying the night. Yeah, I know. I shoulda printed out that walking tour. I should have put more into exploring Athens from my musical nostalgia point of view. Uh-huh. Suuuure. Guess the next time I come through, I'll need to do it without a four-year-old in tow.
Or, maybe, I'll just keep that first impression close. Athens is a college town, only a little larger than the one I spent the last of my high school years in, and that whole late-'70's-to-1980's music thing they had going on can't be gleaned from going past the gazillionth location of the 40 Watt Club or making a pilgrimage to the church in which the members of R.E.M. bunked out and jammed. Heck, if this little jaunt has taught me anything, it's that I live in one of the best places in the world in terms of seizing a moment and running with it. Something about the time and place in Athens over twenty years ago caused a relatively large number of kids on the verge of adulthood to party hearty and run with it, and it got national acclaim.
New Orleans is in the business of being in the national spotlight, whether this town likes it or not. Most of the people here seem to accept that fact, at least in part because it is expected of this place to be different and proud of it. It frees up the people who live here to be themselves more fully than they would be in, say, that little Pennsylvania town I was in for two years, or someplace else. I'm glad I have the chance to be here. I'm glad this country gives me some of the opportunity to have that chance...even if I do have to fight tooth and nail for it at times.
In the meantime, New Orleans, in spite of it all, is still here. Happy Fourth with a vengeance! I'm gonna do all sixteen dances...