Between the Hedges, Above the Gnat Line: A Road Trip to Athens, GA

Last weekend brought a getaway, which began with headin’ down the Atlanta Highway. 

OK, technically that is not correct. Though our Tundra is indeed as big as a whale. But how could I resist that iconic song to illustrate the excitement of heading to Athens, GA?

In actuality, we left Savannah via I-16, and Mark insisted that we veer off onto Highway 15 through Sandersville. Nevermind that it’s six minutes faster to take Route 78 or that the “shortcut” in Sparta is rife with potholes—you just don’t argue with a middle-aged University of Georgia alum who spent five or six of the best years of his life traversing the tiny towns of Middle Georgia without GPS. 

To keep the peace inside the belly of the truck, I also deferred to a soundtrack of the late 1980s Athens music scene, which even a girl from suburban Arizona knows includes The B-52s, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic. But the bluetooth thingie was broken, and instead of a curated Spotify playlist I could sing along to, my husband delved into his cobwebby CD collection to blast The Jody Grind and White Buffalo, rockin’ mainstays now lost to history and streaming services—I bet just the mention of those bands surely sends some of y’all down Nostalgia Lane.

For you non-Georgia folks who think you have a deep allegiance to your alma mater, please note that the bond shared by Georgia Bulldogs is next-level EXTRA. No matter if they graduated last year or are old enough to have plunked out their senior thesis on a typewriter, this species of Southerner possesses a devotion bordering on, well, rabid. Their fealty is often accompanied by a tattoo, or at the very least, a large window decal. For families for whom UGA is multigenerational, it basically becomes part of their brand identity, which I suppose is better than aligning with something silly, like a soft drink. (Oops, nevermind, that’s part of the brand, too.)

You’ve got to admit there’s justified swagger in matriculating from America’s first public university, and in spite of my unSouthern roots, for the past four years I have found myself the proud matriarch of a burgeoning Bulldog dynasty. We were on our way to Athens to celebrate our first born’s success on his medical school entrance exams, evidence of academic prowess not inherited from his father, who cheerfully admits that admission to UGA has grown notably more competitive since he scraped out an acceptance letter, back when all that was required was a crayon and a pulse.(His words, not mine.) 

I’m all for showering grown children with embarrassing displays of love, and I’ll take any excuse to escape to cooler climes. The landscape turned hilly as our blue whale wound through green pastures and boarded-up downtowns. I observed blankets of kudzu slowly smothering the scrub pines and red clay peeking through the weeds, portending an absence of gnats and a breeze that might even warrant a light jacket. 

We arrived in the early evening to hug the necks of our Abraham and his brilliant boyfriend William Muller, who couldn’t wait to show off their new digs. These high school sweethearts (five years next month!) had been living with their two other roommates for years in the most revolting hovel of an apartment you can imagine (roaches, rodents, and methheads, oh my!) This year the pod finally scored a proper rental house in the adorable Addieville neighborhood, a historic cluster of former mill worker bungalows painted in rainbow hues. I was so happy to see their cute spot that on the tour I said absolutely nothing about the state of Abe’s laundry pile, which I feel is a sign of peak maternal maturity.

Dinner and a toast were of imminent importance, but first I had an errand to fulfill: Savannah artist and road snack maven Katherine Sandoz had entrusted me to transport one of her glorious paintings to Athens, and I figured I ought to make the drop-off before I started drinking. Not only can I now add “art mule” to my resume, I also had the honor of meeting the painting’s recipient, Bitter Southerner co-founder Kyle Tibbs Jones, a woman of many talents and excellent taste in music and causes. (Head on over to the BS General store for a must-have Hell Hath No Fury t-shirt; proceeds support Planned Parenthood Southeast.)

Then it was time to party as only Dawgs with dietary restrictions trying to avoid COVID can: First we hit the legendary vegetarian hotspot The Grit, home of the famous Golden Tofu Bowl and where Mark was first introduced to tabouli. Because Savannah always finds itself out in the world, we ran into Savannah Arts alum and amazing anatomical illustrator Rachel Laird, then it was off to a house hang hosted by another SAA smartie artist, Erin Faircloth, along with her roomies MC Ackerman and Abby Winograd, the latter who proffers vegan delights as a private chef under the moniker @yourbeanbabe

It’s been a minute since I felt like the dumbest person in the room (I spend a lot of time with dogs, OK?) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We can kvetch all we want about Gen Z, but listening to these young people parse current events with extraordinary sagacity and emotional intelligence made me so hopeful for the future. Also, nothing makes a mama prouder than to have kids you’ve known since they had braces put Santana’s Abraxas on the record player. 

I felt myself nodding off in the corner like an old lady, so we left at midnight in search of a bed. Game weekend accommodations were far out of our pay scale—our usual Airbnb rocketed to $600 per night—and I was fully prepared to sleep on the laundry pile. But UGA Law alum and consummate Savannahian Wade Herring generously lent us access to his lovely condo, a kindness we intend to repay in the form of campaign volunteer hours. See, Wade may be all kinds of famous for his legal prowess and emcee skills, but the most important thing about him in this moment is that he’s running against (Not Your) Buddy Carter for Georgia’s First District in 2022—and he intends to win. Please visit Wade Herring For Congress and stay tuned as the momentum builds.

Speaking of congressional races, I saw some stoked folks on my feeds pregaming with Republican senatorial contender Herschel Walker, who I hear used to play for UGA or something. While Georgia football is indeed a great unifier, anyone who tells you it isn’t political might have a concussion—after all, it is the Red and Black, not the Black and Blue.

I awoke game day morning to R.E.M wailing through the Bose speaker and Mark in his red shirt raring to go—jeez, talk about the passion! The brunch line at our beloved Mama’s Boy was too long for Mark’s hangriness, so we grabbed hearty victuals at Flying Biscuit Cafe and headed to the Athens Farmers Market, where Abe and his friends volunteer every Saturday. Abe and fellow pre-med roommate Reese Macmillan also founded an on-campus satellite market last year to promote sustainability and fresh food access for students. How much do I love these nerds? I’m like, guys, go toilet paper a house or something

Before heading downtown, we stopped to ogle a gorgeous Victorian on Oglethorpe where I once spent a summer with family friends, then we cruised Milledge Avenue’s gargantuan fraternity houses where young men stood on the lawn drinking beer and blasting the same Marshall Tucker Band song as their daddies did before them. (Mark has his own TEP House stories, but they aren’t mine to tell.)

We had an opportunity for tickets to UGA’s face-off with University of Alabama Birmingham, but after seeing drone shots of a packed Sanders Stadium we decided we weren’t quite ready to go between the hedges with 93,000 screaming fans—just being in Athens was good enough. But then we were faced with Where to Watch The Game, which tends to bring out Mark’s mishegoss

This sports bar? Too crowded. That brewery? The staff isn’t enthusiastic enough. On the phone screen sitting in the truck? Possibly, but how will we keep the beer cold? We finally settled in at Creature Comforts Brewing Company’s lovely patio, only for him to decide two minutes before kickoff that the projection screen was too reflective. So we scurried around the corner to the suitably dark World Famous, which also happens to share an owner with Savannah’s own Over Yonder. I felt right at home at this delightful hole-in-the-wall that serve the most delicious tofu lettuce wraps and ran into more familiar faces, including SAA grad/UGA Law first year Grace Repella—wow, Savannah really is everywhere!

However, this did not alleviate my man’s anxiety. I watched his face pale as he read the news that Dawgs starting quarterback JT Daniels would not be playing due to a minor injury, and when I made the mistake of musing that perfectly talented second stringer (or third, depending on who you were talking to) Stetson Bennett could surely get the job done, I was treated to a granular explanation of Georgia’s offensive strategies and historical flubbery, as if I hadn’t suffered along with every fumble, incomplete pass, and botched play for the past 24 years. But I pretended to nod thoughtfully as I thumbed through the current issue of The Flagpole. (So great to read a real altweekly again!)

Turns out, his worry was for naught. The Dawgs scored a touchdown in the first 60 seconds and as you probably already know, went on to trounce Alabama’s lesser team 56-7. Oh yes, it IS great to be a Georgia Bulldog—I feel like I’ve come by that honorific honestly. Did I mention 24 YEARS?

Apparently my husband agrees. “My wife isn’t a phony convert, she actually watches the games,” I overheard him bragging as I did a victory lap around the bar. In the words of UGA’s Coach Kirby Smart, “Either you’re elite or you’re not.” Woofwoofwoofwoofwoof! 

Exhausted from day drinking and triumph’s adrenal rush, we turned in early. Sunday brought a short hike in Ben Burton Park along the glittering Oconee River with Abe, Will, and their fourth roommate Naveen Bateman (another future doctor; the kids are all right!) The water burbled past as we cast bread in the water for the High Holiday ritual of tashlich and Mark cast his line to catch and release a small mouth bass. We hugged our boy in a tight good-bye hug with promises to visit the Addieville house plenty more before graduation in May, and I tried very hard not to cry or tell him to clean his room. Then Mark and I drove a half hour southeast to visit with dear friends Chris and Foss Hodges on Lake Oconee, their sweet company a perfect balm to ease my mama blues. Still buoyed by Georgia’s win, Mark’s joy was compounded by catching a second fish. 

I got another mood boost myself, when instead of heading back the way we came Siri led us onto the path more traveled, taking us past the Rock Eagle Effigy near Eatonton. I’d always wanted to climb the lookout tower and see this historic pile of stones for myself, a reminder that long before there was SEC football and climate change and our worries there were others living in these beautiful forests, catching fish on these sparkling rivers, loving their children and letting them go. 

We rolled back into Savannah just as the sun dipped below the tree line. We found our love shack perfectly in order having left our youngest in charge of the dogs, and she left behind no trace of any parties. Actually, she’s far too smart for such shenanigans; she doesn’t want to jeopardize her own road trip to Athens next weekend for an “informal campus tour,” which probably means roaming around the town with all the other Savannah kids. Her college applications will be filled out in just a few months, and obviously, she’s set her sights on UGA. 

If her SAT scores and the admissions committee and our prayers align, that will mean four more years of visits to Athens. A Dawg Mom can only hope. 

But no matter where she goes off to school, you are never gonna get me to root for Alabama.  

Go Dawgs ~ JLL