Love Letters: Athens, Georgia

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April Moore Skelton has been one of the many thousands of University of Georgia students who became enchanted by Athens during their studies and decided after graduation to make it her home. She is a longtime flying dance trapeze performer and instructor with Canopy Studio and has explored the many sides of Athens as a freelance writer and photographer. She recently received her Physical Therapist Assistant degree from Athens Technical College. She was one of two state semi-finalists in the 2014 Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership (GOAL) competition with the Technical College System of Georgia. She and her husband made the move to Asheville, NC, this summer.

My Dear Athens,

The first time I drove my car down Boulevard, I knew. You were more to me than a good time. You were the one. That avenue, broad and slow as a deep river, over which a tunnel of century oaks keep the street cool in their shade. The wide porches of your wooden Southern houses, where families and housemates and townies wrap the columns in Christmas lights year-round and hang paintings on the clapboards. Your parade of Cool Kids, strolling to service-industry jobs or band practice or parties at houses that are known not by their addresses but by silly and secret names bestowed by their residents. Like so many people who fall in love, I felt time stop. It was the end of the world, at least the world outside of you, and I felt mighty fine.

Like many in your orbit, I arrived at 18, a freshman at the University of Georgia. Every autumn, a wave of youth crashes over you, Athens, pulled away a few years later, leaving your streets and halls strewn with the flotsam of ten thousand people finding their way into adulthood. The LPs of short-lived bands that fold into and spin off of one another, infinitely; the student editorials, fueled by cocksure conviction of the newly-opinionated; the hoarsened voices of those fanatic hoards that turn out in red and black regalia for Bulldogs; the strew of plastic cups and tallboy cans that fill so many bags to bursting every weekend; the earnest idealism that gives way to trepidation at leaving this Neverland.

Some of us dawdle around your threshold, dragging our feet down the path to more conventional towns and lives. And some of us, like me, discovered that youth, while often wasted on the young, is followed by an afterparty of legend in Athens that happens out back of college's hallowed halls.

What kind of magic is a life where, every Halloween, thousands of costumed adults and children parade the downtown streets after dark in the Wild Rumpus, drumming and dancing and howling at the moon (a tradition so sacred in our house that my husband pledged to always celebrate it in our wedding vows)? Or where I signed up as a young adult for classes at one of the community's primary arts centers, Canopy Studio, only to be a real live circus performer as part of their troupe for the last decade? Or where I learned to ride a bike the way grown-ups do, alongside cars on the main roads, to concerts (we call them shows), and festivals, and art openings, and the annual glorification of pedal power, the Twilight Criterium bike race?

Your ageless soul allows us to create ourselves over and over again, buoyed by the yearly tide of new beginnings. Athens, you foster editors who become yogis, guitarists who become nurses, programmers who become farmers, academics who become acrobats. You are the safe space where we collect experience but keep our curiosity, where patina and patched walls are a blank slate. You are DIY and locally grown, not big boxed and shrink wrapped. You are the Love Shack, not the Playboy Mansion.

Even in grief, your spirit of renewal is undiminished. I remember the smothering heat of the fire that consumed the landmark Georgia Theatre, and the disbelief and sadness of hundreds gathered on the sidewalks as it burned. But I also remember the unwavering assurance that it would return, and the joy of rebirth as I watched hometown champions the Drive-By Truckers play the stage at the grand re-opening. I never doubted it would rise again. Athens, you aren't a city of dreamers, because you're already doing. Your neighborhood chefs can become James Beard award winners, your college radio rock bands can become international megastars. It is this I love most about you: you never ask, 'should I?;' you simply try. What could be more youthful than this playful and exploratory spirit? And while many pass this way and move on, those that stay, I'm very sure, will be forever young.

- April Moore Skelton