ON my last trip home to Athens, Georgia I ate dinner with my family in our favorite pizza restaurant downtown—the one where REM and The Clash blare from the jukebox on the wall and the waitresses’ shapely, tattooed legs all end in faded out Converse All Stars—then decided to take a drive. I started out on Oconee Street heading east from downtown, where the hill the University of Georgia sits on slopes down steeply toward the Oconee River.
Before getting to the river I took a sharp right, heading back up toward UGA and crossing under an old wooden railroad bridge. That’s when I spotted the boxcars, swung into the parking lot next to the tracks and turned off the car.
One boxcar was open and had some dingy clothes and bedding scattered around inside, evidence of the people that’d probably slept there the night before—either young gutter punks traveling between hip little towns with flop houses or old drifters meandering aimlessly. The latter are the reason why my alcoholic granddaddy used to spend so much time down by the railroad tracks when he was on a drunk. The other boxcars had some decent graffiti, but nothing incredible. Pictures, then back in the car.
From the parking lot I took a left down Campus Drive. To the west it passes behind the massive edifice of UGA’s Sanford Stadium, where I once stood on the field and saw near-riotous fans rip the goal posts from the very ground that held them; to the east is Oconee Hill Cemetery, the ground that holds several of my step-granddaddy’s people.
I took an impulsive and too-sharp left down River Road, wanting to get as close to the river as possible. Momma told me over dinner the night before about an old foot bridge near here that use to lead to a massive, round Boy Scouts tree house, and it’d stoked my curiosity. On one side the narrow road skirts the Oconee’s reed-covered banks; on the other it juts up dramatically before ending in old fraternity houses that always look too big to be real. The road ends in a complex of labs and office buildings owned by the University, and it’s impossible to get a decent view of the river from here. I turned around.
From Williams Street I headed east down Oconee Street, swooping up sharply onto Carr’s Hill as Oconee does instead of staying “straight” on Oak Street. During my year in AmeriCorps I used to work up here, at ACTION, Inc., which is located in a historic, dilapidated black schoolhouse. Next to ACTION, down in a hollow, is the Boys and Girls Club; across the street is Oconee Street Methodist Church, where my maternal grandmomma and granddaddy—Jeannette Lester and Claude Owensby—were married. Now people line up there every day for free meals at the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. I continued past them, trying to get as far up Carr’s Hill as possible to see if there was a good view of Athens available.
Sixteen year old Clinton Bankston Jr. murdered three women on Carr’s Hill with a hatchet in August 1987, a grisly fact momma always recalls whenever anyone mentions the hill. For as long as I worked there I never really explored the area. From Oconee Street I took a right up Carr Street, still trying to get as high as possible. To my right were projects—those unmistakable square brick apartments with slack laundry lines out back; to my left were high student apartments, still cheap and poorly kept but somehow less desolate. Carr’s Street dead-ends in a double gate, weeds poking through the few yards of paved no-man’s-land in between. On the other side I was shocked to see gravestones—part of Oconee Hill Cemetery’s newer extension off of Oconee Hill itself and on the opposite (east) side of the Oconee River.
I drove around a bit more in the maze of poor black housing and student ghettos on Carr’s Hill before coming out next to the Waffle House on the corner of Grove Street and Lexington Road. Then I headed east down Lexington, which cuts through lush thickets of oak, pine, mimosa, and kudzu interspersed with houses, strip malls, box stores, and the county jail. It was on one of these blind curves that Jack—a young whittling buddy and neighbor of my great-grandaddy Harold “Zip-Pop” Thompson—was killed pulling out of a bait shop when someone t-boned his pickup truck.
By the time I got to Cherokee Road things still weren’t out of my system and I decided to continue straight into Winterville instead of turning into my family’s neighborhood. I passed a new subdivision for horse owners—an “equestrian community,” they call it—and the renovation of Winterville Elementary School before hitting Little Five Points and heading down Main Street. After crossing some old rail tracks I came to Winterville’s town square, which includes the historic train depot, the tiny public library, the tiny city hall, the tiny bank, the tiny police department, and several other frankly tiny buildings, all of which is fitting. Winterville’s one of those ubiquitous old southern towns that one risks missing completely if one happens to blink while passing through them.
After parking the car and exploring for a while I got back in and shot down Dozier Street, which becomes Robert Hardeman Road. On the left, just past the intersection with Beaver Dam Road, is one of the old Lester family cemeteries, where a lot of my mamma’s mamma’s people are buried. To the right is the trailer park where momma and I lived for several years. I turned down its sycamore-lined main street, taking the crumbling speed bumps too quickly as I did. We’d lived close to the entrance, in a nice, large if single-wide trailer with lots of fake wood paneling. My most vivid memories of the place are going out back at night with my mom to get kerosene for the kerosene heater out of a big tin on the back porch, and mom planting red tips in the front yard. (They’re gone now.) The trailer park is much less nice than I remember it, much more reflective of poverty. It’s hard to tell if my memories have improved or if the place itself has degraded. I circle the little man-made lake at the center of the trailer park quickly and head home.
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In The Geography of Nowhere, James H. Kunstler argues that America has become a landscape of homogeneous, mass-produced strip malls and suburban developments. “To me,” Kunstler writes, “it is a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere . . . .” Against this “geography of nowhere,” in which Topeka, Washington and Charleston, South Carolina become the same vast swatch of big box stores and vinyl siding, is a different sort of landscape, an emotional topography. It is, as the back cover of Kunstler’s book puts it, a community “worthy of our affection.” A given street might be one where my grandmomma and granddaddy met, or where my grandmomma’s momma’s people are buried, or where some ancient news my momma use to talk about when I was growing up took place. The very soil itself is unmistakably local—the so-called “Georgia red clay,” colored bright copper-red from high levels of iron oxide and silica deposits.
It pains me to think that most Americans used to live with this sense of place—used to feel that the physical spaces they inhabited held memory, lineage, and custom—but are now relegated to the nowhere places of post-World War II American consumer capitalism. As a student of Tibetan and Chinese history, the mindless destruction of the Cultural Revolution always makes me shake my head in astonishment, but here in America we’ve had a cultural revolution of our own—slower, it’s true, but no less thorough. Driving through Athens is like spending time with a member of my family; no matter how much we disagree, how bitterly we argue, we somehow belong together, inextricably. Peter Maurin was fond of proudly announcing, “I am a peasant. I have roots.” Driving through Athens, it pains me to think that we might have abandoned those roots for the privilege of being called middle-class. It is hardly a fair trade for such a mess of pottage.