You don’t know you’re here until you’re here. On a map, Athens is squarely in no-man’s land. Equidistant west and north from any Interstate. It’s a city on a hill, but a hill no taller than any hill nearby. The lights of Athens don’t rise up out of the plains or flicker across a bay. In the crescent-shaped southern Piedmont, everything, including Athens, is hidden by forest. Tracts of spindly, wavering loblolly pine camouflage homes. Dark hardwood forests of oak, hickory, cherry, and mulberry disguise punchy hills. Slow rivers guide blue and green and brown water ceaselessly to their larger brethren behind a riparian tangle.
On street level, porches are shrouded in leaves and driveways bend around steep slopes. Enveloping all of Athens is the rhythm of its sound. The constant of an inconsistent train each day. The train is our first alarm of the day between 5:30 and 6:30am. Its arrival announced with a bullish horn. First it crosses the College Street bridge and the valley of kudzu below, then Pulaski Street, then Barber Street. Shortly afterwards, seemingly roused by the train, carolina wrens challenge one another shrilly, and northern mockingbirds follow suit. By mid-morning a cacophony of birdsong competes with train horns. A train horn at 7:15, again at 10:45, another at 12:00. The “chuck, chuck, chuck” of a red-bellied woodpecker, the chatter of finches, the scolding of chickadees. It goes on. Long after the birds bed down, the day’s last train passes us by at 10:15pm feeling louder than ever. The horn bulges through the darkness and fills the silence. Yesterday the last train was later. The trains always pass us by, and the birds are a rotating cast anchored only by the theatrics of a few year-round, yard-bound residents.
A city on the way to nowhere, Athens is defined not by the generic of brick, paint, and glass, or the immense of river, rock, and sea, but by its reliable soundscape. A place of forests full of birds and busy train tracks acting as our collective, offbeat timepiece.