I have wondered if I have a wandering soul.
From time to time – usually when I am stressed or overwhelmed – I get the urge to run away. It’s never to places that I know. I long to go west; to fill up my car and drive without a map until I find somewhere that looks welcoming. Or I dream of going northeast, to Boston, to explore on foot what I have only seen by air. I dream of being in a harbour town in Maine, where I imagine the air smells of salt and seaweed and I would hear waves slapping against moored boats. These places which I have never known call out for my affection.
We have done this for centuries. The US is built upon generations past who set sail for its shores looking for something better- better freedom; better climate; better prospects. I may not be descended from those early settlers, but wanderlust and a love for the US runs in my blood. My great-aunt set sail for love; a war bride to an American GI. My grandfather drove from east coast to west; a tourist and modern-day explorer. I came here a student with no intention of staying. But then I fell in love.
Dahlonega was the first place where I dared to dream that I could be somebody. It was a fresh start; a place where no one knew me. The unshakable feeling that I’d always had that I didn’t belong – that I was inherently different and therefore inferior – was left behind in Winchester. How strange it was, that in a place where I was nothing like everyone else, I finally felt like I fitted in. I fell in love – quickly and deeply, as I always do – with a place and a man and I thought that the two were intertwined, that I could not feel any love for one without the other.
How wrong I was. I make my pilgrimage to Dahlonega about once a year, and it is not a person that I remember, but emotions. I remember feeling like a child in her mother’s too-big shoes as I sat in a history classroom, the youngest student and the only foreigner. I remember the dread that I could physically feel in the pit of my stomach each time I approached the gym. I remember battling with my demons. I remember the excitement of my own apartment, my own kitchen, my own schedule and my own rules. I remember the day when I finally realised, as I walked behind Price Memorial Hall and the sun glinted off the gold steeple, that everything would be okay.
My ghost follows me everywhere I go in Dahlonega, and the hauntings are not always pleasant. Here, on the hill outside Owen Hall, is where 18-year-old Alice was drunk and sprained her ankle. Here is where she was told that if she could not stop hating and hurting herself, she would be suspended from the school. There is where she sat and cried when she learned her Nan had been diagnosed with cancer. But each bitter memory comes with a sweeter one. Here is where she made new friends over cigarettes and chicken wings. Here is where she took a writing class, and got to spend her Tuesday and Thursday evenings doing something she loved, and having it count towards her coursework. Walking around campus now, the 18-year-old girl is all grown up into a woman who clucks her tongue at freshmen and fondly remembers the days when Dahlonega was a new place, not somewhere she knows better than her own hometown. The 18-year-old girl grew up, got healthy, and had a child. Once she didn’t care if she lived or died. Now she plays rugby with her daughter on the drill field.
I spent Memorial Day in Dahlonega soaking up all these memories. The moment I saw the mountains appear from the top of the hill coming into town, I felt my heart flutter. Lillian and I paid our respects at the war memorial and spent the whole day wandering around town, before having dinner with friends. But all good things, they say, come to an end. The drive from Dahlonega to Athens is as simple as following Prince Avenue all the way there, and even on the road I cannot escape the old familiar sights. Lake Lanier stretched out beneath me, a friendly reminder that I once dreamed of owning a house there, a stone’s throw from Dahlonega but on the water. I pass the Chevron on E. E. Butler Parkway, and I remember the day we were told that there had been a mistake in the lab and my bloodwork was fine, the unborn baby I was carrying was fine. That day, we stopped there to get gas and Scar Tissue by Red Hot Chili Peppers came on the radio. I knew that song and that place would forever carry the memory of being told I would still get to be a mother, but to drive past it with my child sleeping in her car seat is something I never prepared myself for. When I think of all these memories they become something I can physically feel, weighing down upon my shoulders and turning my stomach to knots. It is painful, to be in Dahlonega, but it is more painful to leave.
Then I realise that as I get closer to Athens, I’m longing for my bed. I’m missing my stinky hound. I’m already thinking about church on Sunday, and work on Monday. In Dahlonega I can find my past, but in Dahlonega, there are no baristas who know me by name. There is no Thomas, the homeless guy who I chat with every day, who today gave me cookies to give to my little girl. In Dahlonega I won’t find the Vietnam vet with the Northern drawl, who sits outside of Starbucks with his enormous and docile pitbull, Milo. In Dahlonega, there is no nod of recognition when I tell people where I work: no one says “oh, I know Doug” or “you’re kidding? David and I go way back!”. Here in Athens, I can spend my entire lunch break chatting to baristas in Starbucks; to strangers outside of Einstein Brothers Bagels; to dog-walkers and students and musicians and artists and everything inbetween. I feel like I am one of them. I feel like Athens is my home, my city, and all these familiar faces are my kin.
There is always a little itch to uproot and go somewhere new. Maybe I do have a wandering soul. There is a whole wide world out there that I have not seen, and if Dahlonega is my past and Athens is my present, maybe my future is in another place, and I will fall in love all over again. I do not know where life will lead me. But do I know one thing: a piece of my heart will always stay with these two cities.