Learning a Life Lesson in Athens, Ga.

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Along our cross-country trip, we are never in one place long enough to establish real friendships.

We’ve enjoyed conversing with locals, but though we walk along their streets, shop in their grocery stores, even trick-or-treat alongside them, as travelers we are on the outside looking in. At times our noses are pressed right up against the fishbowl. When we’re lucky, we have found ourselves perched on the edge, able to get our toes wet. But at the end of the day, we are still on the outside – watching, listening, and learning about the various ways of life across America.

And then we met the Moore family.

Sally Fales and Parker Moore, aka Hairy Dawg.

Peering in or sitting on the edge would not do. They insisted we jump all the way in, where we remained completely submerged for a couple of days as they gave us the warmest dose of Southern hospitality one could ever imagine.

We met Ed and Anna Moore on a Carnival Cruise ship outside of Jacksonville, Fla. Matt had flown in from a business trip and we had five days to just play as a family. When Ed and Anna heard about the Great American Field Trip, as a homeschooling family they embraced our journey enthusiastically. They couldn’t wait to share their piece of the world with us.

Although they live in New York, their son, Parker, is a junior at their alma mater, the University of Georgia. He is also Hairy Dawg, the UGA mascot, and would be more than happy to show us around, they assured us as we exchanged numbers.

Many well-intended people say these types of things, but it is difficult to drop everything in the middle of one’s busy schedule for complete strangers, so I hesitated to call.

But drop everything for complete strangers is exactly what Parker Moore did. When I spoke to him, we were trying to figure out a time to meet the next morning.

I warned him – “We are total night owls, so we won’t be up early.”

“Well if you are up for it when you get here, I know a place to get the best milkshakes.”

We were wide awake after the four-hour drive from Savannah.

We pulled into the Athens around 10:30 p.m. and met Parker at an old-fashioned diner called simply The Grill. From there, we had part one of our tour.  We pulled right up to the library, and Sanford Stadium, which proudly sits in the middle of campus. The stadium stood like a sleeping giant in the stillness of the night.

The next day, our tour continued – starting at lunchtime.

Parker and his roommate, Dave, took us to lunch at the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall, Southern-comfort food joint called Weaver D’s, just off campus. Under the small and simple sign hanging from the roof over the front door, was Weaver’s catchphrase, “Automatic for the People,” used the Athens-based band R.E.M. as the title of a 1994 Grammy-nominated album.

He does make his customers happy – and it is automatic. Down-home plates of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and corn muffins come out of the kitchen one after the other. Weaver was not too busy, though, to stop for a picture with our gang.

On campus, we got the full VIP tour. We walked among the stately brick buildings hearing stories about them. The acorns of trees now crowned in shades of orange and red were beneath our feet. Backpack-laden students walked in every direction. We rode the free bus packed with more UGA students. We raided the bookstore and came out with t-shirts, hair bands, a Hairy-the-bulldog pillow pet, a magnet for our refrigerator collection, and red and black pom-poms.

Founded  in 1785, two years before the U.S. Constitution was adopted, the University of Georgia, we learned, was the first state-chartered university in America. Its history and traditions run deep.  One of those traditions is UGA football, and the Moore family convinced us that in order to make our visit there complete, we must attend one of the games.

Anna, Parker’s mom, and his two sisters Madison and Savannah, would be coming from New York. Although we had plans to go to Atlanta, we came back to Athens a couple days later for the game. As if we were longtime friends, they hunted out tickets for us the day of for less than face value, they told us where to meet and we followed

The stadium – so still the night of our arrival – had exploded with life. The sleeping giant had awakened, what had been empty seats now were overflowing in red. The stadium pulsed with the music of the marching band; tubas and trombones glistening in the sun. Peanut shells littered the cement between the rows, the scoreboard lit up with instant replays, the football players running, sacking, throwing, catching on the field.  The cheerleaders standing on shoulders doing gravity-defying flips.

And of course, Hairy Dawg,  animatedly making his way around the perimeter of the field where people reached over the hedge to shake his paw, or take his picture.

Athens, Georgia. A town made magical by the Moore family. I wished I could better articulate my gratitude.  But I was having a hard time comprehending that complete strangers would care so deeply and embrace us. It was the beginning of a real friendship.

And the induction of five more Bulldog fans.


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