When Paige Alost’s Aunt Vicki Donaldson visited Ohio from her home in Dallas, her first reaction was an emphatic “It’s flat as a flitter.” Now, I’m not quite sure what a “flitter” is, and don’t ask Paige (she’s the Executive Director of the Athens County Visitors Bureau), as she doesn’t really know either, but after my husband and I visited Ohio recently, We get Aunt Vicki’s drift.
The glacier that came through over a billion years ago ground down any evidence of what might have been considered a mountain or hill, and left everything rather “flitter-like.” For some unknown reason, what residents in this area like to suggest was serendipity, the glacier stopped in its tracks when it reached Southeastern Ohio, and in its capriciousness it left an area that is set apart from the rest of the state (both topographically and politically, although I don’t think the glacier had anything to do with politics). Athens County, sitting at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is a collection of steep, rugged hills and undulating countryside amidst the rest of a state that is “flat as a flitter.”
Once a major mineral-laden, coal mining hub, the County, is now an area that is rich with history, community, and camaraderie. Only a 90-minute drive from Columbus, the city of Athens, created to be a learning center, is home to Ohio University. Opened in 1804 with one building, three students, and one professor, the University now boasts many architecturally classic buildings along its beautiful, brick-lined pathways. It is an oasis that stretches out amongst its grassy “Greens.” Don’t Miss: The Ridges — a former insane asylum with amazing grounds.
Walking just a few steps outside the OU campus gates puts you on the streets of a classic college town. There a visitor can easily find a “head shop” or two—well, that’s what we called them in the 70s— clothing stores, the ubiquitous college bars, and some really interesting eateries, many of which pride themselves on locally-sourced ingredients. I can’t remember the last time I ate a hot dog, but when approaching the neon hot dog sign announcing O’Betty’s Red Hot, we couldn’t help but stop in to try their specialities like the “Salome” or “Varla”: Topped with Sauerkraut, Crunchy Bacon Bits, Homemade Horseradish Sauce, and 1000 Island Dressing. Don’t Miss: The Hot Dog Museum in back and its shelves lined with kitschy weiner memorabilia, and Cutler’s in the OU Inn for a wonderful fine dining experience.
We followed up our hot dog fest by gorging on a decadent “Booty Shaker,” fudge cake topped with vanilla icing, chocolate ganache, Oreo cookie bits, white and dark chocolate chips and colored jimmies, at Fluff Bakery. And because the night was still young, even for us not-so-youngsters, and waddling back to our hotel after all the indulging was not an option, we headed over to West End Cider House, and some glasses of locally-crafted hard cider made from 100% Ohio-grown apples. With ‘80s music wafting from the overhead speakers (was that in our honor??) we grabbed a spot on the sofa and played a raucous game of Boggle while we downed our nightcaps.
When I really want to learn about the “local flavor” of a place I’m visiting, I head over to the local farmer’s market. It’s generally a microcosm of the area, with locals of all ages there either eating, shopping, working or as was the case in Athens, doing research for a school project. In addition to finding the apples that were used in the previous night’s cider, we found potato flour-based breads, pies and tarts bursting with local fruit, homemade salsas, and good conversation with the local organic composting guy. In fact, good conversation was plentiful in all of Athens. Everyone we encountered was more than willing to share their stories and philosophies, and sing the praises of their fair city.
There was no one we met, however, who exuded more passion and respect for Athens County and its heritage than Tom O’Grady, the Museum Director at the Southeast Ohio History Center. While still under renovation, the 100-year-old building and church houses exhibits, archived material, and artifacts that all showcase local history that in this section of the state was propelled by inclusion and forward thought. Tom and those who work and volunteer with him are on a mission to help Ohioans understand the value of the preservation they all work so tirelessly at. Don’t miss: The local donations stored in the basement and the black & white photo exhibit of over-50 locals dressed as celebrities.
Historians and foodies will be well taken care of in Athens, and for those who prefer exploration of a more aerobic nature, the Bike Path will not disappoint. The 21-mile tree-shaded trail (you can rent bikes from Black Diamond bike rentals) is as flat as the rest of the region is hilly, and that’s a good thing, since along the path of “Brewed on the Bikeway,” a number of award-winning craft breweries entice thirsty riders to stop and drink. Visit Little Fish Brewing Company for a sampler of its farmhouse ales and sours. I for one loved the citrusy Sunfish and the creamier…wait for it…Harvey Chai-Tel. If hunger pangs get the better of you, the Cajun Clucker food truck, specializing in dishes like Gumbo and Étouffée, is right on site. Another stop on the trail that wins high marks is Chef Sean Kiser’s Eclipse Company Store and Beer Hall: The Eggplant Tots and burgers are amazing, and the staff is super friendly. (They’ll even hold your baby for you while you eat.)
I must sheepishly admit that before I visited Athens, much of what I knew about any part of Ohio had to do with Drew Carey, Dr. Johnny Fever, and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s no surprise that so many people from near and far came to attend Ohio University and then stayed. This town is a jewel, somewhat like a Berkeley, CA or a Cambridge, MA (they don’t call it “The Republic of Athens” for nothing!), but smaller and quainter. A slice of the Midwest that this sheltered New Yorker knew nothing about. That and the pawpaws…but that’s a story for another day.
I was compensated for my trip, but all the opinions are my own.