We drove south on Highway 117 on a hot summer day, through cow pastures, olive and almond orchards, and fields of tomatoes and corn and numerous other agricultural products. I was in the passenger seat in the front, Dad drove, and Mom and my 11-year-old brother Mark were in the back seat. We went to visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell for the holiday weekend; we had left my great-grandma’s house an hour and a half ago, and we were about a third of the way to our home in Plumdale. But Highway 117 was not the most direct way home; we were going somewhere else first.
When we got to Woodville, the highway widened to two lanes in each direction. After another seven miles of fields, we saw buildings again, a semi-rural neighborhood just off the frontage road to the left, and then a bunch of large apartment complexes backing up to the highway. A sign on the highway said JEROMEVILLE CITY LIMIT – POP. 51,013.
“What exit do I take?” Dad asked.
“Will there be a sign?” Mom asked.
“Probably,” I said. The sign came on the third exit: UNIVERSITY OF JEROMEVILLE – NEXT EXIT. This was the southernmost exit before Highway 117 ended and merged with Highway 100, the major east-west thoroughfare of this part of the state.
Dad took the exit and turned left back over the freeway. I looked around. We had taken a few day trips this summer to drive around university campuses, since I was starting my final year of high school and applying to universities this fall, and we decided to use the trip home from seeing Dad’s relatives in Bidwell for this purpose. The University of Jeromeville was the second of four university campuses that we would drive around on this family vacation. Yesterday, we had driven around the campus of Bidwell State, one of the oldest universities in the state. It was a nice campus with lots of old buildings. We visited the Bidwell relatives twice a year on average, so Bidwell was a familiar area for me. But I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing when applying to college. It might be better to find my way in life somewhere new and unfamiliar. But on the other hand, I loved visiting Bidwell.
I looked around the Jeromeville campus. It was much larger and more spread out than Bidwell State. I saw a bunch of greenhouses, used for agricultural research. I saw open fields and little clusters of trees. The buildings were all farther ahead, to the east. We drove past a large recreational swimming pool, with some students sunbathing on a grass berm next to it. It was a holiday during the summer, there were no classes today, and yet there were still students at the pool, although probably not as many as there were at other times.
“Check it out,” Dad said. “Thong Bikini Hill.” I chuckled, wishing we had time to stop so I could check out the female sunbathers, but I would never admit this to my parents.
“UJ Loop,” Mom said, pointing to a sign. “Turn right.” Dad turned right. We drove past a vacant lot with a row of walnut trees lining the street on the right. A pen full of cows was on the left side of the street. “Cows!” Mom said. “That’s right, UJ started out as a university for agriculture.”
Mark, having silently listened to gangsta rap on a Walkman for the whole trip, spoke up. “Is it just me or does it smell like ass?” he said.
“It’s those cows,” Mom replied, pointing out the window.
“Why are there cows at college?”
“Because they study agriculture here.”
The road turned 90 degrees to the left, so that we were heading east again. “Do those look like dorms?” Mom said, pointing at some low-lying buildings to the left.
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know my way around campus.”
“Maybe that’s where we’ll be helping you move in next year.”
We continued past more buildings and parking lots. Most of the buildings had a much more modern architectural style than the old brick buildings I saw at Bidwell State, and they did not have a very consistent style. Dad made a wrong turn at a four way stop that led him into a driveway in the back of a tall building. Someone rode by on a bicycle looking at us like we were not supposed to be there. “Oops,” Mom said as we made a u-turn.
We found our way back to the UJ Loop route a minute later; we should have turned right at the four-way stop instead of left. We crossed a small bridge over what looked like a creek with lots of different kinds of trees around it.
“That looks pretty,” Mom said.
“Yeah,” I said. “A good place to go take a walk between classes.”
We made a left turn and started driving parallel to the creek, following the UJ Loop signs past parking lots and a few other small buildings. Eventually the road took us onto northbound A Street, a narrow street separating the campus on the left from downtown Jeromeville on the right. The buildings on this side of campus looked much older, and the other side of the street was lined with old houses, some of them private residences and the rest fraternity houses.
“There are a lot of bicycles around,” Mom observed as a bicycle passed us at a stop sign.
“Didn’t you see that sign back when we got to downtown?” I asked. “WELCOME TO JEROMEVILLE – A BICYCLE FRIENDLY COMMUNITY.”
“No, I didn’t see that.” Typical. Mom never reads fine print. “What’s that going to be?” she asked, pointing at a large building under construction on campus.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“There’s a stadium,” Mom said as we continued north. “Does UJ have a football team?”
“HOME OF COLT FOOTBALL,” I said, reading a sign at the stadium. “Looks like they do.” The stadium was unimpressive as far as college stadiums go; it looked like a high school stadium, with bleachers surrounding a running track and a football field in the middle, but with more bleachers.
Dad stopped at a red light waiting to turn left on West 5th Street, still following the UJ Loop signs. “West 5th Street will get us back to 117,” I said. “That was the exit before the one we turned on.”
“Have you seen enough of UJ?” Mom asked. “Or do we need to drive around some more?”
“I think I’m good for now,” I said. “I have an idea of what UJ looks like.” West 5th Street was a wide street lined by tall, old trees. The campus was on the south side, the buildings beyond what appeared to be grass fields used for recreational sports, and the north side had more fraternity houses.
“We can always come back and visit campuses again once you narrow it down and decide where you actually want to apply,” Mom said. We pulled up to a red light; a bunch of tall buildings that looked like dormitories were on my left, but these were not the same dormitories we saw earlier. Either there were two different sets of dormitories, or one of the two sets of buildings was actually something else. A sign said to turn left for the UJ Loop; this would have taken us back toward Thong Bikini Hill, where we started. Straight ahead was the girls’ softball field on the campus side and a shopping center on the city side, with the ramp for Highway 117 about half a mile in the distance.
We visited two more campuses on our way back home to Plumdale that day. Capital State University was tucked away in the middle of a much larger city, about three miles east of Capital City’s downtown and 20 miles east of Jeromeville. It also looked like a nice campus, although it was smaller than UJ. University of the Valley was a small private school that also had a nice looking campus, but the surrounding neighborhoods off campus looked kind of sketchy. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to afford to send me to a private school, but Mom reassured me not to worry about it.
“May I put on some music?” I asked on the drive home, after we got back on the freeway from seeing University of the Valley.
“What music?” Mom asked.
I looked through the tapes I had brought. “How about R.E.M.?”
“That’s good. I like them.”
“Mark is the only one who would complain about the music,” Dad said, “and he’s got headphones on. He can’t hear anything.”
I put the R.E.M. tape, which I had copied at home from the CD, in the player as Mom asked, “So did you like any of the colleges we saw today?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I liked all of them. Valley wasn’t that impressive for how expensive it is. But I’m pretty sure I want to apply to Bidwell State, just because I’ve always liked Bidwell when we’ve gone to visit the relatives. And I’m going to apply to Jeromeville; everything I’ve read about it makes it sound like a really good school. I’m not sure about Capital State yet.”
“I think you’d like Bidwell, since you know the area,” Mom said. “But I also think you’d like Jeromeville. I could see you there.”