The weather for the last few days here in Jeromeville had been unusually pleasant. It had been a wet winter, with large puddles appearing all over on campus. After almost four months of some combination of cool, cold, overcast, and rainy weather, the sun had finally come out, and temperatures approached 80 degrees. I was sick of winter, and this felt really nice.
I walked into Building C, unlocked the door to Room 221, and put my backpack down. I needed to work more on that paper for the South Africa class, and I had a pre-lab to write before chemistry tomorrow. I got out my textbook and lab notebook and started reading about tomorrow’s experiment. I usually kept my window curtain closed, but today I opened it, so I could see the sunny sky outside, beyond the skyline formed by the tall trees of the Arboretum.
I wrote my name, date, and section number on the top of my lab report paper. That was as far as I got. I didn’t belong here in this room today.
I got on my bike and started riding south toward the Arboretum. I crossed the creek and turned right, past the Lodge and the grassy area surrounding it. The Arboretum Lodge was an event hall-like building that held various conferences and fancy luncheons and such. The day before classes started, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program hosted an event at the Lodge where all of us in the program got to meet some of the professors we would work with this year. I remember meeting Dr. Dick Small, the professor for the South Africa class I was currently taking, at that event. I remember because you just don’t forget meeting someone with a name like Dr. Dick Small.
The banks of the creek became steeper, and the trail climbed and descended a few times, by about fifteen feet, as I continued west through a grove of pine trees. Eventually the trail climbed to the top of an earthen dam, making a 180 degree turn from the south bank to the north bank. The creek running down the middle of the Arboretum was actually a very long and narrow lake, not a creek at all, collecting storm drain water in a dry creek bed that had been dammed at both ends. Arroyo Verde Creek had been diverted a century ago, before the university existed, to direct floodwaters away from the town of Jeromeville, which at the time had a population of around 1000.
Some people say that they are bothered by the term “ATM machine,” because the M in ATM already stands for machine, so “ATM machine” actually means “automated teller machine machine.” I felt the same way about the name Arroyo Verde Creek, which translates from Spanish as “Green Creek Creek.”
At the west end of the Arboretum, on the north bank, was a grassy park-like area with benches. To my left was a grove of oaks, different kinds of oaks from all over the world, without the landscaping of the lawn area that I was riding through. I stopped to look at the oak grove, which had a wild, rustic look to it, somewhat out of place on a large university campus, but in a good way. I saw giant towering valley oaks from California with moss on the bark, gnarled white oaks from the East Coast, wide spreading live oaks from the Deep South, European cork oaks with thick pockmarked and ridged bark, and many others. Some of the oaks were types that kept their leaves through the winter; others had shed their leaves and looked like they were just beginning to sprout for the upcoming spring.
Instead of continuing east on the north bank of the Arboretum, I turned left on Thompson Drive and crossed an overpass to the west side of Highway 117. Highway 117 runs north-south through Jeromeville below the elevation of the surrounding land, so that roads crossing the freeway become overpasses without having to climb upward. I knew that there was an overpass here, but I had never been on Thompson Drive west of 117.
The University of Jeromeville was founded in 1905 as an extension campus of the University of the Bay, specifically for agricultural research. The Bay campus is in the middle of an urban area, with water on one side and mountains on the other, and nowhere to actually practice farming. Agriculture was and still is a major industry on the other side of those mountains, so the university regents chose a small town called Jeromeville as the site of their new agricultural campus. The Jeromeville campus grew over the years, eventually adding academic departments other than just agriculture and becoming an independent university within the same system as Bay, Santa Teresa, and San Angelo. The campus, as it is now ninety years later, primarily exists in the space between 117 and downtown Jeromeville, but the majority of the campus property actually lies west of 117, on three square miles of fields used for agricultural research.
This is what I saw before me now as I crossed to the other side of 117. Despite the history of the campus, most UJ students today get degrees in subjects that are not related to agriculture, and many of these people barely know, or don’t know at all, that the part of the campus west of 117 exists. On my right was a field of what appeared to be corn, and a patch of dirt with nothing growing and a mysterious-looking building off of a side road. On the left, the dry bed of the former creek had been fenced off and used as a sheep pasture. The road on this side of campus was notably rougher, probably because it gets much less traffic.
A street called Environmental Lane branched off to the right, past a number of buildings with metal siding, a few buildings that resembled portable classrooms, and some kind of large radio tower. I never did learn what those buildings were used for.
Thompson Drive then crossed the dry creek bed and turned along the south bank of the creek, making a wide gradual turn to the left following the creek. A grape vineyard was on the left, and a bunch of very tall trees stood along the creek bed to the right. Next to a large oak tree on the left were a cluster of benches and what appeared to be those white boxes that beekeepers used. I could see the creek bed on the right through the trees at some places, and at one place there was a pool with marshy-looking plants growing in it.
Thompson Drive ended at a T-intersection with a road called Arroyo Verde Road. The road was gravel to the left and paved to the right. Arroyo Verde Road ran alongside the actual free-flowing Arroyo Verde Creek; where I was right now appeared to be the point where the creek was originally diverted from its original flow. I turned right onto the paved section, crossing the dry fork of the creek for the last time today. A cluster of tall, leafy trees grew on both sides of the road, with their leaves and branches partially hanging over the road. Beyond this, on the right, was a small building with a sign that said “Aquatic Weed Research Facility.” That would explain the marshy-looking pool.
I rode past more grape vineyards, corn fields, and fruit tree orchards on the right, and the small trees typical of a creekside riparian area on the left. I felt very peaceful out here. Had I not known, I never would have guessed that this bucolic country lane was part of a large bustling university full of people and bicycles trying to avoid running into each other. My unwritten paper and all the studying I had to do faded from my mind as I watched the trees and fields pass by around me.
About half a mile ahead, Arroyo Verde Road became unpaved again, with a paved road called Hawkins Road branching off to the right, heading north. Hawkins Road was lined with very old olive trees on each side, and pits and bits of olive flesh, remnants of years of uncultivated fruit production, had fallen along the sides of the road. (I would read years later in the alumni magazine that the university had begun making olive oil from these olives and selling it at the campus store. That was a great idea, but it wasn’t happening yet in 1995.)
Most of the buildings on the west side of campus lie along or just off of Hawkins Road, behind the row of olive trees. Some of them had signs indicating that they were used for very specific purposes; the signs said things like Honey Bee Research Facility, Historical Agricultural Machinery Collection, and University Plant Services. I also saw a large group of cows and pigs at feedlots on a side road to the right.
Hawkins Road was a little over a mile long, and it ended at Davis Drive, the main east-west road on campus. I had driven and biked on this part of Davis Drive before, but today was the first time I had seen any part of the west side of campus other than Davis Drive. I turned right, heading east toward 117 and the main part of campus, but then I turned left on the next cross street, Olive Way. Olive Way was about ten feet wide, only open to bicycles and pedestrians, and like Hawkins Road, it was lined with olive trees on both sides and littered with remnants of fallen olives. I headed north on Olive Way. There were no buildings on Olive Way, just fields behind the olive trees. I passed by someone running with her dog; I said hi, and she said hi back.
Olive Way ended at West Fifth Street, the northern boundary of the campus. The street was lined with walnut trees along the south side that lined the campus agricultural area, and another bike trail ran between the walnut trees and the fields. I turned right and followed the trail east, back across Highway 117, then turned right at Andrews Road and headed home from there.
I walked back into the building. Taylor, Pete, and Sarah were sitting in the common room, the two boys apparently making puns with Sarah’s names.
“I’m dying! Sarah doctor in the house?” Taylor said.
“Sarah way I could get my order to go?” Pete said, chuckling.
“Come on, guys,” Sarah said.
“My pants don’t fit. I need a Taylor,” I said. “What’s that? I can’t hear, because your voice Petered out.”
“Yeah,” Sarah added, glaring at the boys. All of us started laughing.
“What are you up to?” Taylor asked. “Just getting back from class?”
“Actually, I got back an hour ago,” I explained. “I was on my bike, exploring the west side of campus. I went out Thompson Drive and Arroyo Verde Road and Hawkins Road.”
“I have no idea where any of those are,” Pete said.
“What’s out there?” Taylor asked.
“Fields, and big trees, and the real Arroyo Verde Creek. The free-flowing one, not the fake one in the Arboretum. And what looks like agricultural research facilities. And sheep and cows,” I said.
“Interesting,” Sarah said. “I never thought about what’s out there. But you seem like you would. You and your maps and roads and stuff.”
“Exactly. It’s who I am.”
“And that’s what makes you special.”
“And it’s such a nice day today! A perfect day for a bike ride.”
“I know. I hope the weather stays like this for a while.”
The weather did not stay like that for a while. What I would realize over the next few years was that around late February or early March, Jeromeville and the surrounding area always experience a weather phenomenon that I’ve come to call Fake Spring. For about a week or two, the weather turns pleasantly warm and sunny, but then it cools off again with usually a few more significant rainstorms occasionally passing through during the rest of March and April. I always enjoyed Fake Spring while it lasted, though; it was a nice break from the cool weather, and the sunshine and lack of chill in the air always seemed to make me happier.
I sat downstairs talking to Taylor and Pete and Sarah for a while, and we all went to the dining commons together for dinner. The sun had just set, leaving a spectacular pink-orange glow to the west, spotted with a few lines of small puffy clouds. All felt right with the world today. I was at peace, and I had plenty of time later to deal with the lab write-up, and next week to deal with the South Africa paper, and all my life to deal with the fact that I still felt like a scared little kid with no idea how to make it in this big scary world. But I had found a happy place. Today was a good day.
Hawkins Road, photographed in 2019. This is still my happy place, when I happen to be in Jeromeville with time to kill.