“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words. At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song. The song contained that exact line several more times.
“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.
“DC Talk,” he replied. “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”
I nodded. I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant. Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music. Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to. But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.
For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua. After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks. Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back. Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay. “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge. “There’s the other car.”
I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing. A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder. Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving. Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool. I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it. Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car. Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat. I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.
We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other. In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge. Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.
“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.
“Yes,” Raphael agreed. “One of the greatest cities in the world.”
“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said. “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”
“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city. About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.” I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner. We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.
The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded. The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers. While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe. Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music. Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat. The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.
I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance. I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.” I rolled my eyes… hippies. I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them. When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.
“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down. “You found us.”
“Yeah. I was just looking at stuff on the wall. It’s really cool.”
“Have you been here before?”
“No. Have you?”
“Not this one. But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”
“Nice. I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”
“I’ve only been once. It’s so beautiful!”
“I can imagine,” I said. “So how are your classes this quarter?”
“They’re definitely keeping me busy. I’m taking a lot.” Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation. I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.
All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive. At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain. Kristina started rapping along with Coolio. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.
“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular. I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible. The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.
By the time the food arrived, I was starving. I ate my cheeseburger quickly. I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did. “How is it?” I asked Haley.
“It’s really good,” she said. “You must have liked yours. You ate it fast.”
“I did. And I was starving. I hadn’t eaten since noon. It’s after nine o’clock.”
“Yeah, we’re eating late. Do you know about this place we’re going next?”
“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”
“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained. “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
Eddie jumped into our conversation. “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.
When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames. “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said. Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse. I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.
After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars. Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map. “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road. This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”
I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps. “Yeah,” I said. It was a strange question to me. I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps. I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly. I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.
“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.
“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps. So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from. And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”
“Good job!” Eddie said.
We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street. Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car. I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill. I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet. I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.
After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path. A few people carried flashlights. The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city. A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.
The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were. What was this? Why was it here? I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area. I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same. I looked up at the cross and prayed silently. Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life. I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city. I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels. No one spoke for about ten minutes. I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.
“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car. Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean. “I had no idea it was there.”
“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said. “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”
“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered. “We’re not praying to the cross. We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”
“That makes sense,” Eddie said.
“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.
“Thanks,” I replied.
The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove. I had never been this way before. The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible. “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside. “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”
Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them. “Look,” I said as we were unloading. “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’ Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained. “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”
“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time. We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”
“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal. After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.
Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me. But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot. I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks. If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.
Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me. I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing. After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom. I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag. I looked at my watch; it was 1:29. I tossed and turned as my mind raced. I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences. I also had homework to do at home. I tried to think happy thoughts. Eddie inviting me on this trip. Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe. Driving places I had never seen before. Haley’s pretty blue eyes. Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill. The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles. I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill. I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me. I closed my eyes.
The next thing I knew, it was light out. My watch said 7:02. I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get. As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake. I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around. I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.
“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered. “You sleep well?”
“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep. I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”
“But you did sleep.”
“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.
Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers. Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested. “Anyone want to come with me?”
“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.
This was my chance. “I’ll come,” I said.
“Great!” Kristina said. “Ready?”
As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant. This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley. But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.
“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice. And we need cups for the juice. Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.
“Sure,” Haley said. I nodded.
We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together. After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”
“I’m going to live with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr. Shawn is going to be student teaching, and Brian is going to work with JCF part time and apply to medical school.”
“Oh, wow. Older guys. Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”
“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”
“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year. And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”
“I don’t know Josh, but Shawn and Brian are great guys. You’ll like living with them.”
“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart. “Awesome! Where?”
“We don’t have a place yet. We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”
We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later. This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing. After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar. “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said. He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before. Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too. We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.
In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville. “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.
“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said. “Does that sound good?”
We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were. The others followed in Kristina’s car. This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly. I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.
“I like this place,” I said to Caroline. “Good suggestion.”
“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me. He had been asking everyone this.
“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said. “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”
“Do you play an instrument or anything? You said you sing, right?”
“I sing at my church. And I’ve always liked listening to music.”
“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”
“Yeah. I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”
“You should. I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”
After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville. Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music. As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape. “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.
“Hey, I know this song,” I said. “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”
“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied. “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3. It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”
“Yeah,” I said. I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now. “Lift me up when I’m falling. I need you to hold me.”
Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again. I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music. We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon. Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.
“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said. “And thanks for inviting me.”
“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied. “Have a great rest of the weekend!”
“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say. I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier. She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.
“I’m glad you went too,” I said. “Have a good rest of the weekend.”
After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time. Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again. This was my life now. I was a Jesus Freak. The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.
I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me. I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year. Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.