June 1, 1996. Sarah got baptized, and we saw real sheep.

“So how’s everyone doing today?” Taylor asked as I drove west beyond the Jeromeville city limits, where Fifth Street becomes Grant Road.

“I went grocery shopping,” Danielle said.  “And I saw my abnormal professor in the store.”

“You saw who?” I asked.

“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Abnormal Psych.  You said ‘my abnormal professor,’ and I didn’t know what that meant.  I was gonna say I’m a math major, so all of my professors are abnormal.”  The others groaned and chuckled.

Grant Road continues west in a near-perfectly straight line for about three miles after leaving the Jeromeville city limits, past an idyllic landscape of fields, pastures, and orchards.  Beyond that, the road turns sharply; I was caught off guard by the coming right turn, so I pushed the brake pedal hard.  Some of the others in the car reacted audibly to the sudden change in movement.  “Sorry,” I said, as I turned sharply to the right, then to the left a short distance later.  “I never understood why this road has all these curves in it.  Everything is completely flat here.”

“To follow property lines, maybe?” Pete suggested.

“That could be it.”

“Have you been this way before?” Danielle asked.

“Once,” I said.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Yes.”

“Of course he knows where we’re going!” Taylor said.  “Greg doesn’t get lost, remember?”

I had only been this way once, when I took a side trip on the way back from my parents’ house just to see what this part of Arroyo Verde County looked like, and I had never been west of the town of Summerfield.  But a bunch of us had met in a parking lot in Jeromeville about ten minutes ago to carpool, and Cheryl of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had been there to hand out flyers, and the driving directions were very clear, just straight west on Grant Road for about twenty miles.

I had been hearing announcements at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last few months about baptisms in the creek near Lake Montecito at the end of the school year.  I had not expressed interest in being baptized.  I had started to take my faith seriously this year through the nondenominational JCF, which was not affiliated with a specific church.  The students in JCF attended a few different churches around Jeromeville, but very few of them were Catholic like me.  I did not know enough about baptism at that point to know if I needed to be baptized again, and I did not want to turn my back on the Catholicism of my childhood and family without knowing the details of what I was doing.

However, I wanted to attend this baptism event.  I knew most of the people in JCF on an acquaintance level, so I wanted to be there for the people being baptized.  Also, one of those people was Sarah Winters, one of my close friends.  I had known her since the first week of freshman year, and when I heard that she was getting baptized, I definitely wanted to be there for her.

In addition to friends from JCF, other friends and family of the people being baptized were attending this event.  Danielle was not part of JCF; she was Catholic, and attended mass at the Newman Center with me.  But all of us in my car were friends with Sarah from our freshman dorm, and all of them also lived in the same apartment complex as Sarah.

 I continued west on Grant Road, through more occasional sharp turns and zigzags over the next few miles before the road straightened out again, now heading southwest.  The midafternoon sun was still high enough that I did not have to put my visor down.  “This may be a dumb question,” I asked, “but what exactly happens at a baptism in the creek?  I’ve only seen Catholic baptisms, when you’re a baby, and they just sprinkle water on you in church.”

“I was going to ask the same thing,” Danielle said.

“You proclaim in public that you’re a follower of Jesus,” Charlie explained.

“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.

“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie said.

“Why is it that Catholics baptize babies, and other Christians don’t?” I asked.

“Because if you get baptized as a baby, you’re not really making a conscious decision to identify as a Christian,” Pete said.  “So if you wait until someone is old enough to make their own decision to be baptized, then it really comes from them, and it’s more meaningful than if parents just baptize a baby because you have to.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“It’s not just Catholics versus Protestants, right?” Charlie added.  “Aren’t there some Protestants who baptize babies?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I know Presbyterians do.”

We continued west past Summerfield.  The road turned to run directly adjacent to the redundantly named Arroyo Verde Creek as the hills, which I could see from home off in the distance to the west, rose around me.  Oaks dotted the hills, surrounded by grass that sprung up green and bright every year during the rainy season, but was now in late spring turning brown.  The hills would remain golden brown, as they did every year, until around the following January, when the rains of November and December had sunk in.

Twenty miles west of Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek once passed through a narrow canyon just downstream of a valley.  This canyon was identified long ago as a perfect place for a dam, which was built in the 1950s.  The relatively small dam across the canyon flooded the entire valley behind it, creating Lake Montecito and providing a reliable water supply to the vast agricultural areas to the east.  We stopped at a public parking lot just downstream from the dam; I recognized a few JCF people standing around.  “There they are,” Taylor said.

The five of us walked toward the crowd.  People trickled in as we mingled among the crowd, saying hi to our friends, until about a hundred people stood among the rocks and sand on the bank of Arroyo Verde Creek.  I could see the dam about half a mile upstream from where we were, towering three hundred feet above the creek and spanning the entire canyon.

Dave McAllen, who with his wife Janet were the head staff of JCF, waded a few feet into the creek and announced, “Welcome.”  He stood in ankle-deep water, wearing a t-shirt with swimming shorts.  “You have come to watch four of your friends make a public identification as part of the Body of Christ.  Baptism is an outward and public sign that you have decided to follow Jesus.  Baptism was commanded by Jesus himself, as part of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’  In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Luke writes that the people who heard Peter’s message were baptized.”  Dave continued for another few minutes talking about the theology and history of baptism, about how being submerged in the water and resurfacing is symbolic of dying to your old life and being reborn in Christ.  I wondered about my current situation, having been baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, and whether or not that was acceptable to these people as a valid baptism.  My question was answered as Dave said, “Before we begin our baptisms, Kieran would like to say something.”

Kieran, a freshman who had been in my group the previous weekend at the Man of Steel competition, stepped forward, not quite getting into the water.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m not one of the people getting baptized today.  I was baptized as a baby.  But I didn’t really know Jesus until high school, when my friend brought me to youth group.  Since I was already baptized, I don’t feel like it’s right to get baptized again, like it didn’t count the first time.  But I just wanted to say in front of all of you that I am living for Jesus Christ.”  People applauded as he finished that last sentence, and I joined in.  I did not know if I would ever be brave enough to say that in front of the crowd, but Kieran’s proclamation suggested that I did not need to be baptized again.

Dave stepped aside as Janet, took his place in the water in front of the crowd.  “First, I would like to welcome Sarah Winters.  She’s a sophomore.”  Janet gestured to Sarah to begin speaking.

“I didn’t really go to church growing up,” Sarah said.  “I was a good student, I stayed out of trouble, but I also made some decisions that weren’t so great.”  Sarah paused, clearly not wanting to talk about the suboptimal decisions.  “But then I started going out with a guy right at the end of high school, and he was a Christian.  They say missionary dating isn’t a good idea, but it brought me to Christ.”  Laughs and chuckles spread throughout the crowd.  I had never heard this term “missionary dating,” but I figured out from the context what she was saying.  “He shared with me what it meant to really follow Jesus, and he lived it out in his life.  We broke up on good terms last year, but it was for the best.  And now I’m ready for whatever Jesus has for me.”

“Sarah?” Janet asked.  “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”

“I do,” Sarah replied.

“Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Janet put one hand on Sarah’s back as she lowered Sarah backward into the water.  After being fully submerged for a few seconds, she brought Sarah back up, and everyone cheered.  Sarah smiled, dripping wet, as she climbed out of the creek and wrapped herself in a towel.

Three more people were baptized that day.  Each had a different story, but all of their stories ended with finding Jesus and making a decision to follow him.  I had a story like that now too, and it was humbling to know that this united me with so many millions of Christians throughout the centuries.

After the last baptism ended, I walked around looking for Sarah.  Janet McAllen found me first.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Wasn’t that good to hear everyone’s stories?”

“Yes.  It’s always good to hear how God works in different people’s lives.”

“Have you been baptized?”

“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”

“Oh, okay,” Janet said.  “We usually don’t recommend you get baptized again if you were already baptized as a baby.”

“I had been wondering about that earlier today, and then when Kieran shared about that, it was perfect timing.  Like he answered the question I didn’t even ask.”

“Yeah!”

“Do you know where Sarah went?”

“I think she’s over there,” Janet said, pointing to a cluster of people standing a little ways upstream.

“I’m going to go find her.”

“Sounds good.  I’m glad you could make it here, Greg.”

“Me too.”

I walked in the direction that Janet had pointed and eventually found Sarah.  The people I came with had found her first; they were all standing together, along with Sarah’s roommate Krista and a few others.

“Congratulations,” I said as Sarah noticed me approaching.

“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed.  “Thank you so much for coming!”

“I’m glad I could be here,” I said.  “It’s always so good to hear stories of how people came to know Jesus.”

“Yeah.  God works in everyone differently.  We all have a story.”

I stood around listening to people make small talk for a while.  Later, I started walking around to talk to other people, and I congratulated the other three who had been baptized as well.

The crowd gradually thinned, and we left about half an hour after the last baptism.  We returned the same way we came, along Grant Road.  At one point, near the inexplicable sharp turns, Danielle excitedly exclaimed, “Look!  Sheep!  And they’re real!”  She pointed out the car window to a flock of sheep grazing in a pasture.

“Did you say ‘they’re real?’” Pete asked.

“Yeah!  Right there!”

“‘They’re real,’ you said?  So do you normally drive past fields full of fake sheep?” Taylor added.

“What?  No!” Danielle said.  “You know what I mean!”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Never mind.”

I never did figure out why Danielle was so excited about the sheep being real.  Sometimes things make sense in someone’s head but do not get explained properly.  But, as we drove home, my mind was more on what Kieran had said, how he had been baptized as a baby and did not feel it was appropriate to get baptized again.  Although I had not studied the issue in detail or prayed about it, that was my current position.  I did not want to turn my back completely on the Catholicism of my family and generations of my mother’s ancestors.  Jesus commands his followers to be baptized, but from what I had learned this year from really studying the Bible for the first time, the act of baptism itself is not what brings salvation or eternal life.  Catholics consider baptism to be a sacrament, but I could not find anything directly in the Bible stating that baptism affected one’s eternal fate.

It was surprising to me, therefore, when a few years later JCF held another baptism event, and Kieran was one of the people getting baptized.  He made no mention of having been baptized as a baby that time.  I never asked him what made him change his mind.  By that time, I had had enough encounters with Christians who disparaged and belittled Catholicism that my position had become further entrenched that I did not want to be baptized a second time.  I did not want to acknowledge these people’s mischaracterization of Catholicism, and getting baptized a second time felt like taking their side.

However, I did change my mind eventually, in my early thirties.  By that time, I was no longer attending Catholic Mass.  I knew that many churches that do not baptize babies require baptism as a condition of becoming a full church member and being able to vote on the church budget and new pastoral appointments.  I had made up my mind that this would not be a dealbreaker to being part of a church, that I would get baptized as an adult if I found a church requiring adult baptism that I was otherwise ready to commit to.  In the first letter to the Corinthaians, Paul wrote that, as a follower of Christ, he is no longer under the Old Testament law, despite having a Jewish background.  It is not necessary for Christians to follow the rituals and customs of the Jews.  However, when ministering to Jewish communities, Paul would follow their customs anyway, in order to be part of their community and build the relationships necessary to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I felt the same way about baptism by this time; being baptized as an adult was not necessary, but if I was going to become part of a community that believed this, I would be willing to follow their customs.  In 2007, the church I had attended for over a year called a new pastor, and I really liked this guy, so I was baptized and became a member in order to be able to vote in favor of this new pastor.  And I know that my parents did not see my second baptism as an act of turning my back on my upbringing, because they were there on that day to support me, just as I was there to support Sarah on the day she was baptized.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

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.”

“Yeah.”

“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.

2019 hawkins road
Hawkins Road, photographed in 2019.  This is still my happy place, when I happen to be in Jeromeville with time to kill.