UC Merced: Nowhere is somewhere

John Taylor: February 07, 20080 Comments

They're working on a special Highway 99 offramp to the UC Merced campus, but in the meantime you trek across some seedy and some spanking new parts of the city to get to the land where the mascot is a Golden Bobcat.

Bam. There it is. Like a space station on Mars. Dozens of buildings -- labs researching things like stem cells, "student quarters" named after Valley counties, gyms that don't smell like sweat, a digital library with a Starbucks ambiance. It sits on a fraction of the land dedicated to the campus'  future and to planned communities around it.

It's probably been 10 years since my last visit, as a Fresno Bee reporter covering the UC/Merced boosters vs. environmentalists. I saw it in the shimmering heat waves of summer. In the crisp air with the snowcapped Sierra as spring approached. I hiked around the vernal pools as biologists scooped up samples of endangered fairy shrimp. I heard gunshots of distant hunters. Saw birds of prey scouring for wayward rabbits.

The golf course clubhouse, which was the staging ground for visitors who then hopped aboard four-wheel drive vehicles, is now gone. The man-made geyser that served as a water hazard/landmark is still there.

But the narrow streets and sidewalks are abuzz with students, not dragon flies. The smell is no longer sun-baked grass but stir-fry from the cafeteria. You still have to pay for parking. Students still get enrolled, graded, disciplined and occasionally expelled.

There is a kind of busy peace about UC Merced, the 10th campus of the UC system that opened in 2005. I forgot to put a memory stick in my digital camera, so I don't have photos to show at the moment. But if you can spare a couple of hours and don't mind a detour through the hodgepodge of street lights, you really ought to see this campus/city before it gets really really big.

More info: http://www.ucmerced.edu/