Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Six-Hour Stroll Down Memory Lane

Last week-end I attended a conference in Riverside.  It’s one I get to on almost an annual basis, and so it was nice to see familiar faces and hear about other people’s research projects.  The venue was the Mission Inn, which is only marginally less over the top than Hearst Castle.  But it was a somehow fitting environment for scores of historians to ply their trade, pictures of Queen Victoria dangling from our necks as we earnestly discussed our academic work.

Peter, UCI's fearsome mascot
I slept down the road at the slightly more modest America’s Best Value Inn (no turrets, no chapels, and no precipitously hanging ceilings), but a colleague and I who stayed there concluded that we got the better deal: it was cheaper, and the breakfast waffles were infinitely superior to the paltry repast the Mission Inn offered by way of continental breakfast.

On Sunday morning, I awoke some time before the crack of dawn, and hurried to the Amtrak station to catch a train to Irvine.  There I was scheduled to see a performance of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, a play by fabled Kenyan writers Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo. 

My first exposure to Ngugi wa Thiong’o came in an African history class at UC Irvine, taught by Professor Laura Mitchell.  We read A Grain of Wheat, and I didn’t realise until later that the author was a campus professor.  I next read Devil on the Cross, which remains amongst my favourites, rivalled by Wizard of the Crow, a magnificent novel which captures contemporary Kenya’s political culture.  I first read The Trial of Dedan Kimathi while camping in the foothills surrounding Mt Kenya, and assigned the play to students in an African environmental history class a few years ago.

The Langson Library
In 2013, Ngugi was awarded the UCI Medal, and in his honour, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts was putting on a production of his play.  Hence my efforts to get to Amtrak so that I could catch a matinee performance and be home in the Bay Area by nightfall.

But although I had agonised over remembering to change my clock to account for Daylight Savings, Amtrak had felt no such compulsion, and their ticket sales failed to account for the one hour time change, meaning that I sat for an hour in the dark, being blown about by passing freight trains, before my train pulled in, and I was off to Irvine, via Union Station in Los Angeles.

When I left Irvine in 2008, I was more than ready to move on to something and somewhere new.  Orange County’s fabled indifference towards the outside world had grated, and other places beckoned.  I’d dropped in for a workshop in 2010, but spent the day and a half cloistered in a seminar room and didn’t set foot on the main campus.  So it had been six years since I’d been at this place where I’d spent some formative years and had my first experience away from home.

Lovely Aldrich Park
It was dazzlingly sunny, as it always is in this part of California, and I came onto campus I immediately began to notice buildings where there had been none before.  Portables had been replaced by permanent structures, the Humanities quad was now rounded out by a nice, new building, and the landscaping—which turns what would otherwise be a desert into a gorgeously-manicured oasis—had been developed.  The campus is preparing to celebrate 50 years—and hoping to snag a Presidential commencement speaker—and it eschews any efforts at classical style.  A campus bereft of “traditional”-looking buildings is upsetting to some, but these days the University looks more stylistically whole.  There is also a new statue of Peter the Anteater at the student centre, where a friendly staff member allowed me to leave my backpack in a closet to avoid carrying it to the theatre.

The Humanities buildings
One thing that hadn’t changed was the emptiness of the campus on week-ends.  When I was at UCI it had been dominated by commuters and didn’t have so much of a sense of community.  On Sunday there were a few people at a cafe where I stopped for some tea, but otherwise hardly anyone wandering around Ring Road or beautiful Aldrich Park.  Although I suppose the proximity of the beach on such a glorious day might have something to do with it.
I spent a happy couple of hours wandering around campus, associating buildings and landmarks with good memories of friends and classes, before enjoying the performance of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.  Afterwards, I had another hour to kill, and as I left campus to walk to the airport I passed through Mesa Court, where I had lived my freshman year.  Things looked relatively unchanged around the dining commons, the main lawn, and the small dorm blocks.  The grassy hillock beside Lluvia, where I’d lived, had been planted over by daisies, and there was a new building next to it, but it otherwise looked just as I remembered it.

I took a half-hour detour through the San Joaquin Wildlife Reserve on my way to the airport, site of many an early morning bird watching expedition around ponds, across bridges, and down well-kept paths.  The ponds feed into the San Diego Creek, which flows to Newport Bay.  Located on the Pacific Flighway, the marsh provides a home for hundreds of species of birds, some year-round residents, others itinerant.  The old exit onto Campus Drive no longer existed, so when it was time for me to leave the sights, sounds, and smells of the reserve behind, I climbed through a barbed-wire fence and resumed my walk to the airport.
The San Joaquin Marsh
Happily, there are sidewalks all the way to John Wayne, although because this is Orange County, I’m pretty sure no one has used them since I made my last walk there.  Drivers, attached at the rear to their fancy sports cars, looked bemused to see some two-legged critter walking along the side of the road, and one of them prodded me with a fender to see what would happen.

Remembering what I didn’t like so much about Irvine, I testily pushed all of pedestrian buttons at every crosswalk, probably crashing the city’s traffic control system, and earning the ire of drivers, to whom I responded with a cheery wave, using all five fingers as I walked past a row of law firms and corporate headquarters.  I jaywalked shamelessly, and when I noticed two men in suits and black sunglasses marching in my direction, I quickened my pace.  So did they.  I broke into a job, the airport now in sight.  They too increased their speed.  Knowing I had only one chance to escape, I took a chance and dashed across MacArthur Boulevard against a red hand and a stoplight which squawked at me to stay put.  It took all of my traffic-dodging techniques, honed over many months in Nairobi, but I made it safely to the other side.  Like the automatons they were, my pursuers remained at the opposite curb, shaking their fists in dismay. In the airport, people were giving me strange looks, and it took me a while to realise that in my Very Illegal flight through the barbed wire fence I had acquired several large branches which stuck out of my backpack, making me look positively Sasquatch-like by Orange County standards.

A fond farewell to Orange County
Then I was happily homeward bound, glad to have made a detour—however short—down memory lane to a place of which I have very fond memories. * 

* This post contains only one element of exaggeration. 

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