From a second-floor window in the Central Plant at the new University of California at Merced, it's easy to see the past.
Summer-gold farmland stretches toward the Sierra Nevada. A weathered barn and a lone eucalyptus framed by the window make for a picture postcard.
A few steps back from the window, the large and functional heart of the school beats quietly and efficiently as machinery and pipes carry water from a city-owned well through a 700-foot tunnel to feed the campus.
All that silence belies work that virtually hasn't stopped the past two months as crews squeeze in six months' worth of labor delayed by the spring's late rains.
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That's all that's left until classes start for the first 1,000 undergraduate students. Students need classrooms, a book store, a library, passable roads, dormitories, a dining hall, places to pay their college fees and talk to academic advisers, use their computers, study and relax.
Workers keep moving from 6 a.m. until late afternoon, weekdays and weekends; to an outsider, it seems there are too many things on the to-do list.
Vice Chancellor for Administration Lindsay Desrochers has no doubts the campus will be ready, and doesn't want to think about a contingency plan to hold classes at the university's satellite site at the old Castle Air Force Base.
"It will be done. The students will be here."
In some ways, Desrochers, 58, is as much the heart of the campus as the Central Plant.
She has been with the school for five years and oversees its construction.
"I was here when it was still a golf course," she said. "I remember thinking 'Wow — the transformation that's going to have to take place.'"
The first phase of the campus has come together in the three years since underground work began.
Of course, the whole process has taken much longer — 17 years, actually, since the UC regents decided to build a new campus.
Bob Smith, director of special programs for Merced County, has been working on the UC since it was little more than what seemed to some a wild idea.
The county's planner on the UC project, Smith has visited the site more than 100 times, with surveyors and geologists, potential faculty members and elementary school classes on field trips.
"The transformation is absolutely amazing," he said.
Back when it was still a golf club, Smith said, there was no way to imagine what it would look like or how it would evolve into a whole campus.
Merced resident Bob Carpenter, known as "Mr. UC Merced" because of his lobbying to locate the campus in the valley, has spent longer than Desrochers or Smith watching the school's plans come to life.
Not a week goes by that he doesn't at least drive out near the UC to watch the progress.
"It's real," he said. "It's here."
Desrochers spent part of a recent Thursday morning showing off what has sprung up.
It's hard to keep up with her. She doesn't look like she's running, but before long, she has covered a lot of ground — up stairs, down stairs, into the huge tunnel that connects the Central Plant with the unfinished Classroom Building. She points out a medium-sized classroom on the library's second floor. There are no desks, chairs or chalkboards, but they're coming, she said, and other than the need for a good vacuuming, the room is ready.
A graduate of UCLA who earned her doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley, Des-rochers said she wanted to be involved in the university system's 10th campus because she wanted to give back to the UC.
She looks at home in a hard hat, but Desrochers still straightens her reddish, pixieish hair when the hat comes off. In her car, next to her satellite radio receiver, she keeps boots with blocky heels that at one time probably went well with dress slacks. Now, though, they're caked with dried mud and construction-site dust.
Desrochers' petite frame practically hums with pride as she points out all that has gone into turning the former Merced Hills Golf Course into the first new UC campus in 40 years.
With three weeks until opening weekend, resident advisers have moved into the dorms, students' rooms are furnished, the dining common smells of fresh white paint and the cooks are shaking down the kitchen.
Sawdust and dirt swirl around the courtyard in The Lantern, the multistory connector between the huge library's two wings. The courtyard is filled with construction equipment and materials, but it'll be tidy by opening day.
Though the library wings are in their final steps — workers are checking fire alarms, finishing stairs on the second floor and putting ceiling tiles into place — The Lantern, with its reading and meeting rooms, won't be ready for opening.
The last layer of asphalt has been laid over a portion of Scholars Lane that leads into thecampus from Lake Road; parking lots are ready for cars; and a little lake that used to be the golf course's water hazard on the third hole is being groomed, refilled and aerated.
The construction crews' portable buildings huddle behind the unfinished Classroom Building — they won't be removed for a long time. It'll be 25 years until the campus is complete.
Machines move dirt and carry construction materials, and the landscape changes almost daily, Desrochers said while winding her Volkswagen station wagon over the dirt roads that snake through campus. She had to look to make sure a path she'd used the day before was still passable.
For a woman who's got "a thousand brass balls in the air at any given moment," Desrochers doesn't seem worried.
As a senior vice chancellor in the Georgia university system, Desrochers saw some campus reconstruction but never witnessed a whole college come to life from the ground up.
Planner Smith said he has never been part of a project this big before, either, but cannot see how people with the UC could be anything but nervous.
"They're probably a little nuts right now. They're probably pulling their hair out," he said. "But I've seen them pull things off.
"If anyone can do it, they can."
Desrochers, who spends more than 10 hours a day on the campus, said she sometimes dreams about the construction. She has worked with almost 300 companies that have contributed to the campus.
At home at night, she makes herself stop thinking about work by spending time with her husband, composing music on her digital piano, painting with watercolors and reading.
And she keeps a secret:
"I worry a lot. I worry other people," she said. "That's how it gets done."
With Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey's approval, Desrochers named the campus streets, drawing inspiration from the Sierra Nevada — Muir Pass, Ansel Adams Street, Bobcat Lane. Permanent signs will probably be one of the last items checked off the list on opening weekend.
There are no nameplates outside office doors, either, but plenty of people are busy inside, from administrators to workers putting finishing touches on classrooms, meeting rooms and hallways.
Landscapers have laid thick, fresh sod between the dormitories. Trees are taking root, and more are waiting in temporary pots in a nearby parking lot.
It's not the best time to plant, but as Desrochers said, "we have no choice."
For the first few years, most classes will be held in the library's 20 to 25 classrooms, or in one of the multipurpose buildings near the dorms. The student body will grow by about 800 new students each year, and the 60-member faculty and campus will swell with it.
Surprisingly, there have been few glitches in construction, other than the weather-related delays and a union strike among carpenters last year that wasn't much hindrance, Desrochers said. There have been no major injuries, either.
Most of the major revisions came at the beginning of the process. UC regents chose land north of Merced in 1995. But because endangered fairy shrimp were found in vernal pools, the campus was moved to another spot.
In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis moved up the university's opening date a year to fall 2004 — a directive Chancellor Tomlinson-Keasey learned about from a newspaper reporter conducting an interview.
Back then, the state was facing "headier budget days," Tomlinson-Keasey said.
"Suddenly, we hit the fall-off-the-cliff point," she said. The state budget fell billions of dollars short, making UC Merced funding uncertain, and the opening was pushed back to 2005.
Through all that, the chancellor said, she never doubted the project would be completed on time.
Now she's looking 10 and 20 years down the road to what UC Merced can bring to the region: research, jobs, more college opportunities for valley students and, she hopes, someday, a medical school.
For now, though, she and Desrochers anxiously await opening day.
Tomlinson-Keasey said she tries to stay away from campus and work in her downtown Merced office so she doesn't disrupt people.
But some can't stay away from the campus. With all those balls in the air, Desrochers might as well set up a tent and bring her sleeping bag to campus for the next three weeks. She's got lists of things to see to — including the last nails and screws — before the Sept. 6 kick-off ceremony.
Construction won't stop just because classes start, and for Desrochers, the 10to 12-hour days won't stop.
"It has been an intense and wonderful ride," she said.
UC planner Smith said there have got to be glitches in the firstsemester, but that's to be expected with any brand-new endeavor.
Students will have to share the faculty and staff's pioneering spirit.
"They won't be in trailers, they won't be out at Castle, they won't be wearing hard hats," Smith said. "When the rains come, they'll probably have to walk through some mud.
"But they are going to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Bee staff writer Lorena Anderson can be reached at 578-2366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.