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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Pack a bag and head to UMass-Amherst

AMHERST -- It's not quaint. It's not pastoral or bucolic. Some might say it lacks the collegiate charm of the Ivy League.

But the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts is a great destination for a midweek getaway. Weekends here have their own allure, but they don't offer the pulse that is palpable when 31,000 students, faculty, and staff are bustling about. You don't need a reason to visit. Just show up and you'll have no trouble filling a couple of days with stimulating discoveries, hidden delights, and serendipitous encounters.

Book ahead (at for tickets to a show in one of the many theaters and concert halls, or to a sporting event, to anchor your stay.

Check into the hotel in the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center. It's the only government-owned hotel in the Commonwealth, a distinction that fits its stark concrete bulk. It was designed by Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-born architect who in 1965 was working on a new site for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York at the same time he was creating plans for this building.

The building's admirers and detractors both point to its ''legibility." From the outside you can determine what function different parts of the building perform. Some see that as bold and others say it's cold. Spend a night and you, too, can enter the debate.

After you roll out of bed, head to the couches in the lobby. There's no telling who you might see. One morning in February, I met Florie Arevalo, a Philippine sweatshop worker on a speaking tour slamming Wal-Mart for its labor practices.

While the lobby tends to be quiet, the concourse one level down is anything but. You can get your caffeine in a number of places, including the graduate student lounge, which is open to the public and has a well-stocked magazine rack, tables, couches, and a piano.

Duck into the campus store and attire yourself for the day's outing with a UMass T-shirt ($14-$24) or baseball cap ($20).

Next to the shop is an information desk and a rack of schedules for public buses connecting UMass with the other colleges in the Amherst-Northampton-South Hadley triangle (Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire). Patrick MacLeod, a political science major manning the desk, helped me navigate a posting of the day's events and find the sites on the campus map.

One level down you will find ATM machines and conference rooms. You might encounter the Association of Wetland Managers presenting ideas for dismantling dams in New England. I listened in for a while before wandering a few yards farther to take a peek into the booth at WMUA (91.1 FM), one of two radio stations broadcasting from campus.

Dan Ferriera, the engineer, says he is impressed by the ''boundless, unlimited energy" that each new crop of students brings to the station. He says he is in awe of the station's sports department, which covers 60 games (half of them on the road) each year.

The Campus Center connects to the Student Union through a passageway with a long bulletin board hawking everything from soap to spiritual enlightenment. During a recent two-day period, Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist; US Representative Barney Frank; and gubernatorial hopefuls Deval Patrick and Attorney General Thomas Reilly were in the house.

A must-stop early in the day is the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. Edward Durrell Stone designed this 26-story redbrick monolith, the native Arkansan who also designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Take the elevator to the top for views of UMass and the surrounding area. To the north you get a look at the Campus Center, the new computer science building, and, in the distance, the Green Mountains of Vermont. To the west are the athletic fields and the barn where goats, pigs, cows, and horses reside among Hadley's tobacco and potato fields. To the south are the four high-rises of the southwest dorms and the town of Amherst perched on a hill just beyond the campus. To the east is the Campus Pond, a hill full of brick dorms and water towers reminding you that UMass, which has its own ZIP code (01003), is a small, self-sufficient city.

From the library, wander into almost any building and you'll find something interesting. Snack shops are scattered about, as are at least five galleries.

Carol Cambo, editor of the UMass-Amherst alumni magazine, directed me to one of her favorite out-of-the-way spots on campus -- the entomology department in Fernald Hall. There, a hallway is lined with oak cabinets displaying moths, butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, wasps, ants, cicadas, and grasshoppers labeled and impaled on pushpins. The artifacts are museum quality. Seeing them in this setting, with context provided by working labs, makes for a unique experience.

Next, the greenhouses on the south side of the Morrill Science Center attracted my attention. I signed the guest book and encountered Teddi Bloniarz, the superintendent, who showed me a rare plant from the mountains of New Caledonia called an Amborella trichopoda. Scientists think of it as the link between nonflowering and flowering plants.

''I chop it up regularly and send leaf tissue out to researchers around the country," Bloniarz said.

She also directed me to the Durfee Conservatory and Gardens on the north side of the biology buildings. Dating to 1867, the conservatory is thought to be the oldest in the United States, even though the original structure was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938.

Each of its five sections has a lovely display of plants from a different climate. The building with the highest humidity has alcoves and curved hardwood benches for meditating and a fountain with a fish pond in the middle. I met Dan Winter there.

A junior still undecided on his major, Winter had hopped off his skateboard an hour earlier to spend time among the plants. Winter says he enjoys exploring obscure places on campus. Some days he wanders the halls of the Fine Arts Center just to see what people are creating.

At the end of the day, you can choose between several dinner options, including fine dining at the University Club, which is open to the public. It is in the oldest house in Amherst, built in 1728, and has a rich history that includes serving as a jail.

For entertainment, you might decide to take in a traveling Broadway production, watch a student theatrical presentation, or listen to a music recital by faculty members. Or you can cheer on a UMass team in the 10,500-seat Mullins Center, the largest arena between Worcester and Albany.

The next day, start with a hike to the animal farm on the outskirts of campus and perhaps stop on the way at the sun wheel (which resembles Stonehenge), where slabs of rock have been meticulously arranged to chart the path of the sun through the seasons.

As a center of learning, UMass-Amherst has plenty to offer visitors who arrive with curious minds. If you allow your curiosity to flourish, and follow it, you'll find a campus with all the attractions of a vibrant city -- and more.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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