A Chico memoir

Year one of many

I first arrived in Chico at the sweaty tail end of August 1992. To say that I was excited to start school here would be the understatement of the century. My last couple of years in high school had felt like being babysat, and I was chomping at the bit to leave Concord, where I’d grown up. I’d spent countless hours preparing for college life, although, looking back, few of those naïve preparations truly prepared me for life here.

I started packing for college two months before I actually moved here. It was kind of stupid, since all those boxes (which never fit in my shoebox-sized dorm room anyway) ended up sitting on my bedroom floor for almost three months while I ticked off the days until the big move. I’d bought new towels, one of those little refrigerators and some plastic cups and stocked up on shampoo, soap and deodorant. I hoped that these paltry supplies would somehow open up the brave new world that I imagined college to be.

I arrived here sitting in the back of my parent’s Volvo station wagon, full of fluttery tension. I was one of hundreds of freshmen checking in the dorms that day, and we all stood around, sizing each other up. I remember thinking how alike we all looked—mostly white, middle-class kids wearing the “grunge” attire that was so popular back then, milling around with our surprised-looking, Bermuda-shorts-and-sensible-loafers-wearing parents.

It was 106 degrees that day. Unluckily, my assigned dorm room was on the eighth floor of Whitney Hall, and the elevator was broken on moving day. So, my tired parents and I ended up moving all my carefully packed boxes up eight flights of stairs to my new home.

It was a cement-walled room that looked out over tree-canopied Warner Street and the stern-looking brick Student Health Center. The beds were steel-framed and squeaky, the mattresses thin and stained. The resident adviser who let us in was overly cheerful and perky.

“Welcome, welcome,” she said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun here.”

I was tired and sweaty and pissed about the elevator. I stared at her and said something like, “Great, OK.”

“Oh, Laura,” my mom sniffed, standing in the doorway holding a box. “Is this really it?” My mom is one of those well-meaning bed-and-breakfast types who buy $150 boots to go on a two-mile hike.

“Guess so,” I said, sitting down. “This is it.”

My roommate arrived soon after me. Her name was Courtney, and she was a volleyball player from Southern California who had a really good tan. We didn’t have much in common, and it didn’t take long to figure that out. She decorated her side of the room with outdoorsy pictures of Mount Everest climbers from Outside magazine, along with a few pictures of her and her high school friends knocking back brewskis at parties.

Photo By Tom Angel

It looked like a big Mountain Dew ad over there.

My walls were populated by scraps of my own feeble attempts at poetry, along with some lines from the great writers I tried in vain to emulate. I had a grainy little shot of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” taped to the wall above my bed, along with a sign that said “Thank You for Pot Smoking.”

To make a long story short, I lived in Whitney Hall only a few weeks. I petitioned to move the morning after Courtney threw up on the floor one night after a frat party. I spent the rest of the year happily living on the first floor of Shasta Hall with a former homecoming queen named Jovi, who was from the Central Valley. We didn’t have much in common either (she was far more studious than I was), but we got along just great.

I introduced her to her first joint, and she showed me how to use the library’s confusing computer systems.

I spent the first several months here far more homesick than I expected to be. I called home every day and found myself actually starting to miss the little sister whom I’d fought with so much during high school. I found the classes to be pretty easy, although I developed a bad habit, which I never kicked, of skipping them.

It was hard, those first few months. I had no interest in joining a sorority and spent most of my time hanging out with a boyfriend I met right after moving here.

It wasn’t until I’d been here for several months—and it finally started to cool off—that Chico started to feel like home. I joined a co-ed community service fraternity called Alpha Phi Omega, where I found other chronically restless types, and made some very good friends there, many of whom I still see.

I joined the legions of students who rode their bikes around town and found the wonders of Bidwell Park, where I spent countless hours exploring. I found my way out to the Sacramento River, where I used to go with my friend Nick to look for crawfish and watch him shoot his BB gun. It was fun, and it was something I would never have done outside of Chico.

I also discovered some of my favorite things about Chico that year—the Saturday Farmers’ Market where I bought strawberries that tasted like little balls of sugar, Salmon Hole (which I’m hesitant to include here, since it may draw more people to my special sanctuary), the trails above Horseshoe Lake, the downtown Birkenstock store (where you can get every kind of Birkenstock made), the sparkly annual Parade of Lights on the Fourth of July.

I’ve lived in Chico for almost 10 years, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I’m married and have a family of my own now, and we somehow managed to buy a house here last year.

I left briefly the summer I graduated, for Santa Cruz, where I shared a tiny room in a crappy neighborhood that rented for $650 a month. It was a hectic, and, looking back, kind of unhappy time in my life. I’d hoped I could squeeze a job in journalism out of that town, but I ended up working as a cook in the cafeteria of a huge software company, flipping burgers for rich, yuppie computer engineers.

By September, I was back in Chico with my tail between my legs and happily living in a roomy two-bedroom apartment that rented for $500 a month. Before I’d even unpacked my bags, I found my swimsuit, drove up to Upper Park and jumped right into the cold, clear waters of Salmon Hole.

Because, in the end, Chico is my home. l