A Chico memoir

Finding Chico - How this tree-lined town sucked me in

I don’t know if I found Chico or Chico found me, but either way I feel fortunate. Oftentimes, people assume I went to Chico State and sound surprised—and a little jealous—that I moved here to take a job. As in many college towns (including mine, Arcata), graduates often have to leave to get a decent job. I got to come here for one.

After working for a paper on the Central Coast for two years, I had been applying at dailies throughout the state. I didn’t know much about “alternative” papers like the News & Review. All I knew about Chico was that the university had a party school reputation equivalent to the rep of my alma mater, Humboldt State, as a stoner school. Hell, I hadn’t even heard about Sierra Nevada beer. The week before I moved up, my mom called me all worried because there had been a story on Hard Copy about a family scandal involving a local official. And something about Bob Dole falling on his ass at the Elks Lodge.

Then-Editor Joe Martin interviewed me for a contributing editor position over the phone, and when I didn’t hear back for a week, I called and offered to come up for an in-person interview, during Labor Day weekend 1996. He agreed, and asked me if I needed help finding a place to stay. I said, “No, thanks; I found this motel on The Esplanade,” drawing out the “ahhh” as if it were French or something.

It was about a nine-hour drive. The other day I came across the map on which the AAA lady had drawn a line in pink highlighter from San Luis Obispo to Chico.

First impression: trees! “Whoa!” I said, craning my neck at the canopy of trees over Oleander Avenue. The boyfriend, Tom, and I went to check out this little place we’d heard of called Bidwell Park. Triple “Whoa!”

Our first night in Chico, we ate at Jasco’s, overlooking the belly dancers at the Phoenix Building. The night before my interview, I pored over city guides, News & Reviews and something called “Tell it to the E-R.” The Enterprise-Record that day had a story calling Asians “Orientals,” so I kind of got a glimpse of the differences in the two publications.

We had found the News & Review office during a dry run the previous day, and when we got there, now-Editor Tom Gascoyne was in on a Saturday, writing a story in scruffy shorts at a messy desk. It looked like a cool place to work.

Joe took a neat approach to the interview: He took me to Tres Hombres and then drove me all over Chico in his car. As we looped around the streets, he pointed out the Bidwell Ranch property, talked about the impending City Council election and basically told me how great Chico is and what fun it is to be a newspaper reporter here. He told me it gets really hot here in the summertime, and I told him I wouldn’t complain—a promise he held me to the following year as I sweated and whined.

The next day, Tom and I got back on the freeway nervously excited. I wanted this job; we wanted to live in this “Chico.” When Joe called to say I had the job, I was just giddy. We didn’t even negotiate salary. (It was like that Albert Brooks movie, Defending Your Life.) I knew I was coming to Chico no matter what.

It was hard trying to find an apartment around the same time the students were coming in. Enrollment was still down at that point, but nonetheless the rental agencies wanted us to have co-signers and all kinds of things I, at almost 25, resented a bit. We grabbed the first apartment we could (we’d heard it was good to live in “the avenues”), and traded up a year later.

Our first week here, we went to a football game (Chico State still had football then) against our alma mater, the Humboldt State Lumberjacks. Within a month, I had bought one of those sweatshirts from Made In Chico. We walked everywhere.

Since then, I’ve haven’t always appreciated how lucky/blessed I am to live in Chico. I get caught up in the grind and start feeling surly. Then, I walk a couple of blocks to the downtown and eat something, or buy something, or people-watch.

If I could offer any advice to someone just arriving in Chico, I’d say be sure not to lose sight of what makes this town special. Spend some time as a tourist here once in a while.