A Chico memoir
If Chico were a woman, she’d be the love of my life. I’ve lived elsewhere and liked it, but Chico is the town I have cherished most deeply and known most intimately, and that will always be true, no matter where I live in the future.
Like most lasting romances, ours began slowly. We saw each other at first only once a week, and then only briefly. She revealed her secrets and treasures to me slowly. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
At the time, which was 1971, I had just moved form Los Angeles to Cohasset, a mountain village about 20 miles northeast of Chico. I’d ended up there by chance, which is how things happened in those days of body counts in Vietnam and race riots in the cities and madness loosed upon the land. All I knew was that I was glad to be out of L.A. and in the woods where the sun sparkled off the water in the creek.
Across the road a trail led into Rock Creek Canyon, which was populated only by cows and wildlife and was just the first of dozens of similar canyons cut in the volcanic soil by the creeks carrying snow water out of the mountains. I could have walked for 50 miles without seeing another person.
For nearly a year we stayed in Cohasset, exploring the country on foot, learning the names of the plants and animals and insects that lived there, or just sitting on our porch, watching the play of sunlight in the trees and listening to the buzz of creation. We fell in love with nature in all her abundance and variety and grew strong and happy.
For most of that time Chico was the busy, sprawling place with all the lights down at the bottom of the hill to which we drove once a week, in my 㤽 Chevy sedan, to buy food and kerosene and nails and do laundry. At the time Chico’s only shopping mall, North Valley Plaza, was the first thing we reached, and it was a shock, especially at night, when the lights and noise and cars were like a barrage after the quiet and darkness of the mountains.
Slowly, though, we came to know Chico’s sweeter qualities. We met friends for potlucks in flower-strewn back yards shaded by century-old black walnut trees. We danced to reggae bands at hippie bashes on the grass in the downtown Children’s Park. We bought the freshest, most delicious locally grown vegetables at the little health food store, quaintly called Family Market. We looked forward to buying those nails, and other such supplies, at historic Collier Hardware, which never failed to have what we needed and whose employees could be counted on to be friendly and helpful.
Chico gradually drew me close. I began to care about her. I saw that she was the most beautiful town in the Great Central Valley and also exceptional for the richness of her culture, thanks to the presence of the university. She was something remarkable: a vibrant college town surrounded, on one side, by some of the world’s richest farming soil and bordering, on the other, one of the world’s great mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada.
But she was also a busy place. I watched houses going up and the spread of commerce to the other side of the freeway. The number of cars on the streets kept increasing. As towns go, Chico was lovely, but she was still a town filled with active, noisy, acquisitive people.
It was seven years before I actually moved in. Where there are people, there are jobs, and I’d long ago run out of money. I’d commuted, first from Cohasset, later from my small cabin in Butte Creek Canyon. Chico pulled, but I wanted to stay in nature as long as I could.
I’ve lived in town now for 23 years, except for a couple of years when I worked in Idaho. I still miss living in nature. I miss its peacefulness and being able to see the stars at night. And I don’t like some parts of Chico, such as Whitman Avenue, with its Costco and Food 4 Less and Barnes & Noble, but I’m part of the city’s activity and I accept it.
Besides, Chico’s still the prettiest and most vibrant town in the Central Valley, and I don’t expect that ever to change. Not as long as the university is here, keeping downtown prosperous and lively. Not as long as the soil is so rich and the trees are so grand. Not as long as Upper Bidwell Park is close by, and with it the opportunity to leave the city behind and hike into nature.
And just walking around the old neighborhoods of Chico is joy enough, seeing the trees, the gardens, the creeks, the flowers everywhere. I can be made ecstatic by the smell of Chico’s earth after a rain, by the sight of roses blooming in someone’s yard. The gal still rings my bell—and always will. l