Chico Answer Man

Tips, hints, warnings and spiritual guidance for the newly arrived

Big Chico Creek runs through the Chico State campus.

Big Chico Creek runs through the Chico State campus.

If you’re new to Chico, welcome. Pull up a chair. I’ll tell you some things you need to know about this town. Let’s begin with the obvious:

Chico is a small town—by California standards, anyway. Size is relative, right? If Chico were in Idaho, for example, it would be the second-largest city in the state. In fact, an Idahoan once told me that in his state a small town is defined as anywhere two people get together and argue over who’s going to buy the beer.

Besides, we know Chico is small because that’s what its name means in Spanish: “small,” or “little.” Perhaps we should say, “Welcome to Smallville.” (Isn’t there a television series by that name?)

Then there are the creeks. There are several of them running through Chico. The two that serve as the northern and southern boundaries of downtown Chico are Big Chico Creek and Little Chico Creek, respectively. If you’ve been on the Chico State campus, you’ve probably seen Big Chico Creek. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?

Anyway, if you translate the word “Chico” in their names, you get “Big Little Creek” and “Little Little Creek.” That’s what we get for using two languages to name things.

There’s a historical explanation for all this, and it’s something you should know about Chico, if only so you won’t lie awake at night wondering how the town came to be called “Small.”

The name Chico comes from Rancho del Arroyo Chico, or “Little Brook Ranch,” the name of the 28,000-acre land grant Chico’s founder, Gen. John Bidwell, purchased in 1849.

You’ve probably seen that name, Bidwell. Certainly you’ve heard of Bidwell Park, which as you’ll discover is a natural wonderland—Chico’s “crown jewel,” the greatest thing about the town besides the people who live here.

There’s Bidwell Avenue, Bidwell Drive, Bidwell Title & Escrow, Bidwell Perk (a coffee house), Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, Bidwell Physical Therapy, Bidwell Presbyterian Church, Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation Center—the list goes on.

That’s because the general was quite a guy—probably the most significant pre-Gold Rush pioneer figure in Northern California. John Sutter and Peter Lassen are more famous, but neither accomplished as much as Bidwell did or had his lasting impact.

Chico’s founders, Annie and John Bidwell

One of the things you need to know about Chico is the story of John Bidwell and his wife, Annie Kennedy Bidwell. You can’t understand Chico or appreciate its history without learning something about them.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do that. Just go to Bidwell Mansion, that big pinkish building on The Esplanade just east of the university. It’s been restored to look much as it did when the Bidwells lived in it. Take a tour, and then go over to the Visitor Center next door and see the historical display there. You’ll be glad you did.

Another important thing about Chico you should know is that it’s surrounded by some of the most beautiful country in the world. You probably noticed how, driving up here, the scenery became increasingly pretty. Perhaps you took one of the back roads, through Colusa and up Highway 45 along the Sacramento River, past that mysterious little mountain range in the middle of the valley called the Sutter Buttes.

Believe me, every time I come home from a trip to Sacramento or the Bay Area, I marvel at how pretty it is here and how lucky I am to live in such beauty.

You’ll find lots of fun things to do in Chico—parties and barbecues to go to, movies and plays to see, terrific music in the clubs. But you’ll miss one of the best things about living here if you don’t take the time to explore nature. Ride your bike into the orchards. Cruise out to the Sacramento River and stop at Scotty’s Landing for a refreshment. Hike into Upper Bidwell Park and take a dip in one of the swimming holes along the creek. Drive up to Lassen Volcanic National Park and hike the Brokeoff Trail. Go cross-country skiing.

Fortunately, students have a terrific outfit on campus that’s designed to get you out into nature in a big way. It’s called Adventure Outings (located in the WREC—Wildcat Recreation Center), and it’s run by your own Associated Students government to provide you with high-quality, low-cost outdoor experiences. You can even rent any equipment you might need for your trip. You’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.

CAVE volunteers help polish up Chico’s “crown jewel,” Bidwell Park.

Something about Chico you already know: It’s a very social town. You’ve probably noticed how friendly folks are, how they say hello to you—a stranger!—on the street and smile at you in the stores. Get used to it. That’s the way we are, happy to be here and share this good thing we’ve found called Chico.

We get together a lot—for barbecues, for dinners, for parties. We like to socialize with our friends, and we know that students do, too. Unfortunately, as we’ve observed far more often than we would have liked, student parties sometimes get, well, out of hand—and even dangerous.

Too many young people are bad drinkers. They don’t yet understand that, while alcohol in small quantities is a social lubricant, in large quantities it can kill. It’s toxic, as in intoxication. In recent years, several young people in Chico have died or almost died from drinking too much or combining alcohol with other drugs.

You need to know that we really, really don’t want to have to call your parents to inform them that you’ve died from an overdose of alcohol. Or been in an alcohol-caused traffic accident. Or that you’re in the county drunk tank in Oroville. Please, for their sakes, practice moderation if you choose to drink. Better yet, set an example for others and skip the booze. Life is a wonderful gift. You don’t need to consume a drug to appreciate and enjoy it.

The other thing about the party scene is that it can pull you away from your work, which is to attend classes and do your assignments. Homework can be hard and boring, and it’s tempting just to shine it on and go have fun.

My advice: Remember school’s your job Mondays through Fridays. Save the fun for the weekend. On Sunday evening, prep for the workweek to come. If you exercise that simple discipline, and don’t skip classes, you’ll do very well at Chico State.

Sorry. I’ve been preaching. It’s because I want you to enjoy your stay here, and I know the best way to enjoy it is to take good care of yourself. Be healthy. Try not do things you may regret, like having unprotected sex. Or eating too much junk food. Or not getting enough exercise.

OK, enough already. Check out the sidebar to this story for a short list of some of the more useful things you should know about Chico, such as the difference between the numbered streets and the numbered avenues. That’s something you need to sort out right away or you’ll be confused for months.

Chico’s a caring town. I’m forever amazed at how many people here are engaged in helping others. If you want to deepen your Chico experience, commit yourself to doing a little good in the world, too. You can start by going to the CAVE—Community Action Volunteers in Education—office and volunteering for one of its several terrific programs. It’s a great way to meet people in the community.

There’s a lot more to know about Chico, of course. Chico may be a small town, but it’s surprisingly wealthy in the things that enrich life: a sense of history, an appreciation for the arts and nature, a community-wide desire to protect the quality of life here.

The last is why Chico, along with the university, has become a leader in implementing sustainable practices. Politically, it’s a progressive city in the sense that the members of the City Council are eager to make Chico exceptional in every possible regard, despite the economic problems afflicting California lately.

When I travel, I often meet people who, when I say I’m from Chico, exclaim, “Oh, I went to college there! I love Chico!”

I hope that when you move on in life, you’ll look back on your sojourn here with that amount of fondness and appreciation. In the meantime, enjoy your stay in little big Chico.