The real ‘Ecchoing Green’
Chico’s allure casts a timeless spell on us all
The first time I can actually remember being in Chico, I was 3 or 4 years old and being towed by hand into the Woolworth’s on Main Street (or was it a Sprouse-Reitz; either way, it’s no longer extant) by my grandmother. We were probably visiting her in Orland and decided to go to Chico on a shopping trip. Anyway, the thing was I didn’t care to go into the establishment just then: There was a train slowly hissing and clattering up the street.
Grandma wasn’t impressed. Come to think of it, none of the grown-ups reacted in any way close to the delighted astonishment I was feeling. If anything, they mostly behaved as if it were an inescapable nuisance that they’d have to pretend to ignore for the next 10 minutes or so. Young people, fortunately, are just naturally curious and excited about anything big, loud, and slow moving that happens to be clattering into view.
That’s probably why they’re generally fond of their parents.
Certainly, the most enduring aspect of Chico is Bidwell Park. In 1965, when we moved from Colusa to Orland, there wasn’t a summer that went by when we didn’t spend at least one birthday at a picnic site in Bidwell Park. And with at least one birthday per month, beginning in May with my sister’s and ending in August with mine, there was the likely prospect of four parties under the cool leafy canopy, near the soft chattering of the rock-lined creek in Bidwell Park.
Adding to our delight in the park was the folklore surrounding it. The Warner Bros. movie The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed in Bidwell Park back in the ‘30s, and with those odd, thick, root-like vines that stiffly dangled from the treetops, it was easy to imagine Robin, his men, and even Maid Marian swinging from one pale bough to the next. Our mom claimed that they had shot some installments of Tarzan there, too; whether or not it was true, the presence of those vines alone seemed to substantiate the legend. And what kid doesn’t love the idea of running around half-naked, talking to animals and screaming at the top of his or her lungs, “Ahhh-ah-ah-ahhh-ah-ah-ahhh!”
In Bidwell Park you could do that.
Even then, there was Caper Acres. The playground for kids in the One Mile area of Bidwell Park has stood in all its fenced-in glory for a few decades now. Nestled near the trees, the creek but a stone’s throw away, the playground takes on an ambience of pure magic, of time standing still. It is a place where William Blake’s poem, “The Ecchoing Green,” is lifted from its nostalgic crypt on the printed page and set running and leaping and shouting in all its exuberant physical and spiritual glory.
Furthermore, the thought that there was even a place like Caper Acres where adults couldn’t go unless accompanied by children was delightfully empowering. And those archetypal attractions: The Swiss cheese with its holes like short slides, the concrete conduits of the tunnels through that great mound of dirt, the photo ops with Humpty-Dumpty upon his pre-fall wall … all of these things have entered the collective consciousness of countless area children, many of us practically grown up now 35 years later.
As a teenager in the ‘70s, the allure of Chico was cruising up and down The Esplanade on a Friday night, scouting for girls to party with. For the crew I then regularly hung out with, success in this endeavor was generally elusive. Still, for yokels from Orland, Chico was where it was at. In Chico, there were fast-food restaurants; in Orland, there was only Gardner’s Frosty, Fundenburger, and, after midnight, Bojé's Café. In Chico, there were three movie theaters (four, if you count the long since burned-down, X-rated Vecino); in Orland, we had only one movie house, with its at least three-months-behind-the-rest-of-the-world viewing fare. Compared to Orland, Chico was the big city. It was hip, happening, and only 20 minutes away. What could be better?
Chico leaves a lasting impression on all who pass through here. And even though the train no longer runs up Main Street and Woolworth’s (or Sprouse-Reitz?) has long since gone the way of the ankylosaurus locally, there are still more than enough venues, individuals and occurrences here awaiting the prospect of new memories.
While you’re here, be sure to create a few of your own.
Next: Getting too comfortable