Watch out!

Avoiding the hidden dangers of Chico

Photo By Tom Angel

Railroad tracks once ran down the center of Main Street, leading to many a bicycle crash. Sometime after it became obvious that no more trains were coming through on those tracks, around 1990, they were removed.

Welcome to Chico, city of hot summers, mild winters, lush orchards, miles of bike trails, friendly folks, a beautiful downtown and relatively little crime. But don’t be fooled by the peace and serenity that greet you when you first arrive in this fine burg. Danger is out there, lying in wait for the unsuspecting. Consider this is your guide to having a safe and comfortable stay in Chico.

Every community has its landmines, those dangers that you don’t recognize until it’s too late. Some are universal, like the middle-aged, balding, pony-tailed swingers driving little red convertibles through parks on sunny days, eye-balling the young co-eds from behind their Ray-Bans; or the middle-aged tanned-to-leather divorcees sitting next to the apartment pool, asking someone to spread a little baby oil on their backs and shoulders. “That’s it, right there. Oh, you’re such a love. Would you like to come up to my place for a vodka Collins?”

Chico has a few of those, but what you really have to watch out for are:

Photo By Tom Angel

Speeding trains.
Railroad tracks that run north and south through the heart of the college community. Those tracks carry a big, fast, slow-to-stop train. Every few years some poor unsuspecting pedestrian, jogger, bicyclist or inebriated person crosses paths with that train, and every time the train wins.

The trains come through town at all hours, and unless they have a scheduled stop—only the passenger trains that come through in the wee hours of the morning do—they ain’t slowing down.

Union Pacific freight trains roll through town an average of 18 times a day. Two years ago UP decided to raise the speed limit it allows its trains to travel through Chico from 25 to 45 miles per hour. While there hasn’t been a measurable increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities or injuries since the change, there’s been no drop in the number of incidents, which is always high in Chico.

Unstable sycamore trees.
They are among the largest trees in town, and many of them line the side streets, providing shade for parked cars and sidewalk strollers. But look out: These trees drop these little round, brown seed packages that when stepped upon have been known to lead to a twisted ankle, bruised ego and even a broken kneecap (which happened to a News & Review employee who’s lived in this town for decades).

Photo By Tom Angel

And if the little brown pollen-dispensing balls don’t get you, one of the big branches will. When the weather is hot, don’t park your car under one of these trees. In the heat, they suck up the moisture by the gallons, bowing their limbs to the point where they can crack and fall.

If your car happens to be parked below, you’d better have full-coverage insurance. The trees along downtown sidewalks are irrigated, and if the pipes leak, which they often do, the trees get an unlimited source of water and that’s when limbs start to snap.

Unforgiving one-way streets.
Until you get used driving in Chico, please, please, please be conscious of the one-way streets that cross the downtown. Becoming familiar with them should take no more than four or five years, just about the time you’re ready to graduate and leave town. Broadway and Main, the two major arteries running one-way north and south through town, are three lanes wide and allow for the free-flow of traffic through the middle lane even as parallel-parkers clog up the outside lanes.

More menacing and better hidden are Third and Fourth streets, which run east-west. Third is a problem in that it goes from two-way to one-way as you cross Salem Street. Traffic cops are pretty forgiving to the inexperienced drivers, at least until they catch you the fourth or fifth time.

Photo By Tom Angel

Electronic parking meters.
You’ll meet the town’s parking meters after you’ve mastered the maze of one-way streets and learned to parallel park without scraping your front right fender against the rear left fender of that brand-new black Jag some guy nicknamed “Sarge” just exited.

Chico boasts electronic, as opposed to mechanical, parking meters. We’re not sure what that means other than that violations may be easier to spot and a nickel will buy you 12 minutes, a dime’ll get you 26 minutes and a quarter buys you an hour.

After you’ve been here a few weeks, you don’t want people to know you’re new to town. Here’s a tip to covering you lack of experience: Don’t feed parking meters on the weekends, when parking is free. That’s a dead giveaway that you are either new or visiting from out of town. But do feed them during the weekdays. Even though legendary meter maid Marge has retired, her replacement is pretty good at spotting those cars that have stayed beyond their allotted parking time.

Another thing: If the parking space says you can stay for an hour, that’s all you can stay, no matter how many nickels you feed into the meter. Stay longer, and you may get a ticket.

Cops on bikes.
The best way to avoid the problems with one-way streets and parking meters is to ride a bike for transportation. This town was made for bikes—it’s flat, has good bike paths and drivers usually are well aware that they are sharing the roads with bicyclists.

But climb on a bike and beware. There are rules here that you can’t ignore. Stay off the sidewalks. They are called sidewalks for a reason. And, oh, how the locals hate to have to sidestep a bike when walking downtown.

They’re not alone. Because there are so many people peddling in Chico, we have cops on bikes to police them. And just because you’re on a bike, don’t think you can ride the wrong way on a one-way street or blow through stop signs. Nope. Just like the driver of a car, you’ll get hit with a moving violation if you don’t follow the traffic laws.

Pooping pigeons.
OK, this is a hazard common to many municipalities. Pigeons—rats with wings, as some call them—tend to flock to and live in cities. Here they inhabit most of the downtown buildings, particularly the Senator Theater building (a few months ago a nest in the theater’s marquee caught on fire), Tower Records and the old vacant structure on Fourth Street between Salem and Broadway appropriately called “The Pigeon Palace.”

There’s not much you can do about this menace except watch where you stand when you’re on the sidewalk, keep an eye to the sky when walking near the aforementioned buildings and maybe start wearing a hat. Pellet guns are not an option.

There you have it. Keep in mind these are only some of the dangers lurking out there. There are more, but common sense should protect you from most. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s what we call streamlining the gene pool. So enjoy the town, take advantage of what it has to offer, and always be aware of those land mines.