Thursday, November 22, 2012

Show me a sign

The rules are jarringly specific in Upper Bidwell Park.
"No smoking glass dogs …" Is that a pressing concern?
Are we contemplating an adjective or a verb — an assurance
of the absence of such creatures, or a prohibition against the
remote possibility of a silica-induced high? From whence
do these come? Are Chico gift shops overloaded with packs
of glass canines? Would one get them from under the counter?
Or were they smoked to extinction in the park boundaries?
On this holiday, I give thanks for memory of place.

Even though I haven't returned more than thrice in the last 27 years, my college town remains vivid in imagination. Hazy and a bit corner-rounded, perhaps, but vivid.

I walked its streets and wilds many times, usually before daybreak on weekends, to get my mind right for a day of studying (in the white-knuckle and correct fear that if I didn't devote my weekends to homework, I would be doomed).

Each time I picked a different direction and took off. In the tradition of Arthurian knights, each walk was a great loop, never out and back. I had to return from a different direction. I was questing.

I walked until I was good and tired and ready to read textbooks for long stretches.

Places reveal themselves to walkers and all who move at a walkers' pace. Conversely, places hide by the speed of automobile traffic, maybe by design.

But I think the opposite is true. People make people-made places for a walking pace, but it's a 45-mph world.

I'm sure the people who created the tiny Maronite Catholic church not so long ago on a busy street near our home expected people to see it. A statue of the Virgin Mary and the toddler Christ, meant for a cathedral, dwarfs the small building (a former ranch home, it appears, disguised beneath gingerbread eaves). The upraised letters on the signs, angled for viewing up and down the street, glow as if colored in gold leaf. But if I hadn't been strolling by one day, trying to see how difficult it was to walk to the library (shamefully easy), I wouldn't have seen the little church and its beautiful monstrosity.

Maronite parishioners see it. I'm not sure anyone else does.

Part of the sign, as it really looked, greeting Upper Bidwell visitors … but do we really need it
explained why not to bring glass?
I know parts of San Luis Obispo many lifelong residents may not know if they never examined their city at a walking pace. Cul-de-sacs that aren't really dead ends to pedestrians. Architectural oddities. Secret gardens. Shortcuts and hidden connections that come in handy eventually, inevitably.

Nearly out of college, our son has amassed a great sense of place about his college town. In time, so will our daughter. They'll miss their second home, as I do mine.

Our son took us on walk of his place, though not in Chico proper, a rigid-grid city like so many in California's Central Valley, that I confess I have seen almost exclusively by car. Instead, our son took us out to Upper Bidwell Park, part of more than 3,000 acres of wilderness that rises from the city just as it recedes in time. It's easy, in the center of town, among the restaurants designed for parents to take their undergrad children, to miss the volcanic birth of this place, the shift and uplift and rifts, the relatively fresh scars and strange shining rock.

Trails snake and skirt and climb the volcanic country, and our well-traveled son took it easy on us with one that sidled along Big Chico Creek.

Here and there, little signs on posts informed us of the flora. I love those little signs, and signs of most kinds. I love explanations. We camped at state parks when our kids were little because Saturday night usually promised a campfire where a park ranger would talk about bats or constellations. The only reason we never stopped at any historical markers during drives is that I needed to demonstrate some personal restraint. You can read just about any historical marker now on the Interwebs, from the comfort of your lap.

I'd invent Instant Botanist™® or Instant Entomologist©™for hikers: Add a drop of water, and out of a little foil envelope springs an expert to show you pine mat manzanita or elderberry beetles.

Signs'll do until then. Some of the signs along the creek were missing, which is the way with signs. Governments invest in their installation with great pomp, then usually don't have contingencies for their damage or disappearance. A couple of the nice signs I drew to explain sights in Old Sacramento have been gone for many months now; it puzzles me why someone would break a sign.

On the stump of one broken sign on the creek, someone had scrawled in loopy script, "It is the large bush," a satirical response to the next sign on the creek bed, a professional sign differentiating from tree species from another: "It is the large bush." We didn't know which was the large bush.

Signs are better than none at all. If they're wrong or uninformative, at least they inspire entertainment. I'd make it law that every city post well lit and VERY LARGE AND EXTREMELY LEGIBLE signs telling drivers what intersections they're approaching; some cities do this; other cities are mean and cruel.

I may just be old. But I like a good sign. Helps me remember where I am.

I hope you enjoy Thanksgiving in peace. Take a hike, maybe. You never know what you discover.

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