* Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2010.
A few weeks ago, the rocks read, “Jesus loves you,” but that message is long gone. By now, another message, perhaps the letters of a campus organization or a political preference, graces the slope of the levee marking the beginning of the Yolo Causeway. Travelers on eastbound I-80 have just seconds to glimpse the latest message spelled out in spray-painted rocks.
Davis High School students Margaret Starbuck, Anna Sturla and Linda Wogulis chose the spot to write out “No on 8″ during the 2008 election season. At the time, the girls were leaders in Emerson Junior High’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Their message remained visible for “about a day” before a conservative group contradicted it, Sturla said.
While many groups choose to leave their messages at night, Starbuck, Sturla and Wogulis acted during the day. “We didn’t have anything to hide,” Sturla said.
The girls had the approval and assistance of their parents, who drove them to the site and fetched supplies. “At one point Anna’s dad went to get a machete so we could cut the weeds down on the side of the highway so people could see it better,” Starbuck said.
College groups are much more reluctant to disclose that they have rearranged the rocks.
Despite the fact that a photo of the rocks as arranged by Alpha Gamma Omega fraternity is prominently displayed on Davis Wiki, the group refused to comment. When asked, one fraternity brother said he would find an appropriate person to talk about the activity. Without covering the phone’s mouthpiece, he laughed and told a friend he was going to hang up. When The Enterprise called back, he explained, sounding a bit embarrassed, “Anything involving that is sensitive.”
Arbel Bedak, a UC Davis senior majoring in music, admitted to having rearranged the rocks with several organizations, though he wouldn’t say which. Some groups use the practice as an initiation and bonding activity for new members, and he didn’t want to ruin “many years’ of tradition and surprise” for any potential inductees. “There are high school students in Davis that might be coming to UCD,” he warned.
Though driving out to the Yolo Causeway at a time when only college students are awake to perform hard labor may seem cruel, Bedak works to create “a very positive environment.”
Returning members don’t do any heavy lifting, but they “cheer (the workers) on with encouraging words.” He emphasized that the activity is a team-building exercise, not hazing. “It really is about becoming a member of the (group) and encouraging them to work in a large group,” he said.
The end result: the group’s name finished in time for the morning commute. With a large group, rearranging the rocks takes a little over an hour, but with fewer workers, students can struggle in the dark for two or three hours.
At least in Bedak’s experience, there’s never been any alcohol present. Groups take appropriate “precautionary measures” to stay out of the way of drunk drivers who may not see students in the dark. “We usually coordinate with the county police. They know that we’re out there,” he said.
Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share
Some UCD students leave a mess behind them. “Occasionally I go out there and there are beer bottles everywhere and trash,” Robin Kulakow, the executive director of the Yolo Basin Foundation, complained.
According to Sergeant Lance Faille from the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, “It’s not vandalism, because they’re not destroying anything.” Besides, there’s not much the sheriff can do, even if messages are obscene or inappropriate. However, if people block the roadway while they’re rearranging the rocks, the sheriff can get involved to resolve traffic issues.
The levee that serves as a bulletin board also is the entrance to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The Yolo Basin Foundation leads environmental education and conservation programs in the area. “It would just be nice if the people doing the rocks remembered that it’s a public place,” she said.
“My employees do clean up on a fairly regular basis,” Dave Feliz said. He manages the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area for the California Department of Fish and Game. “It can be a mess,” he added.
Employees of the Department of Fish and Game are usually the first to arrive on the scene every morning. During hunting season, they sometimes run into groups putting the finishing touches on their messages. “There’s been times we’ll open the gate to the wildlife area — during the duck season we’re there quite early — and we see people doing the rocks,” he said.
Over the years, Feliz has noticed the names of student organizations, personal messages to individuals, and without fail, some sort of cheer or jeer every time UCD plays Sacramento State University.
Both Kulakow and Feliz recall the message left in November 1997, when President Clinton came to dedicate the wildlife area. Someone wrote “Vic’s Place” across the levee on the day of the ceremony. “Vic Fazio was our congressman, and he was instrumental in establishing the wildlife area,” Kulakow explained.
No one knows exactly when well-wishers and pranksters began leaving messages in the area. According to Bob Bowen, the public relations manager for the city of Davis, the practice has existed for at least 50 years. “I was messing with them in the late ’60s, early ’70s as a Davis High and UCD student,” he said.
Shipley Walters, who is the author of nine books on the history of Yolo County, said that the levees and causeway were built during World War I, but the place probably became a bulletin board sometime after I-80 opened in 1962.
“It just happened to be a visible place,” Walters said. In many towns, residents leave messages on a visible hill as “a sign of civic pride.” “We don’t have any hills here, so people chose that place to make a statement,” Walters said.
The first organization to rearrange the rocks “could have been a local peace group,” Walters speculated, due to the large number of peace signs left at the spot in the ’60s and ’70s.
The exact origin story has probably been lost to history, which is fitting for such a practice. It’s “a mysterious thing that happens in the darkness, and you see the results in the morning,” Feliz said.