The following essay originally appeared as a Facebook post on 3 November 2021 as I reflected on the thirty-year anniversary of my arrival in Nevada City, California and the dawn of my broadcasting career at Community Radio, KVMR-FM. I’d like to thank all of those who responded so generously to the original post.
~ Brian Terhorst ~ 3 November 2021
It was November 1991 … a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. My six-month company housing stint in Rocklin was about to expire. I’d been living in a sketchy house in a bad neighborhood since earlier that June while working a contract with the Placer County Department of Museums. Knowing I had to find new digs, I’d made a couple of trips up into the Sierra Foothills to visit Nevada City. I had started tuning in to a cool independent radio station based there – KVMR. It had been an unsettling preceding six months in Rocklin. I had left everything familiar back in Sonoma County when I took the contract in Placer. But when I discovered KVMR on my radio, I not only discovered that music, at once very familiar to me, but I started to relate to the casual, unprofessional voices and personalities streaming from my speakers. Strangers were becoming friends. So, when it was time for a new place, I was certain that I wasn’t staying in Rocklin. My visits to Nevada City had convinced me that that would be a good place for me.
I had subscribed to The Union newspaper of the Foothills and was having it delivered to the house in Rocklin so I could search the listings for rentals up in Nevada City. The paper arrived a day late down in Rocklin, so I knew I’d be behind any potential competitors for good places to live. But one day, I found a listing for a rustic cabin outside of town. The rent was right, so I called the number. I had a nice conversation with a guy named John who lived on the property. As he described the cabin and the rental arrangement, I asked if it was cool that I had a dog. He was perfectly supportive and said that he’d like to meet both of us to explore if we were a match. We set a day and time for me to check out the cabin and for John and Paul, his partner, to meet Bodhi and me.
My trip to the cabin that November day coincided with a torrential rainstorm … not unlike the one that just rolled through these Foothills a week ago. Following John’s directions, I made my way up Nevada Street through a neighborhood of beautiful Victorian-era homes. I was an Architectural Historian at the time – hence the job with Placer Museums – and cruising up through residential Nevada City, even in pouring rain, was like driving through a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. At the corner of Willow Valley Road, I made the right turn and brought my pickup truck to a stop. There, in front of me, was an enormous liquidambar tree, glowing in the most vivid shade of red I had ever seen. Even all these years later, I can still remember that moment – a picture taken and stored forever in the scrapbook of my mind.
I didn’t want to be late for my appointment, so I moved along, winding up the hill northeast out of Nevada City, higher and higher, until the pavement gave out. I followed John’s descriptions of the switchbacks, trees, and markers as the road gave way to dirt. When I found his mailbox, I made the left turn and maneuvered my truck up a steep and tight series of turns through tall pines and dense chaparral until I came out into a level clearing. There stood a gorgeous A-frame home adjoining a large outdoor garden surrounded by eight-foot-high fencing. Deer, I thought to myself. As I approached the house on my left, just across the dirt driveway to the right, sat a dark brown L-shaped cabin, its narrow driveway screened by tall latticework panels.
Not knowing the lay of the land, I pulled my truck into the lower driveway behind the big house and got out of my rig. It was absolutely pouring rain. There was a small door at what I would soon realize was the back of John’s and Paul’s house. I approached the door but didn’t see that the rainspout from the roof, two stories up, had created a deep pool of mud just outside the door. I stepped right into the puddle and sunk up to my shin. Frustrated and embarrassed, I pulled my leg out of the mire and knocked at the door.
Just then, I heard a voice calling to me from further up the driveway. I looked up the bank and saw a man, wrapped in better rain gear than I was wearing, waving to me to come around the other side of the house. As I made my way up the hill and approached the man, he smiled and offered me his hand.
“Brian?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And you must be John,” I laughed as I shook my leg and apologized for being covered in mud.
“Oh, I’m so sorry about that,” John returned. “Let’s get out of the rain,” he said as he took my arm and gestured to the main entrance to the house which had been hidden from my view as I’d come up the driveway. We took a few steps and John paused. “Oh, did you bring your dog?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded. “He’s in the back of my truck. You sure it’s okay to have him out in the rain?”
John assured me that it was fine, explaining that they had a German Shepherd who often runs free on the property.
I went back down to the truck and opened the camper shell. Bodhi leapt exuberantly from the back of the truck to the ground. In an instant, he was hit with a barrage of new scents to explore and began to dash in every direction like a Bloodhound tracking his quarry.
John called down and said, “You can let him run around for a while if you want. We’ve got a lot of room here.”
I nodded and scrambled back up the driveway. John led me to the covered entry to their home. Paul came out the door to meet me. When he saw the mud all over my leg, he laughed and said, “Welcome to the mountains! Just a minute. Let’s get you cleaned up.” He ducked back into the house and returned a minute later with some towels and helped wipe the sludge off my jeans. I kicked off my boots as we went inside.
John and Paul’s home was beautiful. The high glass A-frame wall I’d seen as I came up the driveway looked down over their garden beyond which was the forested valley that dropped down into Nevada City. Their living room featured high exposed wood ceilings with heavy beams, white carpeting, a white sofa, and armchairs. A full-size grand piano was the statement piece of their home. I took off my jacket and shook off the cold as we talked. I learned that John and Paul had lived in the small cabin on their property while they built their dream home. They were transplants from the Bay Area and were part of a musical community up here in the Foothills. John was a CPA; Paul was a caterer. Now that their house was built, they’d decided to rent their small cabin. I would be their first tenant.
After warming up for a bit and getting a little tour of their home, they asked if I’d like to see the cabin. Excitedly, I pulled on my coat again. When John opened the door, Bodhi was standing right outside their screen, soaked to the bone, covered in red mud, and with this long black tail shaking his whole body.
“Oh, Geeze,” I said. “You think I could use that towel again to wipe him down?” I asked Paul.
“Of course,” Paul said, as he headed into the back rooms to get the towels.
Bodhi was completely wound up and started whimpering and yelping to come inside. I firmly told him to sit outside while I waited for Paul to return. Bodhi wasn’t having any of it and lifted his paw to the screen door and scratched a slash through their screen.
“No!” I bellowed. “Bodhi, sit!”
Paul came darting back to the front of the house with the towels.
“I’m so sorry!” I said to Paul. “He’s a mess and he just put a tear in your door.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Paul responded dismissively. “Our dog, Ziggy, is doing stuff like this all the time. And he’s white! You should see him after he’s been out running around in the rain.”
I felt a moment of relief as Paul opened the screen door to get Bodhi cleaned up. But the nightmare was just beginning. Bodhi was so amped that the moment Paul cracked the door, Bodhi pushed his way inside. He yelped with excitement, gave a full-body shake, and sprayed water everywhere. Paul moved to drape the towel over Bodhi, but my energetic lab/shepherd pounced into the living room, blotching their white carpet with an array of muddy red paw prints. I was mortified!
“Bodhi, no!” I shouted and moved on him to grab his collar. To him, though, this was just great sport. He shook me off, pushed further into the living room and vaulted himself up onto their white sofa.
I knew in that instant that my aspirations to rent John and Paul’s cabin were dashed. As my face glowed red with humiliation, I was just hoping that the bill to clean and repair their home wasn’t going to break my bank.
To my shock, John and Paul both laughed and gently approached Bodhi on their couch. They wrapped him in the towels and wiped him down.
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I raised both hands to my face to conceal my horror.
“It’s really okay, Brian,” John said. “This is mountain living. You really should see what Ziggy does to this place all the time. Trust me, it’ll clean up. Now, how about we go look at the cabin?”
In my head and heart, I suspected that, at this point, viewing the cabin was a courteous formality to get me off their property. It was an L-plan building consisting of a small kitchen in one wing and a cozy living room with a small woodstove in the other. A small bathroom with a clawfoot tub, shower and adjoining walk-in closet joined the two wings. John explained how he and Paul had dragged the two wings up onto the property with come-alongs, joined them together, built the front porch and stairs and had lived there for several years while they built the big house.
I loved the space. It was the exact kind of place that, in my mind, a back-to-the-earth hippie-type like me should be. After all that had happened that day, though, I felt my hopes were doomed. Nonetheless, I told them that I would love to rent from them. I filled out their basic application on the kitchen counter and handed it to them. I emphasized that I had a good job and great references. And my insane dog notwithstanding, I hoped they’d give me the opportunity to live in their cabin.
They told me that they had two other people looking at the cabin later that day – an explanation I was certain was a vehicle to get me on my way. But, John explained, he would call me in the next couple of days to let me know their decision. I escorted Bodhi back to the truck where he leapt joyfully into the back as if nothing had happened. I thanked John and Paul for being so gracious, apologized again for my dog’s behavior, and began the long rainy drive back down into the valley.
When I got home, deflated, disappointed, and embarrassed, there was a flashing light on my answering machine. John’s voice explained that the other people who had come to look at the cabin felt it was too small. But, John continued in his message, that was fine anyway because he and Paul wanted me to live there. I sat in the gloomy gray of my final days in that house in Rocklin, with the rain pounding the roof, and knew that my life was about to change … in a very good way.
I arrived at my cabin on a clear autumn day, two weeks later. I had purchased a new futon couch-bed that week and hauled the sections from the bed of my truck into my new living room. I pieced it together and then dragged the mattress indoors. I laid down on my new bed – the first and only piece of furniture in the cabin – and looked out the glass doors as the late afternoon sun beamed in on the floor. There, Bodhi stretched out in the warm sunlight.
In time, I would learn that I had moved to a place called Harmony Ridge. The ridge, stretching northeast out of Nevada City, had been named for the Harmony Mines – a hard-rock mining enterprise that had operated near there before the turn of the Century. Five months later, when KVMR issued me my first broadcaster’s license and I landed the prestigious Saturday morning shift, I named my radio program after this place of my dreams – Harmony Ridge.
I would host Harmony Ridge Saturday mornings on KVMR for the next fifteen years. I would eventually leave the field of Historic Preservation and go to work for KVMR. I’d work my way up through the ranks and manage KVMR for ten years. That gig would open the door to a later chapter in public radio – managing North State Public Radio, an NPR affiliate, at Chico State University. And even though that job required me to move hours hours away from the Foothills, I’d reprise my radio program there … Harmony Ridge always reminding me where I’d come from. I’d retire from that job on disability at the age of 49 and, a couple of years later, would return from Chico to my little community in the Sierra Foothills. Five years back here, now, I serve as the President of KVMR’s Board of Directors. And Harmony Ridge airs again, here on Community Radio, where it started all those years ago.
But on days like today, on a cool autumn morning when the leaves fall gold, red, and orange from the trees, my mind is carried back to that rainy day – thirty years ago, this month – when I turned the corner onto Willow Valley Road and saw that bright red liquidambar for the first time. I lived four years in that cabin on Harmony Ridge. It was the first time I’d ever lived on my own. In many ways, it was my Walden Pond. I lived very simply there. I listened to the forest and the birds and watched the foxes. I learned to quiet my mind and make peace with my inner chatter. My life would become much more complicated later on … as lives do. But much of the character that now defines me was set in place on those quiet nights, feeding sticks I’d gathered from the surrounding forest into my little woodstove … listening to KVMR from just down the hill. I’d sleep on my nearby futon couch with Bodhi by my side – my feet and him warmed by the stove. I’d hear the deer snapping through the underbrush outside and find peace and comfort in that life.
A cycle of thirty years has brought me full circle. Arriving in these Foothills as a 28-year-old … so much life left to live … so much unknown and not yet realized … like the green leaves that sprout from these trees each spring. Next month, I’ll turn 59 … and like the leaves now turning on these same trees, putting on an entirely different display of color and light, I exhibit a different beauty and wisdom.