Reminiscences on an Autumn Morning

~ Brian Terhorst

20 October 2022

A persistent stretch of warm weather has extended Summer deep into what would normally be Autumn in the Sierra Foothills. But here, in these closing days of October, the days are clearly growing shorter, leaves are putting on their fall display, and the mornings are finally crisp. Halloween is fast approaching and a candle flickers merrily on my desktop. This same stretch of days has also been marked by a lot of activity … tasks, responsibilities, the business of life … all crisscrossing my desk. But this particular day arrives with an open calendar. And as the overwhelming signs of Autumn appear finally to have arrived … as music fills my home office, tunes being shared by yet another KVMR broadcaster … my mind is being tugged back in time to my earliest days in these hills.

It’s been thirty years since I first arrived here. I moved to Nevada City in November of 1991 … between Halloween and Thanksgiving. My little cabin on Harmony Ridge relied solely on heat from my woodstove. Many of the homes up here depended on wood heat and Autumn mornings would regularly be marked by smoke from neighboring homes … smoke that would fill the forests. When looking out over these hills, the morning treetops would pierce what appeared to be a blanket of white smoke draped throughout the draws and river canyons. I would spend my afternoons, wandering through the woods around my cabin with a large wicker basket collecting twigs to kindle my morning and evening fires. I’d stroll into a grove of cedars and sit down on the forest floor, prop up my basket, and harvest what the trees had dropped. To this day, the smell and the audible snaps of burning cedar pull me right back to those days, stoking my fire by the open door to my little woodstove, with my dog, Bodhi, curled up at my feet, savoring the growing warmth in the otherwise chilly confines of our little cabin.

Within a few months of arriving here, I had become an office volunteer at KVMR in historic downtown Nevada City … just a ten-minute drive down the hill from my cabin. And in the Spring of ’92, I had enrolled in their broadcaster training program. I completed the six-week course in late April, as I recall, and had secured an early morning shift, from 4-7am on Fridays. I called the show, “First Light,” a catchy name I’d stolen from a program I used to listen to on KPFA out of Berkeley. I only had that shift for six weeks but the ritual of getting up at 3:00am every week, filling my backpack with records, and hiking down through the woods in the dark to my pickup … all for the crazy joy of spinning music, hours before dawn … those memories seem never to fade with time.

Shortly after getting that first radio gig, the coveted Saturday morning shift opened and KVMR’s General Manager, Steve Ramsey, encouraged me to apply. I was a newly certified broadcaster and, as memory serves, the competition for that shift was pretty fierce. In the 90s, auditions for open KVMR air shifts were conducted live in the slot. So, week after week, candidates for the Saturday morning shift plied their trade for three hours from 7-10am. After auditions closed, there was another waiting period while KVMR’s Program Committee reviewed and evaluated the applications and listened to the recorded auditions. I remember being so deeply invested in the outcome of that selection process that I could barely concentrate on my work. I was a professional Historian back then, working in the historic Placer County Courthouse in Auburn. During my workdays, I’d repeatedly phone my home answering machine to see if KVMR had left a message about the Program Committee’s decision. One of those many calls eventually panned out when I discovered a voice message from Steve telling me that the PC had assigned the show to me. The memory of standing in my Courthouse office, looking out the window, and listening to Steve’s message, over and over, and realizing that my radio dreams were blossoming right in front of me … that memory stands out as indelible today as if it happened just yesterday.

I had applied for the Saturday morning shift with some wonky show title; I can’t rightly recall what I had proposed. When I met with Steve at the station in the next few days, he recommended that I find a more appropriate name for this high-profile shift. I gave it a lot of thought. Again, at that time, I was a Historian and was totally immersed in the history of the Northern Sierra. While at work one day, I browsed over the topographic maps of the Nevada City area and found where my little cabin was located just a few miles northeast of town. I discovered that the place I was living was on a landform called Harmony Ridge. I did a little more research and found that the ridge was named after the Harmony Mines that had operated in that area during the California Gold Rush. That immediately resonated with my love of local history. My radio program featured folk and acoustic music and having a show title that included the word, “harmony,” also aligned with my music … and the fact that I was (and still am) a diehard hippie. So, Harmony Ridge became the name of my show when I took over the Saturday morning shift in the Summer of 1992. I remained in that slot for just shy of fifteen years.

From the get-go, I poured myself into conceiving and producing Harmony Ridge. On my day off from work, I’d spend my time in KVMR’s music library. In the next year, the library became the John Nichols Music Library, named after the legendary broadcaster and KVMR Music Director who had held that same Saturday morning shift I’d been awarded. John’s show, “The Saturday Morning Wireless,” was a brilliant program and one of the shows that had fixed my obsession with KVMR and brought me to the Sierra Foothills. After losing his eyesight, John ultimately lost his long battle with diabetes. He was one of KVMR’s most beloved broadcasters and was commemorated by assigning his name to the music library he had helped build.

As the successor to John’s Saturday morning shift and as a brand-new broadcaster, then just 29 years old, I knew I had a high bar for my fledgling show, Harmony Ridge. I’d pour over the stacks in the music library for hours every week, listening to vinyl and KVMR’s growing collection of compact disks, then still a relatively new format. I’d fill spiral notebooks with album notes, song titles, and details about how I might fit songs into my shows. I was extremely deliberate about how I put my programs together … obsessed really, like I was about everything KVMR.

I developed a ritual for preparing my shows in those earliest years at KVMR. On Friday evenings after work, I’d go down into town to a little coffeeshop – Café Mekka – on Commercial Street. I’d grab a latte and perch myself in a big comfortable wingback chair in their front window. I’d click on their little lamp, pull out my notebooks, and plot out each of the three hours for the show that would air the following morning. I’d watch people come and go from the shop as evening wore into night. I’d be there when the gas lamps would come on in town. I’d gaze out the window and watch folks milling up and down the street.

If you’re not familiar with Nevada City, it’s an historic gold mining-era town in the western Sierra Foothills of Northern California. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a beautiful and idyllic time capsule from a time gone by. Her downtown section has streets lined with shops, hotels, theaters, and dwellings, some dating back to the 1850s. Just beyond the downtown district, her streets are a showcase of Victorian-era architecture as well as buildings dating to the early to mid-1900s. By any measure, Nevada City is one of California’s most charming historic towns. And as a young Architectural Historian, I felt like I had landed in my own version of heaven.

This was also a pivotal and transformative time in my life physically. After ten years of college and a blooming career as a young Historian, I was also living with a degenerative neuromuscular disease. While I was writing my Master’s Thesis in my little cabin just above town, I was also becoming increasingly aware that my body was almost certainly not going to allow me to continue on my career path. I had already begun transitioning out of the more labor-intensive fieldwork aspects of my job and more into research and project management.

As fate would have it, though, while I was struggling internally with the fact that the sun was setting on that part of my life, a new day was also dawning that involved my growing passions at KVMR. I was volunteering in their business office, helping with data entry, writing public service announcements, and was now in a prime programming spot on the air. My attention began to shift toward the prospect that maybe … just maybe … I could gracefully transition out of my work as a Historian and into some gig at the radio station. At the time, KVMR’s paid staff was four people and, of those, only two were full-time positions. So, I knew I was grasping at straws but, in those transitional days of my late 20s, I was mulling over all sorts of dreams and possibilities.

In those first couple of years as the Host of Harmony Ridge, there were many Friday nights spent down in town in the front window seat at Café Mekka. I wrote scores of radio programs there and watched the seasons cycle from Autumn to Winter to Spring to Summer. And while sipping coffees and scribbling in my notebooks, I fell more deeply in love with Nevada City, with KVMR, and with my devotion to music.

Looking back through the lens of time and over the span of half of my life, it may seem whitewashed or soft-filtered to convey to you that, over a series of Friday nights, I planted a seed in my mind that began to grow. I envisioned a life where I was working for KVMR full-time. I no longer had to piece work and contracts together that were increasingly in conflict with what my body was telling me. I could put down roots in this town that I loved, doing work that I loved, and that was a match for my physical capabilities. My love of music and radio programming wouldn’t just be a sideline hobby or something I did on my day off. They would be integral to my career … to my life. This vision didn’t come to me in a single flash of light. It was born, nurtured, cultivated, and brought into fuller focus over many a Friday evening, working on my show.

Fast forward a few years. To cut to the chase, the dreams I imagined in that coffeeshop chair came to pass … in much the same way as did my aspirations to snag that Saturday morning slot. In 1994, after a couple of years of hosting Harmony Ridge, KVMR hired me as a part-time Membership Coordinator. I gave up my $25-an-hour job as a Historian and went to work for KVMR for $7.50 an hour … and loved every minute of it. Within the year, I’d convinced the station to increase my hours and allow me to also become their Events Coordinator – producing fundraising concerts and booking the artists who I was playing on my show. Another few months later, I pushed for full-time employment by becoming KVMR’s Volunteer Coordinator, working those three positions concurrently. Early in 1996, KVMR released their General Manager – their sixth in seven years. They asked me to be their Interim GM while they searched for a new manager. I loved the work I was doing and, leery of the attrition rate of KVMR GM’s, I agreed to manage things with the written agreement that I could retreat back to my earlier positions once they’d found someone. KVMR’s first round of applications didn’t yield a new manager. But by then, I had become even more invested with the station and decided to apply for the job. I was hired as KVMR’s General Manager in June 1996.

But the memory that has been brought back to mind on this Autumn morning … and reason I’ve taken the time to relay these thoughts … relates to an epiphany I had in my first few years as KVMR’s new General Manager. It had been a very cold gray day, probably in 1997 or 1998. As the afternoon set in, snow began to fall in downtown Nevada City where KVMR’s offices and studios have long been. In the matter of an hour or two, about six inches of snow had fallen on the streets outside and, knowing that most of our staff lived in higher areas outside of town, I encouraged everyone to call it a day and get home before the roads became impassable. After the last member of our team had taken off, I stood in the front office of KVMR with all of the lights off. From behind me, the light of our air studios … always staffed by live human beings, come rain, snow, or whatever … cast a warm glow into the back of our offices. I looked out our front window in the fading light of day, watching the taillights of cars as they carved grooves in the deepening snow on Spring Street. In that moment of quietude, I remembered back to the evenings I had spent, just a few blocks away, writing my radio programs over many Friday nights … evenings not unlike this one. I had dreamed up this whole story on those evenings. Here I stood, just a few years later, the General Manager of Community Radio KVMR, a full-time resident of Nevada City, California, the Host & Producer of Harmony Ridge.

I remained KVMR’s General Manager for ten years before moving on to manage an NPR network in Chico in 2007. That muscle disease that caused me to leave behind my career as a Historian and pursue my first gig in the radio business continued to progress, and I ultimately exited the workforce on disability in 2014. After returning to the Foothills in 2016, I rejoined KVMR as a volunteer broadcaster, like it all started. Harmony Ridge returned to KVMR’s regular schedule in 2019 and now airs alternate Wednesdays at Noon. The following year, as Covid took over the world, I was asked to join KVMR’s Board of Directors to help navigate a decidedly uncertain situation … and did. I’m now in my final year as KVMR’s Board President … and I’ll turn 60 years old in a couple of months.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of things. But chief among them is that thoughts are things. The dreams we summon up in our imaginations have enormous power. When we set intentions, give them our full focus, and never deviate from seeing them through, we have within us the infinite capacity to create whole lives from virtually nothing.

And so, it is.

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