We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started, knowing the place for the first time.
These words on a mural overlooking a parking lot in Grass Valley pretty much sum up the situation. Moving to Grass Valley has been returning to the beginning, writing about it helping me to know it for the first time.
During my early teens my grandmother lived in Sonora and her sister, my Great Aunt Betty, lived in the Grass Valley - Nevada City area. Both towns are along Highway 49, the mostly 2-lane road that connects the settlements along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that grew there in the mid 19th century. It was during the California Gold Rush, the phenomenon that gave the ultimate impetus to westward expansion and irrevocably changed the history of the country.
The mass movement was approaching it’s height in 1849, the men and women who came west to find gold were called 49ers, among them my great great grandfather, and as I write these words it dawns on me why Highway 49, less than half a mile from me, is called 49. In 1850, gold-bearing quartz was discovered in Grass Valley and, since then, has been the leading gold producer in California.
Aunt Betty was a real character. She may have been the happiest person I’ve known, and had the most amazing laugh. She put on her lipstick with her tongue following along, said it was impossible for her to do it any other way and laughed her warm, funny laugh. She and my darling grandmother were close in age and life-long best friends and times spent in their company are cherished memories.
What do the shadows mean?
Aunt Betty was married to Uncle John, who’d been a bank branch manager in the days when the job didn’t pay particularly well. When he retired they moved to Nevada City, bought a house to refurbish and sell, then bought another. This was how they subsidized their retirement and, she told me, with each purchase they moved lower in elevation. The 2 towns are at the line that divides a little snow, in Grass Valley just below 2500 feet, from much more snow in Nevada City just above, though they’re just 4 miles apart. The first winter they were here a huge tree fell in their yard during a snow storm and she never wanted to go through that again. In 2011, when I found myself looking at houses, I told the realtor, “nothing above Grass Valley”.
Grass Valley's Carnegie Library
Over the years family members came and went from the area. I bought a lot to build, it didn’t work out. I sold it, then some years later, bought a bigger lot. Circumstances conspired to thwart my move here when another small mining town, Bisbee, Arizona stole my heart. Finally, while visiting my 80-something year old mother and needing a break from sorting her mail, a roomful of it, I drove half an hour to Grass Valley and, cut to the chase, bought a house. It was unplanned and one of the very best things I ever did.
I’ve lived here now for 15 months and, despite budget-busting renovations, haven’t been sorry for a moment. It was coming home, even though I’d never really lived here. But I think it’s the feeling we have when we know in our hearts we are where we belong. It can also happen on the road, when the words “I could live here” cross our minds.
My coffee store, Carolines. Best beans in town, bar none.
Caroline's roaster, the source of my every morning's cup.
The official population of Grass Valley seems to be in the neighborhood of 12,000, according to the road signs. But that doesn’t include me or my neighbors. We’re just outside the town limits with lots of others. And it doesn’t include the smaller town of Nevada City, 4 miles up 49, population 2800.
One of the things I like most about living here is the convenience, after living in a very small town surrounded by desert for so long, where it was 25 miles any direction to bigger places with decent stores. People loved to say the only thing they disliked about living in Bisbee was that there was no place to buy underwear. So lack of opportunities for new underwear became symbolic of life in the boonies and even after a store with underwear set up shop near Safeway, it seemed little improved in that regard. I was just happy to have Safeway. Now I’m happy to live in Grass Valley. I never have to leave town for underwear.
Both towns are known for their restaurants, shops and galleries and have retained their historic feel, with historic residential and commercial properties valued and restored. Vestiges of the mining culture remains and 2 big mines, one underground, the Empire Mine, and one above ground hydraulic operation, Malakoff Diggins, are now state parks. There’s lots of entertainment for visitors and residents, farmer’s markets in season, wineries, shopping for antiques, among them. Hiking and swimming in the Yuba River are popular pastimes. The home of the Nevada County Fair is in Grass Valley and the fairgrounds are used for events all summer. There’s even a performing arts center.
There are many small towns up and down Highway 49 whose identities and livings are tied to their historic connections. Grass Valley is one of the biggest but I believe if the tourists stopped coming it would remain a wonderful place to live by virtue of the fact that it’s a complete place, and not dependent, as so many small historic places are, on visitors for survival. Communities evolve, some even disappear when theirraison d’êtreceases to be, as almost happened in Bisbee when the copper mine closed in 1977. Grass Valley was built on gold but has become a place people simply love for itself.
I once said of Bisbee that I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But life plays tricks on us, and we on ourselves, and I think Grass Valley is really the place, was biding its time until one day it led me here again and made itself known in a big way. So, here I am, and here I’ll likely stay. With occasional absences to remind me how much I love it.
To read more of PortMoresby's 'Gold Country, California' series, click here.
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