Thomas Burchfield: Stranger in town |

Thomas Burchfield: Stranger in town

One spring day in 2018, the stranger came to town. In a surly mood, he moseyed about Grass Valley’s charming Main Street, his patient wife by his side. Then suddenly, as he remembered his long-ago Hudson River Valley hometown and its high green hills, he turned to her and growled, “Yeah … let’s move here.”

He’d been looking for something he’d lost. Now maybe he’d found it.

Later that day, the pair wandered at random into a Nevada City Realtor’s office. Shortly after, they looked at a charming but very small prefab in an emerald, Hobbit-sized canyon, a stream splashing through the property, only a 10-minute walk from downtown Nevada City. But they couldn’t get the money right, so they turned their wagon and rode back down to the big city, promising they’d be back.

Come August, the couple found the little house on the outskirts of Grass Valley: about 80 years old, 1,100 square feet, and beautifully remodeled. They still weren’t ready to pull stakes, so they hired a property manager who found a pair of excellent tenants to rent the place for a couple of years.

Despite COVID-19, and thanks to life’s endless surprises, this last November, on a bright fall day, the stranger and his wife returned for good. The stranger will tell you he’s moved over 40 times in his seven decades and it was always tough, but this move was the toughest by far.

For once, it was a smart move, maybe the smartest. The morning after they settled in, he heard geese calling and looked up to see them arrowing through the blue sky. The sight was simple and common, but he gasped anyway.

He’d seen plenty of wildlife in Bay Area cities. Hawks were numerous and some even achieved celebrity via live webcams. Canada geese blanketed the ground like pigeons in some spots and were considered vermin.

In the stranger’s previous homestead, near Morcom Garden in Oakland, raccoons stole through the alley outside the living room window. A big wild tom turkey took over the public garden and bullied neighborhood residents like a B-movie hoodlum to where they had to close the garden to the public until animal control sent it packing.

But nature’s power and magic is only glimpsed through the city’s concrete overcoat. Up here in Grass Valley, on the edge of town, nature makes its presence and power known with discrete details woven into a larger fabric: deer tracks in the snow outside the window, the call of quail (now extinct in San Francisco) calling from the same brush through which rabbits scamper.

In the city, the stranger never knew night’s fathomless hush or saw a sparkling night sky. Up here, only weeks ago, he watched Jupiter and Saturn brush by each other, a near-impossible sight down below. Nature is the real world. Civilization is a tattered suit hanging by its threads.

The people have also made a great difference. City people are not that unfriendly, but they can be film-noir cagey, muttering out the corners of their mouths. The more people, the more distractions and everyone is constantly on the move. Relationships become tenuous, friendships harder to keep.

Bad guys, the stranger has noted in the local paper, ply their crude, sinister trades here as they did down there. But the goodness in people here is much more open and unabashed. No one has laughed at the stranger’s tenderfoot questions (“How do you run a generator in rainy weather? Why does our garage float away during every storm?”). Most everyone has an idea to help or where to find it. There are bad spots, but they’re few and far down other roads.

Sometimes, the decency appears like a miracle, like the first Christmas Eve, when a guy in a pickup helped the stranger up the hill after a back-bruising slip on the ice, while another truck stopped to ask if he was all right (the stranger felt rightly foolish, as he’d spent his happy youth in such climes and should have stepped carefully).

The stranger and his wife did the right thing coming here. Every time they take a ride through the forests, down winding mountains roads, surrounded by fir-clad hills, he breaks into a helpless smile, liked he used to as a boy.

“It ain’t like it used to be,” goes a line from an old Western, “ … but it’ll do.”

Thomas Burchfield is a writer living in Grass Valley. His work can be found at and on his web page, “A Curious Man,” at

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