Sunday, mid-afternoon, turning onto I-80 East from Highway 37, I saw the great golden hills as loose-skinned furry creatures begging to be petted, and my heart lifted. Not just because in the evening I’d hear John McCutcheon do a solo concert in Grass Valley, although yes, I’ve been looking forward to that since it suffered a Covid-rescheduling in January. No, something about the first sight of those hills tapped an aquifer of memory.
It came from our 2005 co-production with Foothill Theatre: Long Shadow. That collaboration had been years in the making, starting with their presentation of a staged reading of our play Hammers in 2002. That didn’t lead to a full production in their Nevada City season, but it started the ball rolling in a mutual exploration of how we might work together on something. They had an idea, but it was an edgy one.
There had been a murder in Nevada City in 1944. A young man was found in a mining ditch after a hunting trip, a bullet in his back. No suspect, no motive, but suspicion grew around a colorful local “other,” Bill Ebaugh, and all efforts to find him and investigate came up empty. He was a loner, a woodsman, a big man with a full beard and hair down his back when men were clean-shaven and barbered. He did have lady friends, and many in the town thought he was odd but harmless. Others thought he was a dangerous criminal, and the town polarized to the point where some businessmen posted a bounty—$300 dead or alive. Without accusation, arrest, or trial, he was found and shot dead.
It hit home to us, since we ourselves had recently lost a close friend, also a loved/hated renegade, shot in a stairwell in Los Angeles with no motive known and no arrest ever made. We struck a deal with Foothill to collaborate, and that led to a long series of trips on the I-80 to do endless research at the historical society, do scene improvisations with their company of actors, come back and work on script, then do it again next month. Three and a half hours each way for a stay of three or four days in which we grew closer and closer to the artists at this fine theatre, and fell in love with Nevada City.
I loved the place and loved our theatre friends. The process of creating a play from this painful history knit us together for a time, but after Foothill Theatre closed in 2009 we didn’t go often to what had been, for a few years, almost a second home. Later, as we’d set out for our annual long-haul tours of that started on the East Coast and worked our way back, I’d hit the I-80, see those hills and the pine forests that followed and remember those times in Nevada City. One year it was really special: we started by driving straight through a rainbow.
Now we have a link again. When our son married, we inherited his lady’s wonderful parents, and a few years ago they moved from the Midwest to Nevada City. We’ve had some family Thanksgivings and Christmas celebrations, and this is not our first shared John McCutcheon concert. Nevada City is a second home again.