Sex in the Sticks

The man often came into the Grass Valley frozen yogurt shop where Cory* worked, and was obviously flirting with her. He’d place his order, smile, chat her up, and then do it again a few days later. He was cute, and she was bored, so she figured what the heck. She learned he lived out of his van, estimated he was in his early thirties. Then one day, he asked her out on a date: to Ecstatic Dance, a weekly dance party in Nevada City where hippies undulate to trance-inducing electronic DJs, burning sage wafting through the air. At that point, Cory knew it had gone too far, and put on the brakes. After all, she was just 18.

As she became initiated into the Grass Valley/Nevada City dating scene, however, Cory met Yogurt Man again and again. Well, not that yogurt man, but men who were, at least superficially, just like him. They were van-life Cassanovas drifting from weed-growing operation to Burning Man and back again, chasing adventure, free groceries from the food bank, and young women. 

“Nobody plans to settle down here,” says Cory. She wanted a relationship that was lasting, nurturing. But she couldn’t find it in western Nevada County.

“Non-existent.” 

“I gave up.” 

“It sucks so bad.” 

If you talk to local singles, these are some of the things you’ll hear about dating in Nevada County. No matter where you live, people complain about being single. But there do seem to be qualities specific to Grass Valley, Nevada City and the surrounding hamlets that create added challenges to dating. The small population narrows one’s options. And the demographic—heavy on retirees and countercultural renegades—can be unaccommodating to those singles looking for something serious. 

To an outsider, or somebody already coupled up, it’s difficult to see. Visit Nevada City on a Hot Summer Nights celebration, and you’ll see large numbers of attractive young people dancing and hanging out under the clear, starry skies. At night, the bars are packed. What better environment in which to be single and mingle? But those who have mingled know the truth: There are a lot of great things about western Nevada County, but dating definitely isn’t one of them.

Everyone Here is a Popcorn Kernel

Chris*, a 50-year-old events producer, felt uneasy with his single dad status. He’d moved to Grass Valley to be closer to snowboarding and the mountains, but after his divorce he was mortified at the prospect of dating in this place.

“A few years ago, my buddies were in from out of town and told me I should join Tinder,” he says. He installed the app, but then immediately deleted it, after recognizing too many of the faces. “I was like, ‘Oh my god! I know that lady!’” He had horrible fears of seeing people from Tinder at school drop-off or in the grocery aisles at SPD, and quickly deleted the app before anybody could message him.

Nevada County has the highest percentage of residents over the age of 65 of any of its surrounding counties, according to county demographic data. People come here to retire. And they generally don’t come alone. “You retire here as a couple,” says single Alta Sierra communications specialist Tomi Riley, who recently started an over-40s Meetup group called Grass Valley/Nevada City Singles Mingle. “That makes the dating pool for people over 45 very small.”

It’s not much better for younger people. According to the same county data, the percentage of residents younger than 30 is 12 percent lower than the statewide average. That spells fewer options, and the same familiar faces. 

“I dated a girl who had dated three of my close friends,” says late-20s Blake*, a server and artist in Nevada City. “She warned [that] she’d publicly give me the cold shoulder, because she might see her exes around me.”

Rebecca*, a single mom in her 30s, didn’t want to date anybody’s ex. “There’s a saying in this town that if you don’t lose a girlfriend, you lose your turn.” In other words, unless you’re prepared to have friend breakups, you won’t get the chance at dating people’s ex’s. Rebecca vowed she wouldn’t swipe on any dating profile closer than 30 miles away. 

“Everyone here is a popcorn kernel that has been touched by someone else,” says Janelle*, an early-20s Grass Valley recruiting manager for a tech-startup. “And everybody tells stories about people you’re dating. It feels like eighth grade, but worse.”

Right before the pandemic, Marisa*, a single mom in her mid-40s, went to something advertised as “Tantric Speedating” at a Nevada City yoga studio. There were, as she remembers it, eight women and just four men, because four dropped out at the last minute. The men and women were told to partner up, and do things like stare into each other’s eyes for several minutes without talking. While the four available men were taken, the women without partners had to stand around talking to each other.

“It had a lot of potential to be good,” Marisa says wistfully. But there just weren’t enough candidates to find a potential connection.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community say they, too, feel constrained by the small pool. “People kind of tend to know a little bit about you, even before you’ve had that formal introduction,” says Tim*, a gay server in his early 30s based in Grass Valley. Maybe you’ve seen each other at a restaurant, or you’ve seen the person drunk at a bar, he says. “It’s not like we’re in a big metro area where you can avoid everybody.”

But at least there is a queer community here. “I’ve definitely lived in larger places than this where nobody knew I was gay, because people were super devout, and I just didn’t want to have that conversation,” says Tim. 

People of color in Nevada County have an even rougher go of it. Some 93.3 percent of the population is white. Mekdela Maskal, a 29-year old Black journalist, recently moved back to her hometown of Grass Valley after living for a decade in Brooklyn. She recalls that on the 4th of July at the Yuba River, somebody taunted her, ‘Oh hey, Jimi Hendrix is here!’ 

“It’s just ridiculous…how surprised they are to see somebody of color that they go to the extreme of making a joke about it,” says Maskal. Having recently split with her boyfriend, Maskal is dipping her toe back into the dating scene. But she’s leery of locals. “It seems like because there’s just not a Black population, there’s not an understanding of Black culture. I’m worried there are all these judgments being made about me,” says Maskal, who says that she gets the comment “I like your hair!” a lot from people she meets here. 

“I don’t think everybody is going to be as overtly racist as people I’ve encountered,” says Maskal. “But there’s still this underlying issue of education and awareness that allows a conversation to be as enjoyable for me as it is for the other person.”

Feather and Leather

Claire*, a Nevada City-based media and communications professional, was 28 years old when she met a guy after an art opening, and agreed to meet at his house on “The Ridge”. She got a ride to his driveway, a dark dirt road, and learned that he expected her to climb what appeared to be about 900 feet of elevation in her kitten heels. It was muddy, and when she reached the top, her shoes were ruined. His “house” was actually a rustic cabin with an outhouse.

“I was like, ‘This is pretty weird,’” says Claire. He asked her if she wanted to go down to “the big house” and see his “studio.” Trading in her heels for a pair of his rubber boots, she followed him to an outbuilding, which was revealed to be not so much a music studio, but a marijuana grow operation. “As soon as I saw that, I was like, ‘I can’t be here,’” says Claire. “That’s my line in the sand. I’m a professional person. It’s not my lifestyle.”

Claire’s story of finding oneself on a date with a cannabis grower, whether anticipated or not, is not unusual in the Grass Valley/Nevada City dating scene. There are an estimated 3500 to 4000 cannabis growing operations in the county, according to a Nevada County Grand Jury report released last May. When you consider that some of these grows have multiple people working there, that’s a sizable portion of the population.

“The idea that anybody would say they straight up wouldn’t date somebody in the cannabis industry is preposterous,” smirked one local former cannabis farmer. “Good luck with that.”

But Claire isn’t alone in her rejection of one of the largest pools of singles. 

“Hardly anyone around here speaks about their jobs, because most of them grow weed or sell drugs,” complains one 20-something woman. “If there are any single dudes with real jobs, they aren’t going out and they aren’t on any dating apps, so they’re practically invisible, if not made up.”

Local singles have learned to look out for the self-described “farmers” on local dating profiles. But they’ve also learned that, if they want to date locals with any regularity, they’re going to need to go out with the occasional “farmer.”

“I’ve dated two growers, and it’s kind of a bummer lifestyle,” says Laney*, a 40-year old Nevada City-based scientist. “You can make some quick money, but unless you really have your act together as a business person, you’re gonna be beholden to shitty distributors, and it’s stressful.” 

Rebecca, the former single mom who now only dates people 30 miles away or more, also describes a “high-stress life” when she was married to a cannabis farmer. He’d suddenly have to leave in the middle of the night to “take care of some business,” jeopardizing any plans they might have had and leaving her frustrated and a little scared. At the high-end restaurant where she waited tables, big growers strolled in during harvest season, bringing all their trimmers, and dropping thousands of dollars on bottles of wine and dinners. 

“They’d have all their ‘trimmigrant’ ladies sitting next to them, deciding which one they were going to sleep with that night,” says Rebecca. When her marriage broke up, she vowed: never again

Not only is Nevada County inundated with “farmers” and other cannabis entrepreneurs, but also the seasonal workers who come looking for a quick profit trimming buds. These so-called “trimmigrants,” often young, countercultural, and dressed in hotpants, provide much-needed sexual novelty for the county’s permanent residents.

“Pre-Covid, they were mostly foreign and many were gorgeous humans who would sit on the sidewalk with a sign saying ‘Looking for work’ with a drawing of scissors,” reminisces Rebecca. “After Burning Man it was the natural progression into harvest season. So, you’d get people who were just traveling and livin’ their best life, which is great, but not my thing.” She is now married to a cop. “I like clean-shaven. I’m not into the feather and leather look,” she says.

Of course in an industry as large as it is, cannabis business people come in different depths and dimensions. Luke*, a local who owns a cannabis packaged-goods company, takes exception to people who “paint us all with a broad brush.” Ironically, he, too, feels like an outsider, unable to find women to date in Nevada County who he feels deliver “conversation, wit, and substance.” He’s expanded his dating app boundaries to Chico and Sacramento, and sometimes as far as LA, which has produced its own challenges: Recently he found himself on a date with a district attorney from another county, who divulged that she’d scoped out his arrest record prior to their first date. 

“I think there is fantasy in criminality,” he says. The last thing he wanted was to play into somebody’s “Bad Boy” fetish.

Hide and Seek

When you think about a small town, what comes to mind? The John Mellencamp song, “Small Town,” perhaps? You may recall the lyrics: “Well I was born in a small town/And I live in a small town/Probably die in a small town/Oh, those small communities.” The character in the song goes on to talk about being “taught to fear Jesus” in a small town, and being “another boring romantic” who settles down there with his limited opportunities that are, for some reason, really satisfying. 

Grass Valley and Nevada City are small towns. But you won’t find many types like the one in the John Mellencamp song. Sure, there are people born and raised here, and people who go away to big cities and come back. But at least those in the dating pool aren’t generally taught to fear Jesus, and they aren’t boring. And along with the home-towners, there is a steady stream of freak-flag-flying transplants: People who move to the area for cannabis, mountain biking, spiritual communities, and the Yuba River.

Cory, the former frozen yogurt store employee, describes the “holy trinity” of Nevada County singles as “trimmigrant/hippie folks, douchebag rock-climber bros, and band barflies.” Server and artist, Blake, sees it as: “There’s the grow-bros. The spiritual gangster dudes. Ecstatic Dancers. Burning Man camp guys and girls. The Townies.”

However you label it, the population is unconventional, and places a high value on personal freedom. Going back to the Gold Rush days, Nevada County has always been a place where you can do what you want, within reason, and an outlaw mentality persists. In the dating scene, this often manifests in polyamory: people who decide to remain non-monogamous in their relationships. For many, there’s an allure to not being tied down to one partner, but this lack of restriction, counterintuitively, can also cause stress.

Rebecca, the woman who was married to the grower and then the cop, described being involved in a polyamourous relationship as something where she desperately tried to “keep her head and heart separate.” She remembers feeling like she was not going to put “too much energy into being the good partner I knew I was capable of being,” because she didn’t consider herself and the man she was dating as being “actually together.” 

“Nevada County is very polyamorous,” says Veronica Monet, a licensed sex therapist who runs the Grass Valley relationship counseling business, Shame Free Zone. “Yet we don’t have much training on this in our county.” Monet says many local singles wishing to be polyamorous don’t take the time to establish and clearly communicate boundaries with their partners. “In Nevada County, ‘poly’ can be used as an excuse to be a promiscuous little asshole,” says Monet. “I’ve had so many young girls in my office crying because some guys can be so callous.”

Beyond the sticky wicket of polyamory, local singles must contend with a surprisingly high level of judgmentalism sometimes associated with different groups or cliques. “If she doesn’t mountain bike, climb, or ski, there’s no fucking chance,” says Ben*, a Nevada County-based first-responder, describing his historic approach to dating. “If you don’t get it, sorry. People have limited time.”

Sarah Kennedy, a Nevada City-based sex and relationship coach for women, says she sees clients who are deeply involved in one of the area’s many non-traditional spiritual communities, who feel they are on a higher plane than many potential suitors. “No one would say it, it’s just an undertone,” says Kennedy. “I have had [women] involved in a certain spiritual path and not feeling very open to men outside that path that they’re on.”  She says she especially sees this with women involved in “Earth-based goddess spiritual groups”, where women and women’s sexuality is predominantly—or in many cases exclusively—celebrated. 

“I think a woman can get stuck there,” says Kennedy. “There is safety in a community that is exclusively women, when the idea of masculinity was already scary.” Kennedy dubs this phenomenon “going entirely Goddess-Centric out of pain.”

But it’s not confined to the goddesses. One Nevada City woman rolled her eyes remembering a man she met: “He actually told me he was enlightened.”

As in the rest of the nation, the pandemic only intensified divisions here.

Caden*, an astrologer, used the stars and his own “intuition” to come to the conclusion that we weren’t getting the whole truth about COVID from the mainstream media and government. When he opened up about his thoughts and feelings to a new female friend, she turned on him and refused to listen to what he had to say. “Last time Neptune was in Pisces at these degrees, it was pre-Civil War,” says Caden, ominously. “That’s how divided we are. As a collective right now, it’s damn scary.”

The cannabis packaged goods company owner, Luke, remembers arguing with a woman over getting the COVID vaccine. “She’s going, ‘I don’t know what’s in it, I’m not putting that shit in my body!’” he remembers. “And I’m like, ‘You literally dropped acid two weeks ago and you’re telling me you knew exactly what was in that? Give me a break.” 

Identifying divisions and drawing ideological lines in the sand can sometimes feel like a way to more easily find people like you, but many in the dating scene say it doesn’t actually pan out that way. “Dating more now than ever is about categorization and fitting into boxes,” says Luke, with regret. Maybe that’s a necessary byproduct of our time, he muses, of having to process the deluge of information we now have access to, thanks to the Internet. “But at the same time,” he says, “I think we’ve lost that skill of the slow reveal of getting to know somebody.” 

Deep Into the Weeds

There’s a saying about dating, that “it sucks until it doesn’t.” And among the horror stories about being single in western Nevada County, you’ll also hear tales of people who can’t believe their good luck: They actually found somebody here. 

There’s Chris, the divorced dad who deleted Tinder. He was just chilling outside Three Forks having a beer, when a “rad lady” approached him, and told him she’d seen him there with his kids a few years back and thought he was “really handsome.” Now they’re together.

Laney, the scientist, decided she needed to extend her Tinder boundaries all the way to San Francisco to meet smart, interesting men. But then she found herself in an elevator at Twitter with a group of engineers, and found herself fixated on their hands: They looked so soft and doughy! As bad as her dates were in Nevada County, at least their hands hadn’t struck her as offputtingly feeble-looking. Fast forward to today, where she is in a loving relationship with Ben, the first-responder. She met him through mutual friends, and was somehow able to break down his formerly rigid ideas about the absolute importance of a mate who mountain bikes, rock climbs, and skiis. She enjoys none of those things.

Then there’s Reginald*, a seaweed forager whose home base is in western Nevada County. He had a woman contact him out of the blue on the Internet and ask to go foraging with him. When they were on the coast, it began to rain, and they were forced to retreat to his tent. One thing led to another, and she ended up coming back home with him.

How many people would have guessed that a sexy seaweed seduction would be part of a story about dating in Grass Valley/Nevada City? Exactly one person: Reginald. But it probably surprises nobody reading this article that the local path to love is one of quirks and borderline ridiculous twists of fate. 

After all, that’s why we live here: We don’t do normal. We’re not John-Mellencamp-Small-Town: “another boring romantic.” Well, we might be romantics. We’re almost certainly romantics. 

But we’re definitely not boring. 

* Not their real names. 

Additional reporting by Joseph Hudson. Feature image by Jess Poteralski. Additional graphics by Joseph Hudson, with permission from Max Ginsburg Illustration

More to explore