In Exile

Main Street, Etna CA

Soon after Max and I returned home to the Bay Area from our trek across the United States, she proposed that we move out to the country for a year. She wanted to continue her research into women’s history and write up the information she had gathered on our trip, without the distractions of big-city life.

I was in favor of this plan. I too wanted to do some focused reading. Since the Women’s Press Collective had broken up, I had no commitments in Oakland—a few friends, yes, but no group or project that would tie me there. I’d been in grief over the Press Collective and the loss of friendships, until I saw the record of genocide against Native Americans at the Denver Art Museum. That put my troubles in perspective. It also gave me the impetus to learn more about the history of my own people.

We conducted an exploratory excursion, driving north on I-5 to Mt. Shasta City. Housing there was scarce and pricey. From there we made a loop, north past Weed to Yreka and then southwest onto California Highway 3, which was a two-lane road through little towns, forests, and farm country, up and down over the hills between the Shasta and Scott valleys. We finally found a rental in Etna, population around 730.

Or rather, Max did. She found a garden apartment, attached to a large house at the south end of town. She didn’t want to share space with me, perhaps because she preferred living alone at that time in her life, perhaps she’d had enough of me after too much togetherness on our cross-country road trip, perhaps because she didn’t want our relationship to be obvious in that conservative town. In any case, she took the apartment for herself and left me to find my own place. What if all I could find was in another town, even as far as Mt. Shasta, 60 miles away? She didn’t seem to care. I was hurt, but said nothing. Fortunately the Etna Hotel—right on Main Street, in the center of town—had a vacancy.

The hotel had probably seen better days. It was a two-story building, and my suite (I suppose you could call it) was on the second floor. It had a small kitchen and a bedroom/living room with comfortable but well-worn furniture. A young man rented the rooms across the hall. The sweet elderly couple who owned the place lived downstairs. They were country people, the man into hunting and fishing, the woman obsessed with making pies. I was lucky enough to taste one. It was delicious.

Other features of the little town were a small convenience store, a soda shop, a one-room bookstore, a hardware store, a one-room library, and five churches.

Max didn’t seem interested in the community or the locals. She had grown up in a small town. I had lived only in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, so this was a different world for me, and I reached out, exploring and making friends.

Once I discovered that the woman who staffed the one-room library was a John Bircher and stocked mainly their propaganda, I never entered the place. Dorothy, who owned the bookstore, was more congenial. I browsed through her wares and bought some, and we chatted. When I let her know that I was a lesbian, she said she’d had a crush on another woman when she was much younger. It seemed she could have taken that road, but she loved living in the country and was an ardent fisherwoman, so I suppose she chose a path that allowed her to fit into that world.

Corky, the hardware store owner, had moved from a big city to raise children in what he considered a healthy environment. He was earnest and honest, and a member of the Scott Valley Berean Church. I bought automotive oil and other supplies from him. Over a quarter century later, when I visited Etna again, he recognized me and called me by name.

In addition to the Berean church, a fundamentalist Christian denomination, Etna also had a Methodist church, a Mormon church, a Catholic church, and a Russian Orthodox monastery. Max and I attended one of the Berean services—only one. Aside from not being Christian, whatever friendly interest we may have had vanished when we heard one of the songs: “Trust and obey/for that’s the only way/to be happy in Jesus/is to trust and obey.” Not a message likely to appeal to anti-capitalist, rebellious lesbian feminists.

However, I developed a friendship with Marilyn Seward, the minister’s wife. She was highly energetic—more so, I think, than her husband, Wendell—as well as capable and kind. At one point she told me that if she hadn’t been a Christian, she would’ve become a feminist. (She also taught school when I knew her. Subsequently she served on various local corporate boards, and was mayor of the town for a while continuing to be active in the church—definitely a dynamo of a woman.) I also had conversations with Wendell. When I asked him whether any Jews lived in the area, he said there were some Jews for Jesus. “If they worship Jesus, they’re Christians, not Jews,” I replied. I didn’t ask if there were any other lesbians. However, near the end of our stay—too late for friendship—I did finally encounter a couple who lived deeper in the woods, in an “unincorporated community” called Somes Bar—population 203.


To be continued…

4 Responses to In Exile

  1. Mary Sunshine October 6, 2021 at 1:58 pm #

    Thanks! This is fascinating.

    • Chelsea Dreher October 7, 2021 at 7:16 pm #

      Enjoying following your adventures, Martha. In this episode, I was unclear re your relationship with Max. She chose to live apart from you, which hurt. Then you get together to do stuff without any segue between separating and getting together. Don’t mean to be picky, but wanted to give feedback.

      Keep up this journal.It’s important that our lives be documented. Yours has been particularly rich in info about the early days. Hopefully young dykes will be, or are reading it. They don’t live in those dark old days and can get a glimpse of them in your memoir.

      Thanks a bunch for documenting your life..xc

      • Martha Shelley October 10, 2021 at 4:23 pm #

        I guess it wasn’t clear. We didn’t separate as lovers, but continued to have separate living spaces. I’m planning to collect the blog posts, expand on some, and turn them into a book. I’ll have more to say about my relationship with Max then.

        Thanks for your comment, though. You have no idea how helpful it was!

  2. Connie O Byrne October 6, 2021 at 5:37 pm #

    The start of a new adventure? Love the sound of this part of your journeys. Small town life sure is different…I live in a smallish town here northeast of Charlotte, NC. I’m out, have been for years and although I was warned when I bought my house in 2002 to be careful, I’ve not had any problems in all these years. Having a front yard that is a multi-section pollinator garden makes my neighbors happy! I also live next to Village Park, the YMCA and the library. The town’s Loop-the- Loop walking trail goes right by the corner of my house. Lots of interesting folks have become garden friends.
    I hope you’ve been able to create a community of your own over the years… hilariously without Max.. LOL

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.