Shell Saurer’s chance encounter on a train led her to Vermont.
A chance encounter on a train led me to discover the small town where I belong.
My journey began with a conversation about art on a train ride across America. I had recently lost both parents and decided I didn’t want to return to my previous career in the music industry. I needed a change. So I hopped on a train for a long, restorative trip of window-gazing, people-watching and thinking about my future. Born and raised in Los Angeles, I craved a different path, one that had nestled inside me since childhood: to live in a rural setting or small town. When this yearning came up in conversation, the gentleman I had been chatting with offhandedly suggested Bellows Falls, Vermont. He said it had everything I was seeking: a close-knit community, mountains (after all, it’s the Green Mountain State), more cows than people, water (the Connecticut River runs along the eastern border of the village), no traffic, a train station, farm-fresh food and plenty of support for the arts. That all sounded amazing, but Vermont? Once the trip ended, I considered towns near larger western cities I was familiar with: Austin, Denver, Seattle, Spokane. Then one evening I decided that I’d lived long enough without four seasons and ventured onto a real estate website, entering “Bellows Falls, Vermont” in the search box. What popped up blew my mind: beautiful Victorian homes, all for the price of what a mailbox would cost in Southern California. I then spent hours reading every article I could find about Bellows Falls and poring over the images. It looked too good to be true! I emailed the man from the train and asked, “If someone were to visit your village, what’s the worst time of year to come?” If I was really going to think seriously about relocating there, I wanted to know what I was in for. He said, “Right now. It’s been a cold and snowy winter and everyone’s about over it at this point.” So I booked a flight and arrived the last week of February 2015. I did my best to quell the voice of doubt as I pulled off Interstate 91 in the dark of night and drove to the inn in the nearby village of Saxtons River. I slipped down the icy sidewalk in my city boots, dragged my
“I drive on dirt roads just as often as paved ones. I pet-sit goats and buy my eggs off a friend’s front porch.”
suitcase up the wooden front steps and, upon entering, was greeted with, “You must be Shell, from California! Welcome!” Over the course of the next year, I went back to stay in Bellows Falls during every season, trying to find a good reason not to move myself, my two cats and my large dog from California to a village 3,000 miles away in Vermont. But I could not find one. What I discovered was that I found a sense of belonging I’d been searching for my entire life. I found acceptance within the community, despite being told that many New Englanders take a while to warm up to strangers—which they all said as they welcomed me into their homes and their lives. I now own a snowblower and lots of flannel. I drive on dirt roads just as often as paved ones. These days I pet-sit goats and buy my eggs off a friend’s front porch. In summer, I trade my garden’s overabundance of zucchini for someone else’s overabundance of green beans. And I am immersed in the art scene that is as much a part of Vermont as fresh maple syrup…which I now buy from a neighbor’s sugar shack. To say I found my slice of heaven on earth is an understatement. Rarely a day has gone by in the two years since I moved to Bellows Falls that I haven’t thought to myself, “This is what life is supposed to feel like,” while giving thanks to that stranger on the train, who became a treasured friend and neighbor.
This sign made Shell feel welcome in Bellows Falls. The Connecticut River runs along the eastern edge of the village.
Clockwise from top left: Shell picks out flowers for her garden; home sweet home; Harlow’s Farm Stand, where she shops for most of her groceries