Shortages of health care professionals have plagued rural areas of the USA for more than a century. Programs to alleviate them have met with limited success. These programs generally focus on factors that affect recruitment and retention, with the supposition that poor recruitment drives most shortages. The strongest known influence on rural physician recruitment is a "rural upbringing," but little is known about how this childhood experience promotes a return to rural areas, or how non-rural physicians choose rural practice without such an upbringing. Less is known about how rural upbringing affects retention. Through twenty-two in-depth, semi-structured interviews with both rural- and urban-raised physicians in northeastern California and northwestern Nevada, this study investigates practice location choice over the life course, describing a progression of events and experiences important to rural practice choice and retention in both groups. Study results suggest that rural exposure via education, recreation, or upbringing facilitates future rural practice through four major pathways. Desires for familiarity, sense of place, community involvement, and self-actualization were the major motivations for initial and continuing small-town residence choice. A history of strong community or geographic ties, either urban or rural, also encouraged initial rural practice. Finally, prior resilience under adverse circumstances was predictive of continued retention in the face of adversity. Physicians' decisions to stay or leave exhibited a cost-benefit pattern once their basic needs were met. These results support a focus on recruitment of both rural-raised and community-oriented applicants to medical school, residency, and rural practice. Local mentorship and "place-specific education" can support the integration of new rural physicians by promoting self-actualization, community integration, sense of place, and resilience. Health policy efforts to improve the physician workforce must address these complexities in order to support the variety of physicians who choose and remain in rural practice.