Parkfield, California, population 18, sells itself as the Earthquake Capitol of the World; but as it turns out, it’s somewhat difficult to see the dramatic effects of earthquakes here. You have to look closely and use your imagination. It’s like visiting the Cherry Pie Capitol of the World and finding no cherries and no pie. You can’t see the quakes in Parkfield; and unless you’re very lucky, you also don’t really feel the earthquakes that rumble constantly beneath the surface here. Most quakes are more like ghosts in the walls that appear without warning and leave little trace besides a shudder and a whisper of their potential violence.

Parkfield, California aerial photo circa 1964

The town of Parkfield lies a few hundred meters east of the main trace of the San Andreas fault. Parkfield bridge (foreground), built in 1932, was damaged in 1934 and 1966 Parkfield earthquakes.
Photo courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Parkfield is a place haunted by potential violence, teased by the possibility of catastrophe, and it is not called the Earthquake Capitol of the World because they have the greatest quantity of these smaller ghostly quakes but because they have more frequent quality earthquakes—six magnitude or greater tumblers—than anywhere else on the San Andreas Fault. And because these big ones seem to occur somewhat predictably along this stretch of the San Andreas, the USGS set up shop here in the late 60s and early 70s and began what’s called the Parkfield Experiment, a decades long effort focused on predicting and preparing for a catastrophic earthquake. A sophisticated array of seismic sensors designed to capture and record every aspect of a large earthquake has been installed throughout the Cholame Valley, making it home to more quake-sensing technology than almost anywhere else on the planet, and therefore the heart of a great deal of earthquake science in North America.

More recently a remote plot of private land in the valley has become the site of something called the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD as it is more colloquially known. SAFOD is essentially a huge tunnel bored three miles down straight down into the San Andreas Fault and filled with all manner of seismic sensors. It’s a heart monitor plugged into the pulse of California’s most famous seismic rift; and just as the drilling of it was nearing completion in 2004, a 6.5-magnitude quake rumbled up from the San Andreas, becoming perhaps the most captured, recorded, and measured quake in U.S. history. Recent quakes in the area have only added to Parkfield’s significance in seismology circles.

When I visited in 2010 the town’s motto, “Be Here When it Happens,” was emblazoned on a rusted water tank outside the quaint, log-cabin-looking Parkfield Café. A signpost out front boasted three rectangular signs: “Admission. One Cup. Of Kindness,” and across the street the sign for the Parkfield Inn begged you to, “Sleep Here When it Happens.” The Inn, the Café, and most of the valley (around 20,000 acres) are owned by the Varian family and their V6 Ranch. The Varians host various rodeo events in Parkfield, run a variety of businesses, and raise grass-fed beef cattle on their land.

I parked my car outside and stepped out to find an obese basset hound lounging in a patch of shade. Her belly was punctuated with thick brown nipples and she twitched her long ears to keep the flies away. Otherwise she didn’t budge when I walked past her into the café.

Inside I sat down at the bar and chatted briefly with Sandra, who was tending bar and waiting tables. I asked her if she felt many earthquakes. She shook her head and smiled patiently, telling me they got them all the time, mostly small ones, but that they barely noticed them.

I asked her if the cows in the valley sensed earthquakes but she said, “No. We mostly just watch the horses,” she said, wiping a rag across the bar. “When they really start to freak out, we know there’s going to be a bigger one.”

At that point, the basset hound waddled in the door and cozied up to a patron at a table.

“What about the dog?” I asked. I’d heard stories about dogs sensing earthquakes and trying to warn their human companions.

“You mean Violet? That’s her name. But everyone calls her ‘The Mayor’,” she said, laughing, “Nah, she doesn’t notice. Not anymore.”

SAFOD

Schematic cross section of the San Andreas Fault Zone at Parkfield, showing the drill hole for the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) and the pilot hole drilled in 2002. Red dots in drill holes show sites of monitoring instruments. White dots represent area of persistent minor seismicity at depths of 2.5 to more than 10 km. The colors in the subsurface show electrical resistivity of the rocks as determined from surface surveys; the lowest-resistivity rocks (red) above the area of minor earthquakes may represent a fluid-rich zone.
Image courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Nobody in Parkfield it seemed thought too much about earthquakes. I remembered how my father and I used to stand in the front yard and watch those Kansas thunderstorms roll in from the southwest. We were more curious than afraid, accustomed, I supposed, to the apocalyptic potential. I looked over and a woman was scratching the Mayor behind the ears. The dog tilted her head back and leaned into the rub, her back leg thumping lightly on the wood floor. Sandra told me that Violet’s partner, a male basset hound of similar girth and disposition, disappeared without a trace not long ago.

“Someone just drove up and loaded him in their car and left,” she said. “That’s the best we can guess. One day he was just gone.“

Sandra hustled off to take someone’s order, and I stared up at a vaulted log ceiling hung with hundreds of rusted metal cattle brands. A carved wooden sign read, “If You Feel a Rumble and Shake, Get Under the Table and Finish your Steak”. Earthquakes don’t even interrupt your meal in Parkfield. In fact, they were the meal. The “Tremors” supper combo was served with salad and a hot roll. If you wanted a steak, you could order The Big One, The North American Plate, or the Magnitude from the dinner menu, which also featured Rockin’ Ribs, Rollin’ Prime Rib, Faultless Chicken, and Richter Pork Chops. The Pacific Plate would get you the seafood catch of the day.

Parkfield was a strange and beautiful place and, even after only a short time there, I started to understand why someone would decide to get married or to host a company picnic here, or why they might be oddly compelled to make art there; but I was also beginning to understand why, with its relative isolation, Parkfield made the perfect seismic laboratory for the USGS and their experiments in earthquake prediction. And though I couldn’t condone it, I even understood why one might be so enraptured by the place that he’d want to take part of it home with him—something substantial and heavy, something like a 50-pound basset hound betrothed to the town mayor.

 

In the fall of 2008 the Australian landscape artist D.V. Rogers came to Parkfield and began excavating a large pit in the lot next door to the Parkfield Café. When it was finished he installed a seismic shake table that he’d salvaged from a science museum in Sydney. Driven by his own desire to make earthquakes tangible and visible, to make them something we could capture through art and science, Rogers affixed ten-foot-tall steel rods to the shake-table platform and rigged it not only to sense people jumping or stomping on seismometers (which he actively encouraged) but also to channel the constant trembling of the nearby San Andreas Fault as well as all the other faults and fissures throughout California.

Rogers built something like an enormous tuning fork, a physical instrument designed to register the noise of our grinding planet. Assisted by the USGS and supported by the Varians, D.V. Rogers ran real-time seismic activity data through his shake-table, translating the invisible into visual form, funneling seismic vibrations into a quivering mass of steel that danced and wiggled, reproducing quakes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

In photographs of his project Rogers regularly wears a white straw cowboy hat, a bandana tied around his neck, and he looks tanned and artistically intense. He appears possessed, consumed by the enormity of it all. In his writing I can sense the overall gravity of his experience in Parkfield when he describes the mission of the project:

This time-sharing, machine performance merged together the micro-seismic resonance of geological time with the autonomous operation of a ready-made, modified machine creating a science non-fictional, seismic machine earthwork action immersed within a seismically active landscape.

Parkfield is a place where geological time and human time collide in both measurable and immeasurable ways. It is The Earthquake Capitol of the World, a place of great scientific importance; yet I found myself increasingly intrigued and compelled by the people who lived and worked there. I wanted to understand what it was like to carve out a life on the San Andreas.

PIEQF at Parkfield, California

D.V. Rogers at the Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork site in 2008.
Photo credit: jacktrade via photopin cc

Though he was long gone by the time I arrived, Rogers is at least partly to blame for my interest in Parkfield. I’d seen a video and still-shots on the USGS website about what he called his Parkfield Interventional EQ Fieldwork (PIEQF) and I’d waded through the obtuse prose on his website, marveling at the pictures of his shake-table and what appeared to have been a sizable earthmoving endeavor. I’d even watched videos and slogged through his writing about the project, what he called a “geo-poetical Slipstream style account” of his time in Parkfield. The writing was undeniably compelling and equally unhinged.

At one point, Rogers begins comparing himself to the protagonist in a cyberpunk novel who lives in a science fiction alternate universe, a landscape that exists in different time-space reality. He talks about himself in the third person a lot. And while I didn’t necessarily see myself as the protagonist in a cyberpunk novel, I often felt in Parkfield as if I’d stepped away from myself and into a different time-space reality. It was a place where human endeavors in the face of geological realities seemed both noble and futile.

 

On one of my last trips to Parkfield that summer, a young blond guy with a mustache sat down next to me at the Café bar and started fiddling with his cell phone. He wore a fitted white v-neck t-shirt and a soul-patch under his bottom lip, a day-two beard, and tattoo on his left hand plus another on his arm.

He also wore shorts, a significant cultural faux pas in Parkfield of which I was also guilty. He messed with his phone repeatedly, at one point turning and snapping a photo of the bar and restaurant.

I asked what brought him there, assuming he was an earthquake tourist.

“Oh, I’m a screenwriter and producer, and I wrote a film set here in Parkfield,” he said.

His name was Josh Waller and he grew up in nearby Paso Robles. As a boy he used to visit Parkfield regularly with his dad and compete in the rodeos hosted by the V6 Ranch. I asked him to tell me about his film.

“It’s set in the Parkfield Inn, right across the street. It’s a horror film starring Elijah Wood and Rachel Nichols, and I don’t mean one of those torture porn films like Saw. I’m talking about a character and story-driven slasher film.”

“Set right here in Parkfield?”

“Yep,” he said and kind of grinned. “Just two actors, Elijah Wood and Rachel Nichols. Low budget and it takes place on one night when a young couple checks in alone to the Parkfield Inn. We watch the slow disintegration of their psyches.”

The plot of the film got a little muddy for me. What seemed important was that the seismic activity in the area had something to do with a supernatural time shift, an intersection between human time and geologic time, which resulted in the psychically disintegrated couple encountering their doppelganger selves in the darkened Parkfield Inn across the street. They then proceeded to not only kill each other, but also themselves… or something gruesome and logically problematic like that. The final scene was clearly the jewel of Waller’s story.

Parkfield Cafe sign

Photo credit: sonofabike via photopin cc

“It ends with the couple dragging their own bodies out into this field right out here.” He pointed out the window. “They drag them over to a pit, a mass grave, and look down to find hundreds of their own decomposing corpses.”

‘Wow,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

Waller said he’d always imagined a horror film here in Parkfield, something that played upon the unique seismic character of the place. He saw something timeless and supernatural here, and he wanted to translate the ineffable and invisible into a story.

 

I admit that I wanted to feel an earthquake, and Parkfield wasn’t cooperating in this department. So a few weeks later, in between trips, my son and I stood in a roped-off line at the San Jose Tech Museum waiting for the teenage attendant to usher us onto an earthquake simulator.

The attendant did not offer safety tips, tell us to buckle up, or suggest that we hold on tight for the ride. She did not announce the quake that was coming or give us pertinent facts regarding its magnitude and destructive impact. There was no build-up, no narrative of suspense, just the confusion of not knowing. So far it seemed pretty realistic.

Like an actual earthquake, the simulator operated on its own independent clock that was mostly inscrutable to the visitor. The numbers ticked away, but our attendant did not count down the seconds for us, did not explain the red lights on the walls. A digital readout flashed “Loma Prieta, Oct. 89” alternating with a numerical countdown; and this was the only way I knew how to prepare for a big one.

We shuffled into place, and my son asked me where he should stand. A timid family of four occupied the lone bench, huddled together for safety, so I pointed to an empty corner next to them against the padded rail. He hurried over and took his place. I stood waiting in the center, away from any support railings.

Behind the simulator platform, broken windows and jumbled slat-blinds hung from wires, recreating a scene of domestic destruction. A table in the corner invited you to build structures with foam blocks, just to see if they could withstand the shaking. As the platform filled with people, there was an odd jangle of anticipation and fear—much like what you feel as you’re buckled into a roller coaster and waiting for the ride to start.

I looked at my son and I could see that he was afraid, the emotion written across his face, and it was real, not manufactured for my sake. I reached out to him, he walked over to me, and we put our arms around each other as the clock wound down. Some people understood what was happening. Others clearly had no idea and seem to have just wandered aimlessly onto the platform, awaiting instructions or guidance from some higher authority. But there was nothing for them.

Damage in San Francisco from the Loma Prieta earthquake.

An apartment building crushes a car in San Francisco during the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Photo by J.K. Nakata, courtesy United States Geological Survey.

A small girl toddled around uncontained and I felt like I should warn the mother. I wanted to point to the sign, to the words, “Loma Prieta, Oct. 89,” and the descending red numbers and remind her what this quake had done to the Bay Bridge. I wanted to use words like “pancake” to characterize the destruction, but instead I watched the numbers peel away. “Loma Prieta, Oct. 89” flashed again, and I braced myself.

I spread my legs, bent my knees and waited for the impact.

At ten seconds the red lights flared and spun, and an alarm sounded. The attendant said nothing. She stared at us as if we were cattle in a pen. The first jolt of Loma Prieta, a dramatic shift to the right, separated me from my son and nearly threw me into the wandering toddler. I thrust my arms out, stumbled back, and instinctively grasped for something to hold me steady. The platform jiggled and shook with P-wave reproductions, and my son shuffled nervously away from me, back over to his spot at the railing.

I shook alone in the center, dancing like a drunk as the quake wound down and the plastic table-guards slapped rhythmically against the handrails. By the end of the simulation, other children were clinging to their parents, huddled against the edges for safety.

My son held on tight to the railing. The foam houses all tumbled down. The red lights turned off, the sirens went silent, and I thought about what it would have been like if that had been a real quake, realizing how easily it knocked me off balance and separated me from my son. He walked back over to me as everyone moved to leave.

“Did you have fun,” I asked him.

He just kind of nodded his head and mumbled, “Yeah.”

He didn’t look like he’d had fun. He looked like he wanted to get out of there. The teenage girl dropped the barrier rope and let us off. The ride was over. It was time to go home.

 

On one of my last trips that summer, I stopped into the Parkfield Cafe for a beer and some conversation before checking into my room at the Parkfield Inn. I mentioned something to Sandra about the wild pigs I’d heard about, ravenous herds of them invading the valley at dusk. I wanted her to tell me where to find them. I thought it might be something to see.

“Oh yeah, the pigs,” Sandra said as she wiped a glass dry. She looked over at a man sitting on a nearby barstool. “Manny used to hunt them. Isn’t that right, Manny?”

“Yep,” the man said.

I turned to look at him.

“How?” I asked.

“Easy,” he said and sipped his iced tea. I watched his reflection in the bar mirror. He wore a white straw cowboy hat. He was eating an ice cream sundae.

“No, how did you kill them?” I asked.

“With dogs and a knife.”

He twisted his glass of tea on the bar, still not looking at me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Violet the dog

Violet, a.k.a. “The Mayor”.
Photo by Steven Church.

He looked at me. “Dogs chase ‘em down and I come in with the knife.”

“Slit the throat?”

“Yep. Bleed ‘em out.”

I thought not of the squealing death but of the edifying silence afterward, the peace of finality, the completion cutting to the bone.

Manny talked without any bravado of killing wild pigs, as if he was answering a question about how to change a tire. It was no big deal for him. Manny had lived in Parkfield—really, in a small side canyon just east of town—for about a year and a half, ever since he was laid off from his job as a maintenance man at a concrete plant in the Salinas Valley. He had stark blue eyes and thick curly hair. He was tan, ruggedly handsome, and looked like he was in his 50s, maybe early 60s, but still in good shape. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt, blue jeans, and that crisp white straw cowboy hat.

Manny told me that he made a little money here-and-there mostly by doing odd jobs for people and, occasionally, staging gunfights for show. I asked him to tell me more about the gunfights and about his audience for such shows and he described them as, “Whoever,” barely turning to look at me. “Parties and such. Family reunions. Sometimes just for fun.”

I eventually learned that Manny was born in the Azores and came to the United States with his family when he was 13. As a boy he’d fallen in love with Westerns and imagined that all of America was like those movies—big skies, horses, cowboys, and Indians. He imagined a hard world but a fair world ruled by honor, a simple world where a man knew his place. His favorites were any film starring Clint Eastwood.

We were talking movies and gunfights when Manny mentioned something about the half-scale replica Old West village he’d built on his property.

“You wanna see it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“OK, lemme finish my ice cream.”

Manny’s truck was filled with papers, parts, and random bits of detritus, all of it coated in a fine patina of dust. As we drove, he told me about all the time and money-saving devices he invented for his former employer. Manny got a raw deal it seemed to me—laid off from a job he loved—and I asked him if it was because he was older, because he seemed expendable. But it was more than that, he admitted as we snaked our way up the dirt road to his place.

“I’ve got Parkinson’s,” he said, holding up his hand to show me.

It trembled in the space between us.

“If I don’t take the pills, it’s a lot worse.”

Manny slowed the truck and pointed with a shaky finger to a spot of grass beneath an oak tree. He told me how a doe and fawn bad been bedding down there. He saw them most mornings as he drove into town. I could still see the ghostly impressions of their bodies in the grass. Manny told me how he graded the road about once a year, driving his tractor down and smoothing out the rough spots, filling in holes and ruts. Nobody paid him to tend it. He just did it. It took him a few days to do the whole road. It was a community thing, he told me, something for his neighbors.

“Are you afraid of earthquakes, Manny?” I finally asked.

“Nah,” he said.

Sign left

Photo by Steven Church.

We drove a little further in silence, approaching a hillside where the road cut around the edge, a ravine falling off to the side, “I was driving home, right here when the last one hit,” he said.

He meant the last temblor he could distinguish from other ruptures in his life. Manny had lost a lot in recent years—his job, his wife, and his health. He pointed to a dirt bank carved out to make the road.

“The quake was just big enough to shake the dust off the hills.”

Manny’s hand quivered there in the cab of the truck as if he was channeling the eternal dither of the place.

When we reached his property, Manny showed me around. There was indeed a half-scale Old West Village—a Saloon, the Bath House, Bunk House, and Bank that all looked movie-set quality. The Saloon was stocked with liquor and taxidermied animals. Manny reluctantly took me on a tour of his tiny, solar-powered off-the-grid cabin as a Jack Russell terrier named Pocket bounced around our feet. He showed me his “patio,” an idyllic space carved out beneath the draping limbs of a weeping willow tree. Manny told me he planned to be buried in the Parkfield cemetery, where he got a free plot.

Sign right

Photo by Steven Church.

Manny invited me to his family reunion, promised a gunfight, and offered to let my kids and I come and stay with him in one of the trailers he had on the property; and his kindness unsettled me a bit, cracked open something inside me. I needed this rift more than I realized.

As we climbed back into Manny’s truck for the drive back to Parkfield, I felt the pendulum swing. Time shifted as it inevitably does here, and as suddenly and clearly as I heard the ringing echoes of impacts in this place, I also saw a doppelganger life on the San Andreas, a dream home in this valley—my children scampering in the golden fields, a dog running behind them, maybe a milking goat in a pen, my writing desk bathed in dusky hues. Beneath us, the earth would rumble enough to shake the dust off the hills, quakes coming and going as predictably as thunderstorms. I saw it all that fast. An alternate future appeared like a snapshot of life in the Earthquake Capitol of the World, a life lived at the edge, quivering with the others, and realized maybe I was close to capturing something big, close to understanding a little of what it meant to live and make art and die on the San Andreas Fault; so I held on tight for the last mile with Manny back into town.

 

 

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, as well as the forthcoming collection of essays, Ultrasonic: Soundings. His nonfiction has been published recently or is forthcoming in Passages North, DIAGRAM, River Teeth, Salon.com, The Rumpus, and others. He is a founding editor of The Normal School.

Original header photo of the bridge at Parkfield, California by artq55 via photopin cc

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