Chasing Disaster

By Steven Church

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Thoughts on the Apocalypse recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?

A daytrip to James Dean’s Last Stop and the Earthquake Capital of the World.

It was late summer 2010, and road construction had sent me south on the I-5 to Highway 46, past Blackwell’s Corner, a place that advertised itself as James Dean’s Last Stop. I stopped mostly out of morbid curiosity. The modern barn-sized convenience store carried your typical convenience store fare as well as an existentially troubling selection of flavored nuts. Aisle after aisle at Blackwell’s Corner touted transparent plastic bags stuffed with garlic pistachios, chile-limon pistachios, habanero, jalapeno, barbeque, and Cajun pistachios. There were roasted salt and pepper pistachios and roasted unsalted pistachios. There were also almonds. Lots of almonds. Jalapeno-cheddar almonds, chocolate covered almonds, barbeque almonds, Cajun almonds, smoked almonds; and I haven’t even mentioned the cashews. Each and every greasy nut bag in the store boasted a white paper label that read, “James Dean’s Last Stop.” I’m not sure what kind of place it was when Dean stopped here, but I’m guessing he wasn’t browsing the shelves for nuts.

I had to use the restroom. To reach the bathrooms, I had to skirt past a mannequin in a leather jacket, blue jeans, and sunglasses sitting alone at a darkened soda-counter. He wore a black wig and looked more like Elvis than James Dean. A sign on the counter begged me not to touch him.

On the way out, I bought a soda and a bag of garlic cashews because I felt like I should, because it seemed like the price of entrance. And because I wanted a bag of nuts that said, “James Dean’s Last Stop.” I was also hungry and I ate them quickly, licking my fingers as I drove.

Shortly after leaving Blackwell’s Corner, California Highway 46 dropped down into the Cholame Valley and merged with Highway 41 between the poverty-stricken and seismically silent Central Valley where I lived and the bustling beach vacation spots of the Central Coast. But if you were like me and looking for something different, actually searching for an earthquake, you would turn just past the intersection where Dean’s Porsche Spyder, “Little Bastard,” crashed head-on into a Ford driven by a man named Turnupspeed.

You might also pass small packs of people milling around the intersection, snapping photographs, pointing at the ground, perhaps even pocketing a few rocks as a kind of memorial souvenir, a remembrance of Dean. Then you’d pass a painted wood sign reading “Jack Ranch,” cross a weedy cattle-guard and drive north, away from James Dean’s death and through the undulating dunn-colored hills, beneath towering Valley Oaks and eucalyptus trees. Near the end of the paved road you’ll find the town of Parkfield, California, population 18, the Earthquake Capital of the World, perhaps the most measured, studied, and recorded stretch of the infamous San Andreas Fault.

If there is a living, breathing earthquake laboratory in North America, a place where the United States Geological Survey and other entities test out their best theories of earthquake behavior, it is this tiny town in the Cholame Valley.

This was at least part of the reason I first visited Parkfield. I wanted to feel an earthquake. I know this seems crazy, but I grew up in Kansas surrounded by tornadoes and stories about tornadoes, and when a really big storm rolled in from the southwest, I used to stand in the front yard with my dad and watch the sky boil green and angry. I’d lived in California for six years and hadn’t felt so much as a rumble of the apocalypse. We barely had lightning, much less the sort of thunderstorms I missed from home. Perhaps my interest in earthquakes was a strange kind of homesickness. And perhaps I was also haunted by this place, Parkfield. It did have a pull that was hard to explain.

I’d read something about an artist who’d relocated to Parkfield and installed a shake table affixed with 10-foot steel rods that was designed to make seismicity visible and tangible. He was trying to understand earthquakes through art, and I suppose I saw myself as attempting something similar.

I wasn’t sure what I was chasing but writing seemed to be the way to go after it. I knew that, on some level, my interest in earthquakes and in Parkfield was a continuation of my own interest in apocalypse, one that probably began with my childhood fears of nuclear and weather-related apocalypse, fears that spawned my 2010 book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. It was also, in some part, probably connected to my reading of Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, where she talks about the utopian micro-communities that arise in the wake of disaster. I was interested in the people who live, work, and make art in Parkfield, a place so quiet and peaceful and so full of interesting characters, that it seemed Utopian to me in many ways; and what began as a magazine assignment has since turned into a book project. I’ve been lucky enough to place a couple of the chapters in The Rumpus, but I know there is more work to be done, more interviews and research. I thought I’d maybe left the apocalypse behind with my last book, but I should have known it would come back again. I should have known I’d be repeatedly pulled toward disaster.



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. His essays have been published or are forthcoming from Passages North, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, Brevity, The Pedestrian, and many others. His essay, “Auscultation,” was selected for the 2011 Best American Essays. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.

James Dean header painting photo credit: Francesco Carpi via photopin cc. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.