The Big Big One

     I happened to be walking toward the lobby of my office – en route to the restroom, if I’m being completely accurate – when the rafters began to shake.
     As the ground began to sway, I darted toward the exit, exploded through the doors and began to dash for a parking lot – except I didn’t realize that it’s really difficult to run during an earthquake. Next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the concrete with a scraped knee.
     While I lay there in shock, my initial thought was that my first California quake hadn’t been all that bad. But, tragically, I learned later, two women had died in nearby Paso Robles when the walls of their workplace crumbled on them.
     Still, that 2003 shaker wasn’t “The Big One” scientists have long predicted from the nearby San Andreas Fault, a troublemaking crack in the earth that runs through more than 800 miles of the Golden State.
     The same month Hollywood plans to release its blockbuster film “San Andreas,” seismologists from University of California-Berkeley are spying on the San Andreas Fault this month, installing underground seismometers at a Paso Robles winery that will help them analyze the link between small tremors and major quakes along the fault.
     Wanting to know more about the state’s biggest mover and shaker myself, I visited the famous fault a few years ago, driving to the so-called Earthquake Capital of the World – Parkfield, California – with my buddy Joe.
     Located in southern Monterey County, 17 miles past the site of the James Dean car crash, rural Parkfield isn’t exactly a happening place – unless you’re into earthquake research. The census says the town only has 18 residents. And when we were there, we saw a fifth-grade girl walking a donkey across the yard at Parkfield Elementary, which struck me as exactly the sort of thing one would do at a one-room schoolhouse like this.
     Not far from the school is the Parkfield Inn, which boasts the slogan, “Sleep here when it happens.”
     Frankly, that doesn’t seem like a great idea given Parkfield’s claim to fame as a quake epicenter.
     Near the Parkfield Cafe, you’ll see 17 mailboxes, which I assume are all the mailboxes in the Earthquake Capital. But despite the relative isolation here, near the school, you’ll find the office of the U.S. Geological Survey, which conducts quake research.
     Turns out little Parkfield is a big deal in the seismic world, thanks to its location along one of the country’s longest and most active faults.
     At the intersection of Parkfield-Coalinga and Cholame Valley roads, we came upon a bridge marked with a sign: “San Andreas Fault.” Under that sign, a smaller one read, “Now Entering North American plate.”
     “That’s it,” Joe announced, looking under the bridge.
     “That empty creek bed?” I said, stepping out of his Honda Element.
     It didn’t look so big and bad. Yet, this shifty character killed 3,000 San Francisco residents in 1906.
     I told Joe that, then added, “But, hey – everyone has their faults.”
     “Speak for yourself,” he responded, dryly.
     Joe obviously doesn’t enjoy puns – or have a sense of humor.
     I arrogantly walked on the fault, daring it to knock me down as its peer had done in 2003. But its failure to budge shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness.
     The fault near Parkfield produces a magnitude 6.0 quake roughly once every 22 years, seismologists say. And even though there hasn’t been a really big Big One in a while, the plate here is constantly shifting, causing the guardrail over that bridge to become bent.
     It doesn’t take much for faults to leave a mark.
     The 2003 quake that scraped my knee lasted only a few seconds but was enough to bring down buildings in Paso Robles, and significant enough to bring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to town.
     After mispronouncing San Luis Obispo County (“Sanz Obispo County”) and pledging to rebuild the town square, the gov vowed in his best Terminator voice, “I’ll be back.”
     And he was – for a political fundraiser.
     The Governator is, of course, long gone from California politics. But if all goes well, the UC Berkeley scientists will help us prepare for the return of the San Andreas Fault.
     To be honest, though, I’d rather see the movie.

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