California Scheming

Gaze at the bright splashes of color and geologic symbols on one of Tom Dibblee's maps of Southern California and you'll find a sublime and fantastic past: volcanoes and mountains that have risen from the bottom of the sea, only to be worn away by wind and rain; mysterious chunks of rock that have been rafted up from tropical Mexican latitudes; mountains and islands that have been folded, split and spun; great faults that have shuddered into existence, slipped for millions of years and then died.

Dibblee's maps chronicle a patch of the earth's crust where nature is at its busiest. No one has inked as much of this land as he has, and it's doubtful anyone else ever will. Now 84 years old, he has documented more than 40,000 square miles--roughly one quarter--of the state. All of it on foot. Among other things, he was the first to map the 600-mile length of the San Andreas Fault.

A descendant of one of the early Mexican land-grant families, the De la Guerras, Dibblee first discovered his talent at 15, when he mapped his father's 60,000-acre Santa Barbara ranch alongside a visiting oil geologist. A graduate of Stanford, Dibblee identified promising oil-bearing formations for the petroleum industry throughout California, Oregon and Washington. Starting in 1952, he mapped California for the U.S. Geological Survey; after he retired in 1978, he volunteered to map the Los Padres National Forest.

Until the early '80s, there was an alarming possibility that the information stored in Dibblee maps might be lost forever. His tattered field sheets--neatly folded and stored in cardboard boxes stacked inhis office--languished until admirers and friends established the Dibblee Geological Foundation in 1983 with the goal of publishing at least 100 of his most important maps. (It costs roughly $10,000 to mass produce a single map.) So far, the foundation has issued 70 quadrangle maps (with at least 60 more marked for production), and they are being snapped up by backpackers, developers, oil companies, city governments, universities and people who just want to hang them on their walls. (The Sunland-Burbank quadrangle is a favorite.)

And Tom Dibblee hasn't stopped. "I miss the way I used to map. I did it alone. I'd like to stay out there by myself, but at my age I need to have a younger person with me. My wife worries about me if I'm alone."

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