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Facing Up to Our Biggest Fault Is a Daunting Task

Even before I entered the river-rock-faced restaurant/bar in Elizabeth Lake, I had a bad feeling.

“Take this building, for example,” said geologist Gregg Wilkerson of the Bureau of Land Management as we pulled up to park. “The San Andreas fault pretty much runs right through the middle of this building. These stone buildings aren’t that sturdy. It would probably collapse in a quake.”

I stopped to consider the possibility.

“Well, let’s eat,” said Wilkerson, heading for the saloon-style front doors. “This place has good food.”

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Suddenly, I lost my appetite.

I grew up in Chicago, where the earth is as flat as a plate and does not, except in the most remarkable exceptions, move. What heartless manner of man had sent me here? An editor, of course.

“You’re afraid of earthquakes, right?” he had said. “Why don’t you look into the belly of the beast?”

I’d just experienced my own personal “Big One,” a 3.9 aftershock (laugh if you must) that jerked my seat side to side with, in my opinion, tremendous force.

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Tour the San Andreas fault? Just to see where the dragon lives? And write about it?

*

The rendezvous for the great fault tour was in Gorman. I drove up with my father, who was visiting from Chicago, at my side like a human security blanket.

“Maybe there’ll be an earthquake while we’re out there,” he said hopefully.

Wilkerson met us at the Carl’s Jr., outfitted in standard issue Bureau of Land Management gear and a gregarious smile.

“The fault runs all along here,” he told us, not wasting any time. “We’re not far from where Ft. Tejon was. In 1857 an estimated 7.9-magnitude hit this area in the morning. It was the day after they finished construction on Ft. Tejon, and it was destroyed. The ground opened up in spots. They were lucky in a way, because most of the men were already on patrol, otherwise it would have been worse.”

I was still focused on the 7.9 figure.

“How strong is that?”

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“Well, earthquakes are exponential,” Wilkerson said. “The Northridge earthquake in ’94 was a 6.7. The 1857 earthquake would have felt several thousand times stronger.”

I swallowed. Wilkerson didn’t seem bothered.

“Right now we are overdue for another big quake,” he continued. “They occur in about 220-year cycles, which in geological time is minuscule. Basically we could get another big one along this fault line tomorrow, or it could be another 100 years.”

“I’m afraid of earthquakes,” I confided.

He looked at me out of the side of his eye, both hands on the wheel of the minivan he was driving.

“I love earthquakes,” he said. “Love them. When the Northridge quake hit, I ran out of my house in Bakersfield and looked at the swimming pool. When I saw the waves in the pool I knew it was a good one.”

*

Wilkerson pulled over to the side of the road. Look down there, he told us, pointing to a tiny valley of lush green where cattle were grazing. A sag pond. Lush vegetation in an otherwise barren landscape marks the fault, he explained, because water collects in the depressions.

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People are often attracted to these spots because they are pretty.

“There are people living right on the fault,” he said with a sigh. “Sometimes I’ll knock on someone’s door and ask permission to come on their land to study the fault zone. Some of the time they didn’t even know they lived on the fault. ‘Shouldn’t my real estate agent have mentioned that?’ they’ll ask me.”

We drove on country roads as Wilkerson pointed out the change in landscape from one side of the fault to the other. Rock on one side is millions of years old. Rock on the other is only tens of thousands of years in age. The plants are different. From hilltops, I could see the straight line the fault draws across the landscape, like a gashing open scar of green trees.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the movement of the earth, the two tectonic plates sliding alongside each other with a force that can shake mountains and build new ones.

At lunch I recovered my momentarily lost appetite and ate a hamburger on a French roll.

My father spotted a bottle on the mirrored bar. A red-tinted Canadian liquor with crystals at the bottom. “Aftershock,” he read from the label, standing up to examine it.

“What’s it like?” my dad asked the waitress.

“The longer it sits in your stomach, the more it’ll get you,” she said.

Later, we stood on a dusty, heat-baked hillside overlooking the Antelope Valley Freeway. Here lies a geologist’s nirvana, explained Wilkerson: the rupture of the earth from the 1857 Ft. Tejon earthquake.

I was not impressed. It’s just the start of a harmless ditch. Then Wilkerson pointed out that the earth shifted 22 feet on that day.

Yards down the highway is a cutout in the earth, sliced away by the Department of Transportation to keep the ground from collapsing on the highway below. The result is a geological marvel: Gleaming in the sun is a spiraling curlicue of rock, with whorl-like fingerprint patterns, evidence of the tortured contortions in the earth over a million years.

As the cars whizzed by, we stood and considered the power that contorted the once-straight layers of rocks into swirls and bends that look like a man’s face.

I think it was winking at me.


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