Relaxing on the Fault Line
If you’re trying to find Parkfield, it’s slightly to the left of James Dean’s death site. Literally. Parkfield is 17 bumpy miles north (on a narrow one-lane road) of the spot on California 46 where Dean’s fatal crash occurred, between Paso Robles and Bakersfield. The crash site is just east of the James Dean memorial in the tiny blink-and-you-miss-it town of Cholame (pronounced Sha-LAM). As for Parkfield, without the Parkfield Inn, and its sister establishment the Parkfield Cafe across the street, the town would be nothing but a wide spot in the road.
Small as it is, Parkfield has established its claim to fame by billing itself as “The Earthquake Capital of the World.” It was the site of intensive studies from 1985 through ’92, during which time U.S. Geological Survey scientists said there was a 95% likelihood of a Richter Scale magnitude-6 earthquake occurring along the 25 miles of the San Andreas Fault near here. The predicted temblor didn’t occur, but scientists say Parkfield is still a likely place on the fault for the occurrence of such a strong earthquake. The local slogan is “Be Here When It Happens.”
Right now there’s absolutely nothing shaking in Parkfield. It’s the very definition of a sleepy little town. Maybe because I live in Hollywood, the middle of so many things, I feel a strong attraction to anyplace that can be described as “the middle of nowhere.”
When my friend Rona and I arrived in town at 7:30 Friday evening we headed straight for the cafe, which closes at 9. In front, various measuring devices tracked potential seismic events. Inside, a sign warned: “If you feel a shake or a quake, get under your table and eat your steak.” The steak in question is grilled New York sirloin, and at $16.45 for 12 ounces, plus fresh raw veggies with ranch dressing, garden salad, ranch-style chili beans, roasted potatoes and garlic bread, it’s a darn good deal.
We joined a mixed crowd of grizzled guys in baseball-style caps, local families and one Japanese couple in the casual, wood-beamed dining room, where anyone with a business card and a dollar bill is free to stick both up on the wall.
What are all these people doing in a cafe in the middle of nowhere? Well, I’ve used Parkfield as a tranquil overnight stop between L.A. and San Francisco (it’s almost halfway), and rest stops are few and far between out here for the long-distance drivers, gun-toting hunters and wine tasters visiting the 30 wineries in nearby Paso Robles.
Since we hadn’t been certain what time we’d get there, the folks at the inn thoughtfully left the key to our room under the mat outside our door. The six-room inn is a rustic but sturdy log-cabin structure with log railings and long porches front and back. It’s decorated throughout with log furniture made in Parkfield by the furniture-making branch of the family that owns the inn, which looks as though it’s been there forever but was built in 1991.
Our $50 room (going up to $65 March 1) had two comfy queen-size beds covered in patchwork quilts, each with its own reading light. We flipped for the one in the sleeping loft, and I won. There are no TVs or phones, but all rooms have modern bathrooms, mini-fridges, coffee makers and efficient heat/air-conditioning units. One room comes with its own stuffed bear--the taxidermied kind.
In fact, if you have an aversion to stuffed dead animals, the Parkfield Inn is not for you. The big sitting room with its cheery walk-in fireplace features bear, deer, moose and steer heads. It also houses the only TV in the place.
But that night, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow (the middle of nowhere is very, very quiet). We awoke bright and not too early to a pastoral view of rolling hills, a weathered barn and an old pickup that had been put out to pasture. We breakfasted on fresh muffins, oranges and juice that we found in the mini-fridge. Then it was time to pay our respects to James Dean.
On the way back to the highway, we saw more tawny hillsides, with lone cows resting under scattered trees. Other, more sociable cows congregated on either side of, and sometimes in, the road. As I bravely steered around them, and numerous suicidal rabbits and ground squirrels, I almost collided with a tumbling tumbleweed. Just then, signs indicated that we were actually crossing the famed San Andreas Fault.
The memorial--in the parking lot outside the casual luncheonette that is Cholame’s only restaurant, the Jack Ranch Cafe--is a free-form brushed-steel sculpture engraved with the infinity symbol, Dean’s birth and death dates and his favorite quote from St.-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
We passed up the Jack Ranch Cafe’s ostrich burger in favor of the traditional kind--after all, we were in cattle country. That evening we had dinner in the quaint little town of Templeton, a couple of exits south of Paso Robles on U.S. 101. Templeton was founded in 1886, but it boasts an excellent restaurant, McPhee’s Grill, that serves very ‘90s cuisine. Our choices were the ancho-chile-and-apricot-jam-glazed pork chop and the macadamia-nut-crusted salmon with ginger-sesame vinaigrette, accompanied by a delightful merlot from a local vineyard, Wild Horse.
The ambience at the grill was low-key. By contrast, A.J. Spurs Saloon and Dining Hall down the street, where we stopped for coffee, was jumping. But we had a long drive back to Parkfield, where all was still under a starry sky. And if you think we let the wine-filled chocolates we bought in Paso Robles go untasted before we turned in, you’re wrong.
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Budget for Two
two nights: $110.50
Parkfield Cafe: $65.40
Jack Ranch Cafe: $18.00
Dinner, The Grill: $77.00
Coffee, A.J. Spurs: $4.50
Parkfield Cafe: $21.50
FINAL TAB: $337.16
The Parkfield Inn and Cafe, 70410 Parkfield Road, Parkfield, CA 93451; tel. (805) 463-2421.