Several years ago, while living on the East Coast, I felt burnt out by work and, for no particular reason, decided to fly west to California to follow the route of the San Andreas fault. My plan was to stay in cheap hotel rooms, write at night and take long hikes along remote stretches of the fault during the day.
The San Andreas, an 800-mile slash of warped hills and broken rocks, extends from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mendocino. The San Andreas marks the very edge of the North American tectonic plate, where it grinds against the relentless force of a much-larger plate that underlies the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco is on the North American plate; Los Angeles is on the Pacific. The San Andreas is a border between two worlds in more ways than geological.
My goal was to track the fault across hundreds of miles of forest, city, mountain and plain. The San Andreas, of course, is not always visible. Sometimes it dives beneath the surface, disappearing under the cover of towns, lakes, and freeways; other times it rears up in surreal majesty to make its colossal scale known, a kind of mineral tidal wave. The resulting, convoluted landforms offer great hiking opportunities in fault-adjacent parks, such as the angled teeth of the Devil’s Punchbowl outside Los Angeles or the recently declared Pinnacles National Park.
Faulted landscapes like the San Andreas also offer something less tangible, even poetic. Indeed, the very premise of my trip felt confrontational, symbolic. I wanted to see a place where the world had broken open, a seam or margin where something new would forcefully emerge.
A fault is where a new version of the world is taking shape, where everything we know threatens to rearrange itself beneath our feet.
A geologist will tell you that a fault is where separate blocks of rock meet and slide, creating earthquakes. But a psychologist, say, or a poet, a novelist, an artist, will tell you something different. A fault is where a new version of the world is taking shape, where everything we know threatens to rearrange itself beneath our feet. A fault is where futures lurk.
One of the most memorable experiences of my trip came at a place called Wallace Creek, part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. I arrived at the end of an unpaved road late one afternoon to find I was the only person there; I also had no cellphone service. A geologist had told me that the best time to visit Wallace Creek is at sunrise or sunset, not out of a shared sense of seismic romanticism, but because of the angle of the sun. At Wallace Creek, the San Andreas takes the form of a shallow, sloped berm that extends for many miles across the landscape; the lower the sun, the more pronounced a shadow it can cast.
I hiked there for hours, eerily stepping over dozens of tarantulas that had come out to breed, and I watched in genuine awe as the fault seemed to emerge before me. It was a black line of shade that seemed to pull itself across the fractured ground, slowly, widening every minute like an abyss. I should add that I watch a lot of horror movies, and the feeling was not lost on me that day, that something dark and ancient was coming into view before me, a shadow-Earth infested by an ever-increasing number of huge spiders. (When I checked into a motel later, I did some Googling: I was traveling in the midst of a “tarantula boom” and what I had seen that day suddenly made sense.)
Although it is now years later, I still feel the otherworldly pull of faulted landscapes and I travel to see them whenever possible. Recently, for Wired magazine, I took a long trip along the California-Nevada border, to explore what some seismologists now believe is the future edge of the North American continent. In other words, these geologists believe that the San Andreas fault is actually dying and that an entirely new continental rift is forming, right now, east of the Sierra Nevada. The rift area, called the Walker Lane, closely follows U.S. Highway 395, which also means that it is an easy road trip to see the world-changing grandeur of plate tectonics.
At least for now, the Walker Lane is nowhere near as visible as the San Andreas, but I once again felt as if I was encountering something huge and relentless, some entirely new version of our world trying to assert itself from below, like a whale cresting from the depths. If the geologists are right, an ocean will form here over millions of years, as the Earth’s surface is ripped open and redesigned. It is an almost supernatural place: a landscape haunted by something it has yet to become.
My wife and I now live in Los Angeles, a short drive from both the San Andreas and the Walker Lane, as well as mere blocks from the Raymond fault, which lurks just uphill from our home.
Faults are terrestrial reminders that things are not frozen in place forever, that the Earth moves, that, however stuck or desperate we might think we’ve become in our own lives, immense forces are at work all around us, at all scales. Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.
Geoff Manaugh is a Los Angeles-based writer and author of “A Burglar’s Guide to the City.”