Parkfield, pop. 18

It was time to visit Ma over on the California coast. Traveling west on route 41, which cuts off from I-5 and heads to Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, traffic came to a standstill. Something was going on where 41 merges with 46, the infamous “James Dean Junction” where the dashing young movie star gave up the ghost in his Porsche Spyder back in 1955. At first, with all the CHPs visible at the intersection, it looked like it must be a colossally bad wreck. But then, streaking into view down highway 46 came a big clot of bicyclists. Aha. We had run smack dab into the Tour of California bike race.

After the racers had passed, it was obvious it was gonna take a while for the large clusters of stopped traffic to unsnarl. This was my cue to take a side road heading up to the village of Parkfield, The Earthquake Capital of the World. The lumpy two-laner curved its way through handsomely classic, oak-infested California hill country, carpeted with the vivid new grass of February. You know you’re in the Golden State because the magpies have bills of gold, an interesting ornithological quirk. Fifteen miles from 41/46, one finds oneself approaching beautiful downtown Parkfield.

To get to town, you cross the creekbed, about 100 feet wide with a little stream cruising in its middle. But before you cross, there’s a sign that may be unique among road markers in the West. It informs the traveler that you’re leaving the Pacific Plate and entering the North American Plate. And that’s when it strikes you—that’s not a creekbed you’re crossing, it’s none other than the notorious San Andreas Fault. We’ve all seen time zone signs (if you haven’t, you really need to get out more), and in Montana/Wyoming/ Colorado, there are plenty of signs pointing out the Continental Divide. But this was a first for me; a sign announcing a tectonic transition.

To call the town low key understates the case considerably. An inn that’s closed for repairs, a cafe that’s closed for repairs (no seismic b.l.t. for me), a library in a gumdrop of a trailer that would make the Unabomber feel cramped, and a school. Plus a couple of doublewides that house the U.S. Geological Survey, which records a heckuva lot of tremulous activity at this location. The slogan under the sign for the Parkfield Inn—“Be here when it happens.” “It” being, presumably, The Big One. Not quite sure if you really do want to be in Parkfield when a large chunk of California slices off into the sea, not unless you want to be sipping a cold one on the veranda of the Inn so as to watch your car be swallowed up by a sudden, yawning, wrenching chasm of death. But then again, if you’re TECOTW, I guess it behooves you to at least try to make a party out of the end of the world as we know it.