Fault Zone

The San Andreas Fault separates the triangle of coast known as Point Reyes from the rest of California. Sometime in the distant misty future, this little wedge of land will be an island cruising north at two inches per year, preparing to dive into the Aleutian Trench off the southern coast of Alaska. It will be swallowed up in ice and water, then melted down completely, perhaps to be someday belched forth in fire, part of Hawaii's newest island. It's the famous San Andreas, the one fault whose name most Californians know. This is the fault that is moving Los Angeles north, an idea which thrilled me as a child: Disneyland wouldn't be eight hours away, and we could go more often! This is the fault responsible for one of history's most well-known earthquakes, 8.1 in San Francisco in April, 1906.

Is it ever a disappointment! Something this dangerous, this rife with history and legend, and all you get is a handful of blue fence posts marking the line where the earth shifted on that April day nearly 100 years ago. There is no memorial to the cow reported swallowed alive, leaving only her tail above ground. Sure, there are some mementos: an interpretive sign featuring photographs of a ruined barn while directing your attention to the intact, well maintained barn across the field; a fractured fence, its parts separated by nearly 20 feet of solid dirt path; and a regulation state park stairway so visitors don't slip on the hillside. The fence has been probably maintained as well; no 100 year-old wooden fence left exposed to the constant fog would look as good as this one. This calm grassy field, with its freshly painted markers and rebuilt barn... This is an elaborate prank. Nothing more dangerous could happen here, the epicenter of 1906's quake, then a passing cow slipping in the mud.

I want drama, action, danger! I've been through enough earthquakes that I have a mental image of California criss-crossed with cracks and fractures. If I stand at this famous fault, I should see more than this seamless hill with its blue posts flickering in the fog. The San Andreas is more then a tension fault; it's an actual boundary between tectonic plates, those immense slabs of rock slowly shifting the continents around. West of the fault, the Pacific Plate grinds its slow way north, splintering rocks on the North American Plate as it passes. Stand on the west side long enough, and you'll stand on an island someday. Stand on the east side and eventually the shoreline will come to you; stand there long enough, and you and the westward bound plate will creep under the Pacific. Plate boundaries are where the action is, the reason for Japan's volcanoes and the ever increasing height of the Himalayas.

But there was nothing happening here. I wanted to walk up to the fault, peer down through warm mist and assorted vapors, and see the dividing line, see the rocks glowing with the heat of Earth's center. I wanted to watch the fire salamanders wriggling by, shimmering in the heat, dodging small stones breaking loose. I wanted to see cracks crawling across the surface of the rocks, hear the creak and groan of the building pressure. I wanted to witness the birth of an earthquake.

Perhaps the fault is more dramatic underwater, north of Point Reyes, although I'm not likely to dive to where it splits the floor of the Pacific to see; it's likely to be more full of water than heat and salamanders anyway. But if you stand on the headlands, the line in the water where the ocean's colors shift to a deeper blue is plainly visible, even in the pouring rain. This is where the ocean's depth suddenly changes, the sea floor abruptly falling away. Waves, accustomed to the deeps, break offshore, tripping over submerged rocks, seeming startled by these sudden obsticles. Puddles of foam spread over the sea, never mingling with the froth along the shore where the seastacks and sudden bluffs have tumbled the ocean to the illogical color of toothpaste.

Here is drama and action. Here is something to see, something alive and vibrant. The San Andreas, where it splits Point Reyes from California, is something I understand with my mind. It is subtle and slow and nearly invisible, like political progress or grass growing. It is an artifact, and the interpretive signs are its museum. Until the plates shift and the San Andreas is an epicenter again, it will be merely a curiosity. Instead, it is my heart which understands the fault where it mingles with the ocean, driving the waves to break before their time. This is passion. This is life. This is mystery. It is for things such as these that I willingly stand in the rain.

Feb. 2001