A World Away
Geographically, Parkfield is about as far south and east as you can drive in Monterey County--in reality, it's even further.
Thursday, May 24, 2001
Let''s face it, a lot of people who live on the Monterey Peninsula have an attitude problem. Just because we''re surrounded by the coastline, we generally think we define Monterey County. Sure, we''ll pay lip service to the other parts of the county, the ag fields of the Salinas Valley, the ranches and wineries in Carmel Valley, and we''ve pretty much annexed the coastline of Big Sur as an appendage to the Peninsula. But, by and large, we tend to forget about the glorious range of our county--South Monterey County, for instance, is almost off our radar, it''s just a place to drive through on our way to somewhere else. And that''s too bad; there are some very cool places just a couple hours south and east of Eden.
Back in February, I finally made good on a promise I''d never gotten around to keeping. For years, I''d been curious about Parkfield, the little town that''s about as far south and east as you can get in Monterey County--and which revels in a reputation that''s enough to scare away anyone adverse to a little rockin'' and rollin''.
Once upon a time, Parkfield was a thriving outpost. Located in the Cholame Valley of the Diablo Mountain Range, about 30 miles northeast of Coalinga (in Fresno County) and 15 miles northwest of Cholame (in San Luis Obispo County), the area began attracting homesteading white settlers in the mid 1850s. Around the turn of the century, coal was discovered and there were hopes that oil wouldn''t be far behind, drawing more settlers to the area and creating a community that numbered somewhere around 900 people and which boasted three grocery stores, two stables, three blacksmiths, two saloons, a hotel/restaurant, public school and community hall. The town''s original name was Russellsville, derived from the name of one the area''s early settlers, but when the US Post Office rejected the name, residents changed it to Parkfield, in honor of the town''s idyllic appearance.
Looks, however, can be deceiving. In the summer, the sun bakes the land, withering crops and making it hard to work during daylight hours. In the winter, snow covers the hills. During the abundant but short-lived spring, wildflowers must have been a teasing temptation to those early settlers who thought they could wrest a living from the land. It''s not hard to fill in the hardscrabble stories for people buried in Imusdale Cemetery, with headstones dating back to the late 1800s. Even the cemetery itself, its ground muddy from winter runoff in early spring and fired hard in the summer, and with now-misaligned crypts and crooked markers--some in stone, some in wood and others simple tin flags--speaks for the hard life offered in the Cholame Valley.
Parkfield''s story is the same as so many other boom towns that went bust. The coal mine played out and was flooded by subterranean waters, nobody ever found oil, and by the 1970s there wasn''t much left in Parkfield except for a gas station, a lunchroom, a few hardy ranchers who found a way to cope with the elements--and an increasing number of scientists.
The weather isn''t the only element that plays games with Parkfield.
Parkfield delights in billing itself as the earthquake capitol of the world--and with good reason. In 1966, Parkfield was hit with a major earthquake which provided seismologists with more info to add to their list of earthquake hot spots. Turned out that Parkfield was, in fact, a geographically troubled locale: On average, every 22 years or so, an earthquake of 6.0 or greater rattles the region. Scientists from around the country were attracted to the area, where they drill and plug seismic probes into every nook and cranny.
Although there''s been plenty of minor, seismic activity since ''66, the next big one is about 13 years overdue. It''s just a matter of time.
These days, there''s still not really much to the town of Parkfield, population 37. The United States Geological Survey maintains an office there (along with an array of volumetric and borehole strainmeters, creepmeters, magnetometers and fluid pressure transducers that measure the height of groundwater tables in the hopes that this will provide some clue about how to predict earthquakes). There''s the six-room Parkfield Inn, the Parkfield Cafe across the street, and a place that sells hand-built log furniture, a few curios, trinkets and postcards, and a shelf-full of books. Maybe the most interesting of those books is Cholama: The Beautiful One, a delightful concoction of personal memories, newspaper snippets, and facts gleaned from various government agencies by Donalee Ludeke Thomason, who lives a couple miles down the road. She''s lived here in Parkfield all of her life, and has memories that pre-date the big 1934 ''quake that rattled the region.
On June 7, 1934, Thomason relates, she was 9 years, 6 months and 6 days old, and her mother was in charge of the end-of-school program set for that night. Electricity didn''t come to the Cholame Valley until 1949, so the lighting for the pageant at the community hall was provided by gas lanterns. The program was already underway when a foreshock rattled the building. After a momentary pause, the show continued. Then the big one hit.
"I remember being thrown back and forth against the walls of the narrow runway behind the east side of the stage," writes Thomason. "It seemed the hall was turning upside down there in the darkness for a few seconds. I could hear people screaming and trying to run for the exit, falling down of course.
"The program came to a halt for the second time that evening. People stood around, this time, discussing what they should do. It was decided that the show must go on!
"Little aftershocks kept arriving. By now we were out on the stage, and kept in a panic by these little unwelcome shocks. At one point, 9-year-old Neva Durham was standing behind the white frame giving her recitation. With the arrival of a small aftershock, she bounded straight through the frame, off the stage and landed where the audience was seated. By this time the little shock had passed, so Neva whirled around and jumped back onto the stage, through the frame, turned and faced the audience and continued her recitation without missing a word. I''ve often wondered how we completed the program... "
Thomason also has vivid recollections of the 1966 quake. By then, she was a mother with a teenage son, and she was well-versed in how to protect herself during an earthquake. After the first temblor hit, she grabbed hold of both sides of her kitchen door and tried to hang on.
"I''ll try... to describe what I saw and what I heard... There was no rumble! The very first thing my ears recorded was similar to a great drawing in of a breath, or a suction sound may better describe it. Then a blast of hot air hit my back as the shock wave rushed forward along the seismic sound wave, it sounded like an angry hot hiss lashing forward with incredible speed...
"To this day, I do not see how walls could have buckled down that much and snapped back into place. Dust was flying everywhere.
"What I didn''t see was the door coming straight at me from the right; it hit me hard enough to knock me down to one knee... " Thomason describes watching the door to her china cabinet fly open, all the contents fly out, hang in the air and come crashing to the floor. "I glanced at the floor and it was moving in a circle; I felt immediate motion sickness. To this day, I''ve never completely overcome that feeling."
But, despite the queasiness, Thomason continues to live in Parkfield, a town that shows the same grit as Thomason''s young classmate showed three decades earlier: The motto for Parkfield Inn is "Sleep Here When it Happens."
Whether you''d be able to sleep through "it" or not is an open question. But on the nights when the earth isn''t shaking, the log structure''s cozy rooms are a rustic treat. The rooms are decorated with a variety of farm and ranch implements (securely bolted to the walls, defying both souvenir hunters and earthquakes alike), and in the room in which we stayed, the bed was hand-crafted from old irrigation equipment, giving the room a sort of redneck-hippie chic. The main lobby/meeting room was more like a hunting lodge, with a large stone fireplace and the mounted heads of cattle and wild game peering down from high on the log walls.
Both the lodge and the cafe across the street are owned by John and Zee Varian, who also own the 20,000-acre V6 Ranch, which is headquartered maybe a mile outside of town. Five times a year, in the spring and fall, the ranch offers four-day cattle drives for would-be cowboys, of which there seems to be plenty: All the spaces for this year''s drives were filled by early in the year, with a waiting list so long that callers were discouraged from even adding their name to the list.
During the rest of the year, the V6 Ranch offers horseback riding, fishing and swimming in the Pine Canyon Lake, and opportunities for photographers to capture memories of an earlier, more pristine California.
It would be unfair to call Parkfield a ghost town: The cafe keeps busy with local clients and the sundry visitors--hunters, sightseers, scientists and people who accidentally stumble across Parkfield on their way to somewhere else. On the other hand it wouldn''t be entirely inaccurate to call it that either; it really does seem like a place located outside of time, populated as much by ghosts as by its human residents.
As population pressures force more people out of the city, the spectral nature of Parkfield may change. Already, the ubiquitous vineyards that seem to be replacing California''s golden rolling hills with a carpet of cruciform grape trellises are eating away at the ranch lands outside of Parkfield. It may only be a matter of time before someone decides the town offers a charming opportunity for wine boutiques, and antique stores, and other collateral businesses.
Until then, there''s not much to do in Parkfield but wait for the next big one and listen for the voices of ghosts, carried by the wind in the oaks and the grasses. It''s about as far away from the Monterey Peninsula as you can get without leaving Monterey County--in more ways than one.
Parkfield is about a two-hour drive from the Peninsula; the easiest way to get there is to go south on Highway 101 to San Miguel, then cut back northeast. It''s about 21 miles inland from San Miguel and although you''ll have to make road changes to get there, the way is pretty well marked. You can make reservations at the V6 ranch or the Parkfield Inn by calling 805-463-2421 or 463-2371.
While You''re In South CountySo you''ve decided to spend the weekend in south Monterey County, but you''re too restless to just kick back and enjoy some of Parkfield''s solitude. There are lots of other things to do.
California MissionsThe area is rich with missions. Although it''s in San Luis Obispo, the mission closest to Parkfield is San Miguel. Lovingly restored, the mission features the original frescos inside the church, including the All Seeing Eye of God over the altar. An extensive self-guided tour of the mission property includes the mission''s winery (proving, perhaps, that the history of wine and California really are intertwined). The mission was founded on July 25, 1797. 805-467-3256.
Mission San Antonio de Padua is located on Fort Hunter Liggett in Jolon. It was founded on July 14, 1771, is maintained by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, and is still an active Catholic parish. (385-4478). Nearby the mission is the old hunting lodge designed in the mission style for William Randolph Hearst in the 1940s. Today, there''s a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, and many of the rooms in the lodge are available for overnight stays (386-2446).
Soledad Mission somehow seems smaller and... lonelier?... than most of the missions. While most of the California missions are either right off the highway, or have towns that have sprung up around them, Soledad seems hidden and out of the way. And, as you tour the gardens and mission, that''s part of its charm (678-2586).