Shakin’ Down South
Studying the way things rumble in The Earthquake Capital of the World (and Monterey County).
Thursday, May 27, 2010
The town’s total population is 18. Hot spots on Main Street include a one-room schoolhouse, a trailer-like library, a research station, and a ranch-style lodge and restaurant, complete with wide front porches and rocking chairs. In the background runs a seasonally dry creek bed, best known as the San Andreas Fault. There is ample room for parking – along the side of the road or under a shade tree, no quarters required.
Welcome to Parkfield, nicknamed Earthquake Capital of the World (and called “the most closely observed earthquake zone in the world” by Wikipedia). The tiny town lies 20 miles east off Highway 101 at San Miguel, past the occasional vineyard, patches of wildflowers and herds of cattle. While this is Monterey County, it feels a long way from the bustling shopping centers of Sand City. As one local puts it, “You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
That’s partly because, in Parkfield, cattle outnumber people more than 50 to 1. The largest local ranch is V6, home to over 1,000 heifers and two very confident bulls. With 20,000 acres along the Diablo Mountain Range to roam, these cattle traverse numerous contexts – rolling hills and steep grades, scrub brush, rock beds and small rivers – but they have one thing on their mind: grass.
THE FAULTLINE HAS EARNED THEM SPOTS ON TV.
Step through the swinging doors of the V6 Grill and it’s easy to see the people of Parkfield pride themselves on this grass-fed beef: It’s all over the menu. Prime rib, tri-tip, top sirloin. One customer gently pulls apart his “Rockin’ Ribs,” while another sinks her teeth into a juicy “Level A” hamburger piled with red onion, lettuce and tomato. No need for ketchup and mustard, locals insist; the flavor of grass-fed beef cooked over an oak grill stands alone.
With easy-to-clean table clothes, chandeliers made of farm parts, and worn wooden flooring, there’s an understood invitation to make a mess and lick your fingers. Motorcyclists, car club and Audubon enthusiasts, geologists, horseback riders and wild boar hunters regularly pull up a chair for V6’s vittles.
Most of their plates – like “The Big One” or the “Parkfield Shaker” – pay homage to Parkfield’s location. Here magnitude 6 earthquakes appear around every 22 years, with some irregularities: 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, 1966, 2004.
Amazingly enough, no one has ever been injured from a Parkfield quake. According to resident Sandra Reisz, most simply feel like a “rolling sensation.” The most visible earthquake damage has been to little Parkfield Bridge: A guardrail that once stood straight now has a slight curve, and residents aren’t bothered by a bend in the road. It adds character, so to speak.
In fact, they seem to enjoy the novelty of having the fault line as a neighbor. It has earned them spots on television: Shows such as Savage Earth, Nature: Forces of the Wild (PBS) and The History Channel have all visited.
The town patriarch is Jack Varian of V6 Ranch, a farmer with a Ford 350, a cowboy hat and a blog, blog.v6ranch.com, where he shares everyday excitement of the ranch: roping and branding cattle, wild animal sightings, the work of his faithful dogs, and general contentment on the range.
He cites rust as his favorite color and loves the thrill of re-purposing old parts. Rust, as Varian sees it, is a great thing. Chains, old horse shoes, used barrels, wire rakes, pieces of pipe – he saves them all in anticipation of his next home-grown project. A self-professed “addicted junk auction junkie,” he combs estate sales and flea markets. All of the spare parts are stored in his “metal garden” temporarily and are later transformed into tools, furniture and decorative accents.
“Hey stupid, don’t keep covering up your traditional mistakes with a coat of paint,” he writes, “only to have the rust of progress eventually shine through.”
The rust around town reveals Varian’s influence. Parkfield’s main thoroughfare features a rusty old water tower and metal fences. The Grill, The Lodge – the land belongs to his family.
Make no mistake, though. Quakes, grass-fed beef and farmer blogs aren’t the only excitement in Parkfield. This Saturday, May 29, a rodeo arrives in Parkfield’s arena, unleashing an assortment of barrel racing, branding, steer riding and stopping, cowboy mugging, and team penning endeavors.
Once the dust clears and the cowboys head home, quieter trail rides and cattle drives will begin again at V6 Ranch – bring your own horse or borrow one of theirs. With August comes the Classic Car Show on Main Street.
Varian ropes in the Parkfield possibilities succinctly. “If time is the coin of life,” he says, “you have spent some of it here wisely.”