I was terrified of dogs. I feared falling off my bike and getting hurt or—worse yet—damaging my clothes because of the wrath I would have to endure from my mother.
Most of all, I was afraid of my parents. I was afraid of that raw wooden board with my name carved in it that hung from the basement rafters. I was afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. I was afraid of getting yanked out of bed in the middle of the night and interrogated in the bright light of the kitchen.
I wasn't born afraid. I learned fear. The life I lived as a child taught me to be afraid.
No matter where you live, the weather can be a bit scary. Growing up in Central New York, thunderstorms were so commonplace, my parents would tell me and my sister that there was nothing to be afraid of. And then lightning struck our chimney and firefighters stormed through the front door in full combat gear. Subsequent years, I witnessed debilitating blizzards, dangerous wind chills, and even a tornado touch down during the Great New York State Fair.
When my sister lived in Ohio, wind storms would rip the siding off of her house. Hurricane Floyd battered the East Coast in 1999, which was nothing compared to Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) that followed after I left.
So I moved to LA where "it's sunny and warm all year." We've had some rainstorms and resulting flooding and landslides, but by and large we're in a drought, so not much meteorological activity is threatening my daily life. I've gotten away from my parents, I've learned to love dogs, and I've tried conquering my fears of heights, bees, and the dark.
So there's nothing to be afraid of, right?
Except, of course, earthquakes.
But isn't it a waste of time to be afraid of something that isn't happening right now? Something that might happen, one day, though you don't know when, where, or how badly?
Sure, there are threats everywhere. But in nearly five years of living in Southern California, and another couple years of frequent visits, I've felt a few foreshocks, shocks, and aftershocks, but nothing too bad. The worst that's happened was an early morning tremblor that shook my autographed Stevie Nicks poster off the wall, glass shattering everywhere.
I've spent most of my adulthood trying to face my fears, so I wouldn't have to live in terror anymore. I've done this with mixed results. But it was time to not only face my fears, but also face the faults that surround us—the earthquake faults, that is.
You can't live in LA without hearing stories about "The Big One"—either the high intensity earthquake that will inevitably hit, or the most recent one that hit in 1994, or the others that wreaked havoc on Long Beach, Sylmar, Whittier, Landers... But over 20 years after the last Big One, the rubble has been cleared. The buildings that were damaged and haven't been repaired yet aren't in shambles; they might even look OK to the casual visitor, despite not being up to code.
So where can you see the evidence of our past earthquakes, and the seismic events that are yet to come? In the earth itself—if you know where to look. The ground shifted tremendously in an earthquake in San Fernando, CA, creating a fault scarp in the parking lot of a McDonald's. Now it's a lovely landscaped barrier between the parking and the Drive-Thru.
Sometimes you may not even know you're looking at something significant in a fault zone. I'd been to the Lamont Odett Vista Point in Palmdale at least twice before...
...and had no idea that I was not only gazing out at the California Aqueduct, but also the San Andreas Fault.
Though if I had looked carefully enough at the relief map at the scenic overlook, I might've figured that out.
I'd even driven straight through the San Andreas Fault before, and hadn't felt the slightest tremor or trembling of fear.
Highway 14 in the Antelope Valley cuts right through it—perhaps one of the best views of the chaotic forces that are battling underneath our feet every day, pushing and sliding and trusting and subducting.
Even when there's a sign marking the fault—in this case, between the towns of Juniper Valley and Valyermo—you're technically standing on the thing that's so fearsome, but you'd probably never know it without the sign. But when you see a bend in the road, a dip in the distant landscape, and a "V" in the mountain range—all historic and prehistoric signs of the movement of the fault, though perhaps not the fault itself—it starts to make sense. Kinda.
There are other signs as to the location of the San Andreas (or any other) Fault, including a line of green trees in an otherwise dry landscape. Water collects at fault lines, as is the case with Pallett Creek.
This area of the San Andreas Fault has been trenched, revealing its various layers, exposing it so that it may be touched. A chunk was removed and currently hangs behind plexiglass at the Caltech Seismo Lab.
As you drive through the Angeles National Forest—a falling rock zone known for its landslides...
...there's lots of erosion from weather and the passage of time...
But some of what looks like erosion is actually a result of our earthquake faults.
When two faults move against one another, all that grinding causes a lot of debris, and all those little pieces form rocks as a result of tectonic forces.
But those rocks haven't been cemented together by anything. They're basically made up of loose materials...
... and they can easily crumble into sand with just a little prodding in the palm of your hand.
So if you learn to watch for the signs of an earthquake fault—some of which are still unknown—you can start to identify them by a dip in the road, or maybe a hill with a sharp drop-off, or a creek that's become crooked over time.
You can also be suspicious of a natural lake that forms out of nowhere, fed by no rivers or streams or irrigation runoff.
It's probably a sag pond—as is the case with Lost Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest (and the lake at the Los Angeles Arboretum). Water comes up from deep natural springs and collects in a depression between two faults that have moved apart from each other. The water is cold, and although there aren't supposed to be any fish in there, a family claimed to have caught one on the day of our visit.
I think we've villainized the San Andreas Fault, thinking that it's some underground monster that's going to decide one day to arise and emerge to raise hell on Southern California. If and when a big earthquake hits in Southern California in my lifetime, I'm not afraid of the ground moving. I don't think it's going to open up and swallow me whole. I'm not even really afraid of my building falling on top of me. I know to Drop, Cover, and Hold On.
I'm more afraid of how other people will react—what they'll do as a result of their own fear, what opportunities they'll take in the face of danger. I think it's possible that some serious fault zone activity could bring out some of the worst of our own character flaws.
And people behaving badly after a natural disaster can be a lot scarier than the disastrous event itself.
These Tremors of the Night
In Search of the Epicenter
One of Many Firsts: Earthquake
Dancing With the Fear
Driving Through the Fear