On the face of it, Parkfield seems an unlikely haven for tourists. Twenty-five miles from the nearest gas station, this rickety California ranch town belongs to an amber land of smooth, round mountains, ruminant cows, and absolutely no social life whatsoever. Its entire population could probably be crammed into any modestly priced minivan on the road today (the most recent official estimate is 19). The elementary school resembles a down-on-its-luck trailer park. And most of its sun-bleached wooden houses either have collapsed or seem to be thinking mighty hard about doing so. On the surface, nothing ever happens in Parkfield. But deep beneath the surface . . . well, that's another story.
Parkfield doesn't actually experience more earthquakes than the rest of California. But for more than two centuries, temblors of six-plus magnitude have been hitting the town every 22 years or so. As a result, the U.S. Geological Survey (which maintains some $2 million worth of monitoring equipment in the area, more than anywhere else in the United States) claims that Parkfield is the likeliest place for California's next quake. Of course, a big one hasn't shaken the town since 1966, and that leaves residents wondering when the next will come, and visitors hoping it will while they're in town.
Nevertheless, the residents of Parkfield have designated their town the Earthquake Capital of the World. Driving down an empty road, staring at an equally empty town, I find it hard to believe that such hyperbole is enough to draw anyone to this blip on the map. I leave my car in front of the Parkfield Inn and peek through the screen door, where a sign painted on what looks like half a rusty locomotive invites visitors to SLEEP HERE WHEN IT HAPPENS. Another sign above the empty reception desk reads: parkfield inn is closed. please register across the street at the parkfield café.
So I carry my bag over to one of the four other public buildings in town. Inside, the Parkfield Café is adorned with hefty iron tools, plumbing fixtures, and an old Shell gas pump. I order the Magnitude 6, described on the menu as "a good-size steak, a good-size Quake!" Virtually everything you need to know about Parkfield is printed in the café's newsletter-style menu: the names and cattle brands of local ranchers, the dates of major quakes. A map highlights the only significant landmark in the surrounding Cholame (pronounced "shah-lam") Valley—a monument just off Route 46, at the spot where James Dean died.