Parkfield, California, calls itself the earthquake capital of the world.It's also the quintessential sleepy California town
Jonelle Weaver
| Credit: Jonelle Weaver

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.

BY THE TIME I FINISH LUNCH, Jack Varian shows up. He's the guy who came up with the whole Earthquake Capital of the World idea. It was during a severe drought in the mid eighties, he explains, about the time his son and daughter both returned to the valley, grandkids in tow. "With more mouths to feed," he says, "we needed more jobs, so we decided to give them to ourselves. We started up the inn and the café, and then a rodeo. After that, things started moving."

Handsome, weather-roughened, and independent, Varian represents the archetypal Californian. His grandparents were theosophists who went west seeking utopia; his father was a former airline pilot who invented the klystron, a power tube used in radar and microwave relays. Varian himself seems intent on reinventing the American West, like a down-market Walt Disney or William Mulholland. After building the café and inn, he and his son put up a Victorian-style street lamp and made two bizarre fountains by welding together old water tanks and plumbing fixtures. When he's not leading pay-per-horse cattle drives with the help of his wife, Zera, he has time to lecture visitors such as myself on a new style of ranching: holistic management.

Once Varian has covered such topics as "the three tenets on growing grass" and "raising scenery," I'm ready to hit the sack. So I dispatch myself across the street to my assigned accommodation. It's called the Tool Room, and, true to its name, it's decorated with antique rakes, adzes, hoes, planes, and wrenches, strung along the walls and ceiling like the macabre props of some forgotten Vincent Price horror flick—The Basement Iron-Tool Murders, say, or The California Mad-Spigot Massacre.

After a nap and shower, I'm on my way back to the café when I see Varian waving at me. He's standing next to a rusty pickup that comes equipped, as do most ranch trucks in the valley, with a Border collie affixed to the bed. The inside of Varian's truck (similar to the outside of Varian) is coated with a fine amber dust. It's a gorgeous day, and as we drive along the San Andreas Fault, atop which Parkfield sits, I realize that while Parkfield may not have much to offer besides occasional earthquakes, this is the real California: Empty landscapes. Men in dust-stained Wrangler jeans and steel-toed cowboy boots. And nothing to do all day but work.

According to the market-generated mythology, everything is supposed to be bigger, better, tastier, and more beautiful out here, even the cataclysms. But in general, California, like much of America, is just filled with a lot of dry, dusty space: deserts, ranches, rocks, and parking lots where nothing much happens. Unless, of course, you make it happen. Or, better yet, you make it up.Which is just another way of saying that if you go to Parkfield looking for earthquakes, you may have to wait around for a while. Then again, maybe you won't.