Western Town

Sunset in the Alabama Hills

Martine and I were in agreement: Our two favorite towns on our recent trip to the Eastern Sierras were Bishop and Lone Pine. More about Bishop later. If it weren’t for the fact that Lone Pine is a little too close to the Mojave Desert, way too close to Owens Dry Lake which, on windy days, is the largest source of dust pollution in the United States, and if it weren’t such a small town, I wouldn’t mind living there.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing: Not only is Lone Pine only 71 miles (114 kilometers) by air from the recent earthquakes at Ridgecrest, but, back in 1872, there was a major earthquake that destroyed a good part of the town and killed twenty-seven people. When you consider that the tallest peak in the contiguous forty-eight states—Mount Whitney—is just a few miles to the west, I suspect that some more disasters are in the cards for this sweet little town.

So much for the negatives. Lone Pine holds an honored place in film history for being situated close to the Alabama Hills, which for almost a hundred years have been one of the major shooting locations for movie Westerns. From the days of Jack Hoxie, Tom Mix, and Ken Maynard to the TV Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, the Alabama Hills were seen in hundreds of film and TV productions. For this reason, the town is the site of the Museum of Western Film History, which is worth two or three hours of your time if you have any love for the genre (as I do).

Just Beyond the Alabama Hills Are the Snowcapped Sierras

Although we spent almost two hours riding the washboarded dirt roads that wind through the hills, I would gladly have allocated more time. Unfortunately, the heat was beginning to build, so I didn’t get out to take the many little hikes to particularly interesting rock formations and filming locations. Instead, we headed north to Independence to take another look at those coyote dentures I wrote about yesterday.

 

Shake Rattle & Roll

Little Lake Just Off Highway 395

After a twenty-year period of calm, we are once again in the throes of a series of earthquakes. Now these quakes are not quite so dangerous in Los Angeles as they are at the epicenter in Ridgecrest, CA, which is 120 miles (193 kms) as the crow flies. With yesterday’s Richter 6.4 temblor, the quake hit us as a rolling motion that lasted about a minute. Today’s Richter 7.1 temblor was a few miles northwest of yesterday’s epicenter, but it came to us as a stronger, more long-lasting rolling motion.

The funny thing is that next Monday, we will be driving by Little Lake (shown above), which is approximately ten miles west of the epicenter. We will continue until we get to Lone Pine, where we will spend the night. At Lone Pine, we will be about 71 air miles north and slightly west of the epicenter.

Today’s quake was the first one that threw a scare into Martine, because of its strength and duration, but even more because she felt two quakes in as many days.

 

Along the San Andreas Fault

The San Andreas Fault Cutting Through the Carrizo Plain

Yesterday, as we were motoring along the Soda Lake Road through the heart of the Carrizo Plain, Bill Korn said something that made me sit up. “Those mountains on the right have nothing to do with the ones on the left.” The truth of that remark hit me between the eyes. The Plain was a boundary between two tectonic plates—the North American Plate on the right, which was moving ever so slowly to the southwest, and the Pacific Plate, containing most of the population of California, was as slowly heading northwest in the direction of Alaska. And Bill was right, the two mountain chains, separated from each other by only a few miles, had no resemblance.

The movement amounts to an average of only a few millimeters a year, but there have been times that the motion has been more catastrophic. In 1857, the Fort Tejon Earthquake created the strange Chinese scenery of the Devil’s Punchbowl on the north slope of the San Gabriels. Then there was the 1906 temblor and fire that leveled San Francisco and the 1989 Loma Prieto quake. There will be more, a lot more, but hopefully spread over many years. I have lived through the 1971 Sylmar Quake and the 1994 Northridge Quake, both of which had me gelid with fear.

A Map of the San Andreas Fault

Perhaps I dwell too much in my blog posts about volcanoes, earthquakes, hundred year floods, and other disasters. That is because I realize how fragile our lives are. Most people would rather not think about such things, even if they are inevitable. So they build unreinforced brick houses on fault lines or live on the banks of rivers that frequently overflow their banks. Then there are those Guatemalan peasants who live on the slopes of volcanoes because the earth there is so conducive to growing coffee beans and other crops.

 

The Threat of Calamity

Volcán Agua Seen from Antigua

One thing my visit to Guatemala in January convinced me of is that certain places—perhaps all places—are susceptible to calamity. These include floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, and typhoons. In the highlands of Guatemala, there were several times that I was within sight of three volcanoes. One of them, Fuego, had erupted twice in 2018, causing 159 deaths and 256 missing persons, not to mention thousands of evacuations.

I frequently think back to the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and to the fear that both events caused me to feel. After the 1971 quake, we were screening Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage at UCLA’s Melnitz Hall showing a London power plant being attacked by a terrorist. At the same time, we felt an aftershock of the main quake followed by a power outage. The entire audience erupted in nervous laughter, with some feeling genuine alarm.

Although I have complained numerous times of drought in California, a bigger danger is a hundred year flood. In December-January 1861-62, there was a massive flood which, if repeated, woulod cause death and destruction on a scale large enough to challenge California’s aura of prosperity:

Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California’s recorded history occurred, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth. State government was forced to relocate from the capital in Sacramento for 18 months in San Francisco. The rain created an inland sea in Orange County, lasting about three weeks with water standing 4 feet (1.2 m) deep up to 4 miles (6 km) from the river The Los Angeles basin was flooded from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, at variable depths, excluding the higher lands which became islands until the waters receded. The Los Angeles basin lost 200,000 cattle by way of drowning, as well as homes, ranches, farm crops & vineyards being swept-away. [Wikipedia]

Me Atop the Icelandic Glacier Vatnajökull, the Largest in Europe, Under Which Sits the Volcano Grimsvötn

Iceland is one country I have visited which has come close to being destroyed several times in the last thousand years. The Vatnajökull glacier sits atop a massive volcano which, when it erupts, causes a massive flood rushing to the North Atlantic. That’s in addition to the lava, of course. Nearby Lakagigar erupted over an eight-month period beginning in June 1783, pouring out some 42 billion tons of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide that led to a famine in which a quarter of the island’s population lost their lives.

We all live under the threat of calamity of some sort, much of it caused by our fellow man. Sometimes it feels like a bloody miracle that we survive at all.

 

Time and Chance

Statue Beheaded by the Santa Marta Earthquake of 1773

At 3:45 PM on July 29, 1773, a Richter 7.5 temblor struck the third capital of Guatemala, then called the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan. The city was filled with churches, monasteries, and convents. Half of the city’s religious were killed by the quake, and within a couple of years, the capital moved to its present-day location in the Valle de la Ermita, where it is known as Guatemala City.

Nowhere was the devastation more apparent than the churches in the western half of the city now known as Antigua, especially the Church of the Recollects on 1a Calle Poniente. During my five-day stay in the city, I visited approximately a dozen ruined churches. None, however, made quite the impression on me as La Recolección.

Ruins of La Recolección in Antigua

The roof of the church had completely caved in, sending huge multi-ton masses of brick and concrete crashing to the floor. If any services were being held at the time, I find it hard to believe that there were any survivors. For all I know, there may still be skeletons under the masses of rubble.

While in Antigua, I called my brother in Palm Desert, California and described the chaos to him. Dan Paris, who has spent years building in earthquake country, told me that much of the disaster could have been avoided if only the Spanish had mixed straw with the concrete. The Maya, whose own houses were built based on a racial memory of thousands of years of shaking earth, did not suffer quite so much.

Not all the churches in Antigua were flattened by the Santa Marta quake of 1773. La Merced and San Francisco were two of the churches that managed to survive more or less intact, though the convent attached to La Merced was heavily damaged.

Ruins of La Recolección with Volcan Fuego in Background

It felt odd for me—who had traveled to Guatemala to see the ruins of ancient Maya cities—should have started my trip visiting the more recent ruins of Christianity. It made me feel as if the Christian ruins were, in their own way, equivalent to the Maya ruins, and that we are all subject to the vagaries of time and chance.

 

 

In the Blast Furnace

I Am Dreading the Next Few Days

As a giant high pressure area is setting up over the Southwest, we are expecting two days of high nineties (36-37º Celsius). Although the weather forecasts show a ten degree drop for Sunday, I am predicting the heat will probably persist, as it is wont to do. Santa Ana weather conditions almost always last longer than predicted, sometimes even for weeks.

Oh, but then there’s always the ocean, no? Not in this case. The winds blow the heat and smog westward toward the ocean. Sometimes we can see the smog hovering a few miles off the shore, waiting to be blown back over Southern California. Not only is it ungodly hot at the beach, but one’s feet burn in the superheated sand. Not a pleasant experience?

What to do? I will try to find a movie I can see during the afternoon. My comfort will depend on the theater’s air-conditioning system remaining in good working order. As for our apartment, we have no air conditioning. If there is a power outage (and our little area is subject to at least one or two a year), I will just have to go to bed early.

There are two bad aspects to living in Southern California: heat waves and earthquakes.

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.