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Eternity in an Hour

I used to think the most foreign place I’d ever been was Three Rivers, Texas, a truck-stop town about halfway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, where I worked on a construction crew for a few months at the end of 1979. That, or the country of Romania, which I visited during the Ceausescu era: a through-the-looking-glass panorama of Soviet-style housing blocks and empty boulevards, where the restaurants served cabbage three meals a day. But once I moved to Southern California, I began to realize that foreignness can be found in the most unlikely locations; that it is less a state of being than a state of mind. California, after all — as Walt Whitman once wrote of himself — contains multitudes, and among the most foreign of them is the Carrizo Plain.

The Carrizo Plain is like a Southern California version of the Middle East, a barren expanse of rock and desert that extends north between the Central Valley and the Sierra Madre Mountains, along the jagged spine of the Caliente Range. It looks, I imagine, like Afghanistan or northern Iraq: empty, windswept, sparsely settled, unchanged and unchanging since the dawn of time. Unlike those places, however, you don’t need an expeditionary force to visit the Carrizo; all you have to do is drive 75 miles north from Los Angeles on I-5, exiting at the mountain town of Frazier Park, near the crest of Tejon Pass. From there, it’s a quick jaunt through the northeast corner of Los Padres National Forest down to the town of Maricopa, where the Carrizo spreads out like a geographic question mark. Twenty miles north, the Temblor Range cuts the vista with its looping curves and chasms, rocky hillsides slit with gullies where the earth has pulled apart. Off to the west, Soda Lake dots the horizon in a glossy crescent, heat waves shimmering off its surface in wisps of gauze. Pull off the road, walk back from the shoulder 15, even 10, feet, and it’s like no road has ever existed — like there’s nothing here at all. This is about as far as you can get from Los Angeles — not just in Southern California, but anywhere — a blank slate, a terrain of imagination, of possibility and terror, of abiding fear and awe.

When I use words like awe and terror, I’m not being hyperbolic: The Carrizo is also the best spot in California to come face to face with the San Andreas Fault, which cuts the rocky plain floor like an attenuated seam. Once, at Wallace Creek, where over the last four millennia the San Andreas has put a 400-plus-foot dogleg into a formerly straight streambed, I climbed down into the fault trace and waited for an earthquake; the last time this segment ruptured, in 1857, the surface slip measured 31 feet. It’s impossible to stand here and not be reminded of your insignificance, a feeling heightened by the Carrizo’s wildness: the stone and wind and emptiness, the silence and the sky. In such a landscape, time becomes elastic, open-ended, as if we had somehow walked out into eternity itself.

Of course, as with everything in California, the Carrizo is hardly as unspoiled as it once was, and the further east you go, the more contemporary life creeps in. Yet here as well, it’s a peculiar kind of contemporary life — rough, unpolished, with many of its scars exposed. On Highway 33, which runs south from Coalinga before bottoming out past Maricopa, Amoco and Chevron have built enormous oil fields that stretch back from both sides of the road. At their most extensive, just north of McKittrick, the wells reach to the horizon, thousands of them pumping, bobbing like mechanical birds. Pickups rumble past as men in hardhats check pipelines that wind out of the fields to front the road. For another moment, on this stretch of blacktop, you might imagine yourself in the Middle East again, although a more secular Middle East this time, the strategic region where we wage our wars. Then, you pull into McKittrick, with its 1930s-era red brick hotel and its general store. And just like that, you’re back in California, in the alien territory of the Carrizo Plain.