Riding Out the Apocalypse
After a 1988 earthquake in Armenia killed tens of thousands of people, an expert on the radio, a woman whose name has been long buried beneath the avalanche of information that has come along since, made a point worth remembering: "Earthquakes dont kill people," she said. "Buildings kill people." By that logic, I figure, if the earth blows now, this is a fine place to be: near a water source, on a bicycle, within reach of several inexpensive fast-food chains which, in the event of a natural disaster, would have no choice but to serve or be looted. There are no buildings worth fearing for miles along this stretch of the California Aqueduct, on the fringes of Lancaster and Palmdale, only the odd cinderblock structure rising up every few hundred feet to house the Department of Water Resources administrators and laborers. Even when that 8.0 rocks the San Andreas Fault, which parallels this part of the aqueduct just a few miles to the west, the water will move but the concrete wont.
"Youll just get a good shake," says George Housner, professor emeritus of earthquake engineering at Caltech, who in 1965 served as an advisor on seismic issues to the aqueducts designers. "As long as theres nothing to fall on you, youre all right. No danger at all." A fine, fine place. Not that it isnt fine in other respects, but hardly anyone notices that. The air is clean but the early-September heat is brutal, and the large plots of insta-housing clustered around strip-mall parking lots give exurban development the bad name it deserves. According to Thurston Clarke, author of California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas , Indians refused to settle in this ugly terrain: "[They] considered this corner of the eastern Mojave so lacking in the buttes, mesas, canyons and oases that make a desert appealing," he writes, "none ever bothered to stay." Never mind that this is the extreme western edge of the Mojave; these days, by Clarkes lights, the Antelope Valley has almost nothing to recommend it. This is a land where "high school teachers meet to plan strategies for combating gangs, satanism and homemade bombs." Clearly, Clarke who admits to having whiled away his time at the Palmdale Holiday Inn pool before mustering the courage to venture out didnt experience this landscape from the proper perspective. He didnt bring his bike. High along the service road that runs along either side of the California Aqueduct, the Antelope Valley is revealed, at a distance, in all its godforsaken glory, the dusty ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains rising up around its perimeter, the flat brown late-summer land stretched out like canvas, hills covered with saffron prairie grass. The sky is huge, the air scraped clean by wind and silence. Up here, the only sound of civilization is the occasional bug-zapper buzz of looming steel electrical towers. There is a stretch of California Aqueduct trail that is legal for cyclists, extending 32 miles from 165th Street East near Palmdale to Ranchero Road in Hesperia. Legal, however, seems altogether too easy. Weve chosen instead to explore a closed 40-mile section between Quail Lake and Godde Hill Road that the DWR declared off limits in 1984, after a man went careering down a service road, hit a pothole, flew off his bike and ended up paraplegic. The man was awarded $3.3 million after the ensuing lawsuit was settled out of court, which persuaded the DWR to declare the trail unsafe, or at least beyond the scope of its liability insurance. We elect to pick up the trail just outside Lancaster, by traveling west along Avenue M from State Route 14 and then south on 70th Street West. We park in the dirt off the road, and take a minute to consider the repercussions of defying the rusty signs at each entrance: Walk-in Fishing Only No Motor Vehicles No Bicycles Of course, its easy to get hung up on whether they mean "walk-in fishing only" or "walk-in" and "fishing only," and why, if its the latter, the "only" needs to be there, as if theres something youd do here in addition to fishing, like harpooning or trolling. And then you wonder about the fish, which a local fisherman we met along the way maintains are mostly healthy catfish and striped bass that get caught up in the flow on their way down from the Sacramento River. You think toxic and wonder whether the fish have all their eyes, or, on the other hand, more eyes than they need. By the time you finish with such mental gymnastics, youve pretty near forgotten that the sign prohibits bicycles. The entrances cut in the steel barriers, which are peculiarly designed as inverted Ts in a way typically meant to accommodate a bicycle, make you feel even more welcome. When you and your two wheels encounter working men a mile in and brace yourself for a scolding, only to find that these men not only dont give a damn, but raise a hand in greeting and lip-sync "Howdy" as if they like you there well, you can safely assume no ones serious about that sign. Anyway, save a dive into the concrete river or a similar stunt, its hard to imagine how youd endanger yourself along this gently sloping, choppy asphalt path. The Antelope Valley Trails and Environmental Counsel has lobbied for years that its more dangerous to keep the route closed. "For mountain bikes, the bike trail is 100 percent safer than city streets," says the organizations Palmdale representative, Linda Pluss. "In town, we have narrow shoulders, sandy shoulders and high-speed, discourteous traffic. "Before I go out on the roads here," she adds, "I make sure my affairs are in order." Pluss has heard reports of cyclists being hailed down by the Sheriffs men in helicopters, but today the helicopters are otherwise occupied. We ride undisturbed. And its a good thing, too. Its 93 degrees when we head out at 9:30 in the morning, and hiking is out of the question; we need the breeze. In the spring, the Antelope Valley explodes with California poppies and wildflowers; in the winter, there is snow in the mountains and, occasionally, on the roads down below. In bone-dry September, though, the only scenery is the rolling, turbulent sienna horizon; you cant exactly see the fault from here, only the effects of its strike-slip violence in the terrain. A red-tailed hawk rises suddenly from the brush along our path into the electrical towers, its silhouette along thick cords live with power lending a certain apocalyptic flourish. To be doing anything as wholesome as riding mountain bikes on this bleak turf seems ecstatically dissonant. Especially because one day, in John McPhees words, the earth here will "open . . . like a zipper." Viewed from the cutaway in Route 14, McPhee judged the faults Pliocene sediments to be reminiscent of "rolled-up magazines." In fact, the swirly rock formations also look a lot like food: half-finished jelly rolls, flattened pinwheel lollipops, rugula. Layers of turmoil, the settled remains of 12 major seismic events in two thousand years, coils of stone and sand. You can trace its movements through time and imagine how it might feel to be standing here when it moves again. That may not be too far off. The last time the fault adjusted itself in Southern California was in 1857, along a stretch just north of here in the Tejon Pass. Seismologists have few areas of consensus and even fewer points of certainty, but there is one hypothesis that meets with little resistance: The southern portion of the San Andreas Fault undergoes a cataclysmic shift on the average of once every 145 years. You do the math. Which is no more a reason to avoid this ride than it is to leave California. Thurston Clarke opens his book with the strange phenomenon of "earthquake love," the tendency toward powerful feelings of awe and inspiration in the wake of a seismic event. He invokes John Muir running into the Yosemite moonlight shouting, "A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake!" and notes that Charles Darwin, after living through a Chilean quake, remarked that the event yielded more wisdom than he would have gained in hours of reflection. Clarke himself regrets having narrowly missed a 1987 quake in Ecuador, even though 5,000 people who didnt miss it died. "I felt strangely disappointed," he writes. "After all, earthquakes are the Bigfoot of natural disasters, resistant to prediction, manipulation or control, the only ones still defying both the imagination and the photograph." When the Big One hits, thisd be a fine place to be, indeed.
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