Travel Essays

Friends Who Walk on Fault Lines


The San Andreas Fault in California doesn’t look as scary as history paints it to be. My friend Maddy, the geography enthusiast, explained to me how the land on either side of the fault was slightly raised and rough, but the exact line V-ed down into the earth, almost like a basin or a small, shallow canyon. Maddy, Emily, and I walked along the sandy basin, swerving around driftwood and trying to step in the footprints of those who walked before us.

The basin in Manchester in Mendocino County was about fifty meters wide, surrounded on either side by a three-foot incline into a long-stem grass hill drenched in Pacific Coast fog. Such tranquility all around us, but such power under our feet: being born Californians, earthquakes were as much a part of our childhood as dreams. After all, half of the time we slept through them without noticing and would wake up forgetting that anything had happened while our eyes were closed.

I never understood the allure of Los Angeles. Its picturesque beaches look the same to me, all palm trees, mansions, and golden-brown sand. Sure, the sun is nice—I’ll give it points for that—but the child tucked away in my Northern Californian brain tells me that beaches aren’t just for soaking up the sun: beaches are for exploring.

In Manchester, the San Andreas Fault meets the Pacific Ocean in an inconspicuous way. You wouldn’t find a fault line if you weren’t looking for it. Shrubs, grass, sand, and driftwood blend in with the terrain of the coast. With my back to the Pacific, I walked into a meadow of tall grass and ferns until I made it to a little grove of trees which protected the campground from the wind that chilled our spoiled Californian bones. The fog left its dewy kiss on everything, tents, trees, and abandoned coffee mugs. But sometimes the fog blew away, and within ten minutes we had clear blue skies and sunshine. We could then see clearly the vibrant wildflowers and the pebbled beaches and the sheer yellow-brown cliffs with trees still clinging to their eroded sides.

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The brave dove for abalone in the cold, kelp-infested waters. The divers returned with massive shells that required two hands to handle. I loved to tickle the edges of the sea snail and watch its gold and black fleshy edges slowly curl, reaching for something to hold onto. We shucked the abalone from its iridescent, mother-of-pearl shells, searched the intestines for salt-water pearls, and trimmed the edges until the snail resembled a white, circular steak. The tough flesh was run through a deli slicer, and fueled by beer, we pounded each slice until tender, breaded it, and fried it to golden perfection. When the fog rolled back inland the next morning, we had abalone eggs benedict for breakfast. No one could say that we didn’t eat well on that trip; even I, despiser of all fishy food, asked for seconds of abalone.

101_9717The weather changed often. Patches of blue sky would send us skipping from our protected grove out to the coast. I always felt as if the Northern California coast was like a beautiful rebel: she gave a snarky middle finger to Los Angeles and Orange County and wore her fog, rough cliffs, and cold water with brazen charm. She never needed sunshine to fit in with the cool kids; she only wore blue skies when she wanted to, and hell, she looked good in everything. She marched to the beat of her own drum, and we were all too content to follow in her footsteps. We scrambled down cliffs, wiggled our toes in sand, hunted for the perfect piece of driftwood, searched for sand dollars, lost our breath in the cold Pacific, and sang during campfires. We found her weak spot on the fault line, and she trusted us enough to walk on her seam.

101_9726Little tremors happen in California every day, most only noted by special machines that measure the energy released when the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate slip along each other. The Earth really never stops moving. Friends leave for university and sometimes come back for a few weeks during the summer or for holidays. We brave the wonders of our home state, sometimes getting in one of our shitty cars and driving nowhere in particular. Other times we walk on fault lines, never afraid of the sleeping land beneath our feet.

It’s not about being bold and young. It’s not about being daring or rebellious. Our California cool and our friendship draws us to mountains and beaches rather than cities and bustling streets. We prefer campfire smoke to perfume and fried abalone to five-star restaurants. We prefer the quiet, the fog, the wind that tangles our hair, the salty air, the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean, and the Milky Way stretching above us if we tilt our heads back far enough.

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We are friends who walk on fault lines, knowing that things will change, as they have always done. The land could shake at any time; the distance from California and Barcelona to Boston could shake us as well. But Californians know quakes, and we don’t fear; instead, we prepare. We build everything reinforced and steady, and after the ground stops shaking we return to normality. But while the land around us slumbers, we walk on fault lines with the waves at our backs, earthquakes in our veins, fog in our lungs, and our love for our home state forever in our hearts.

101_9731                                                           101_9732


2 thoughts on “Friends Who Walk on Fault Lines

  1. Pingback: Friends Who Walk on Fault Lines by Courtney Hampton | it's too late to be sane

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