Sunset Crater and a Seismic America

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Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

Sleeping north and east of Flagstaff, Arizona, just north of I-40 is Sunset Crater, the heart of a complex of volcanos – the San Francisco volcanic field – that dot the southern section of the Colorado Plateau. The oldest of these volcanoes dates from six million years years ago, and the youngest, Sunset Crater, is a babylike 1,000 years old. To be sure, Northern Arizona is not what a Californian would think of as a geologically active region, but geologists figure that the top end of the Grand Canyon State sits atop a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle, and that it’s only a matter of time before Sunset Crater or something just to the east of it erupts.

One of those silent cultural changes that takes place once you pass the Colorado River on your way east is the disappearance of what for lack of a better phrase I’ll call “seismic consciousness.” The rest of the nation seems blissfully unaware that while California is blessed, if you will, with a level of earthquake activity unmatched elsewhere in the continental United States, the rest of the continent is not immune. Volcanoes dot Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The nation is suffused with faults, and our route east along I-40 and old Route 66 bisected a trans-continental belt of seismic danger zones that stretches from Arizona to the Carolinas, peaking in a California-like danger zone along the Mississippi River from Memphis to St. Louis.

Yet hotel room safety cards ignore the possibility of earthquake, and even many modern public buildings – most infamously the Memphis Pyramid – were built to standards that would not hold up in an earthquake. Checking into a hotel in a moderately hazardous zone in Knoxville, Tennessee, the emergency information in the phone book was silent on what to do in case the ground started to move. And they call us Lotus Eaters.

Sunset Crater is just a highly visible reminder that the earth can shake anywhere. California has a lot we can teach the nation, provided they are ready to learn before it is too late.

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A Californian in America

Although The Golden West Review is a web-based magazine about California, we cannot understand or appreciate this remarkable state without reference to the other forty-nine. We have, thus far, avoided such reference, but in reading through our work so far – and what we have scheduled – I realize that we run the risk of falling prey to the worst kind of provincialism. Should we fall into that trap, this publication would be branded – perhaps correctly – as little more than a booster site.

In a first step toward avoiding that trap, I took my family on a trip across the United States by car, from Ventura County to Washington DC and back. My son took photos and video; my wife provided editorial commentary, and I drove. And wrote, all in an effort to appreciate every part of the nation we crossed for its own gifts, and, more to the point for this publication, to see California in its national context.

We drove for three weeks, covering 6,500 miles mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line. We took country roads, dodged bad weather, met one incredible person after another, ate remarkable meals, and learned more about the country than any of us realized we would. Indeed, after a week home, it seems like every day one of us starts a conversation by sharing something we’ve just realized we learned on the way. Three of those lessons stand out, perhaps most compellingly because each points right back to the Golden State.

First, and most obvious to each of us, is that the California Dream is alive and well all across America. If we stopped and spoke with two people, at least one was either from California, dreamed of moving to California, or had someone close to them who was trying to figure out how to move here. It wasn’t just Hollywood, although for some, that was part of it. Through the real estate crash, the financial crisis, political upheaval, and the rising cost of living here, California still entices, speaking to the subconscious of the nation – if not the world.

Second, we got a feel for how distinct California is from the rest of the country, both physically and culturally, the “Island on the Land” Carey McWilliams described. Climate changes: cross the Mojave Desert and the flavors of Mediterranean climate that we enjoy disappear into a whole new meteorological spectrum. Menus change: fat, glutens, and starches leap onto restaurant menus while avocados, vegetarian choices, and whole grains disappear. The land changes: the clouds, flora, geography, and highways look as different as though it were another country. And conversations change: what people talk about  and the way people relate to each other change completely. (That’s an observation, not a value judgement.)

Finally, we learned California should never be divided. More than any other state in the Union, California draws its character from its geographical and cultural diversity. You could argue that an alfalfa farmer in the Imperial Valley has too little in common with a programmer in Silicon Valley, an attorney in Century City, or a fisherman in Crescent City to be represented by the same two senators, but you would be missing the point. Balkanizing the Golden State would rail against a fundamentally American ideal, the belief that we do not have to be alike to get along, to work together, or to live under the same flag. “E Pluribus Unum” may be on the seal of the United States, but it applies to those of us living under the Bear Flag as well.

I recognize that none of this constitutes revelation. Indeed, I think each of us knew these things subconsciously before we left. But the trip brought these truisms to life in a way that will permanently affect how we view the Golden State, how we see America, and how we understand the complex relationship between the two. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a series of posts and articles that I hope will begin to bring this all to life.