Parkfield town sign sits above the entry to the
Parkfield Cafe on May 19, 2015 in the town of
Parkfield, Calif., the self-dubbed "earthquake
center" of the state.
Calif. — The earth shook, or so it seemed. Dust
billowed, cattle scattered. Horses thundered at full
gallop, their reverberative hooves clawing in the shifting
soil. A grown man went flying, rag doll-like, then gripped
a wobbly steer’s horns for purchase. Cries and yells
punctuated the scene. A guy’s Coors Light can got
knocked clear out of his grasp, landing in a frothy puddle
under a gnarled, arthritic oak tree.
was all over in less than a minute.
temblor here in this speck of a Central California town
dubbing itself "Earthquake Capital of the
just the rodeo in town for a rollicking Memorial Day
weekend, the raucous crowd responding to nothing less than
controlled chaos during an arena event called Cowboy
Doctoring, in which nine rope-wielding cowboys astride
horses try to mark recalcitrant calves with the clock
ticking. Quite the spectacle.
thoughts naturally turn to movement, seismically speaking,
in Parkfield, pop. 18, located at the very heart of the
810-mile-long San Andreas Fault. Surrounded by the Cholame
Hills, 25 miles northeast of Paso Robles, this tawny and,
currently, parched valley floor is famous — or maybe
notorious — as the most geologically active stretch of
the state’s most active fault.
once every 22 years, this spot where the Pacific and North
American plates meet and rub shoulders endures some
serious shaking: 6.0-magnitude quakes, on average, the
most recent in 2004. USGS seismologists have taken notice
and set up field stations to monitor that movement, even
drilling a bore hole to place sensitive equipment that
notes every shift and sway, every iota of frisson that
might help researchers better understand the ground
beneath our feet.
for a beige U.S. Geological Survey trailer as you hit
town, nothing suggests the extent of study taking place.
And, really, there’s nothing much to see of the actual
fault itself. It runs along a mostly dry creek bed shaggy
with riparian foliage, which obscures the slightly
differing rocks on each bank. The iron bridge that crosses
the creek — the only way into town — is only slightly
bent, after highway road crews repaired it several years
ago. A sign at one end states, "Now Entering North
American Plate," while on the other side, heading
west, a sign states "Now Entering Pacific
though, there’s nothing dramatic here that screams
"earthquake zone," nothing to make you want to
summon Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and his rescue helicopter
to swoop down and save you, as in the new film, "San
Andreas," not even any stark photos to be taken, like
the exposed zipper farther south at Carrizo Plain National
Parkfield has turned what might be a liability – think
about it, who would choose to hang out at a veritable
earthquake Ground Zero? — into a cute marketing gambit.
place with no stop signs — and, weekdays, more cattle
than people — draws hundreds on weekends, especially
during the summers and fall. They pass by a water tower
proclaiming the "Earthquake Capital of the
World," eat the "Shakin’ Burger" and
"Magnitude 6" steak at the Parkfield Cafe, hole
up in the Parkfield Lodge, whose come-on is to "Sleep
Here When It Happens."
aren’t coming for the unlikely event of an earthquake,
and most visitors don’t bother to grab the handout
detailing a "self-guided" fault walking tour.
they come because Jack Varian, 79-year-old cattle rancher
and cowboy impresario, has lured them with
"experiences." He and wife Zera, and their brood
of four children and nine grandchildren, run cattle drives
for people participating in a dude-ranch weekend. He rents
out a good chunk of his V6 Ranch ("20,000 Acres of
Freedom" the slick brochure reads) to horsemanship
workshops, family-oriented cowboy academies, the seemingly
mixed-messaged "Richard Winters All Women’s
Horsemanship Retreat," Western artisan boutique fairs
and two big attractions in May, the annual bluegrass
festival and the Parkfield Rodeo.
the recent rodeo weekend, Parkfield was an epicenter of
cowboy culture. Hundreds spilled out of the cafe into the
park and children’s play structure, including
hard-bodied guys in tall hats who casually pinched
longneck beers between thumb and forefinger of one hand
and wrapped the other around the waist of cowgirls
seemingly summoned directly from a country-radio ditty.
Pickup trucks and horses shared parking spaces. Free-range
children and dogs scampered along the dusty roads, giddy
at being unleashed. Down by the arena, commerce held sway
with booths selling designer jeans from Booty House
Couture, kettle corn and funnel cakes and $3 Coors Light
beers, smoothies and chai tea for the city slickers, the
weight-loss supplement Plexus Worldwide, saddle pads, hay
tubes and farriers insurance.
always comes out for the rodeo, because it’s a great
family weekend," said Heather Martinez of Shandon, 25
miles south. "It’s awesome how they made a big deal
out of the earthquake thing and turned it into an Old West
town. You don’t expect something this big out
the only person who expected it was the man who envisioned
it. Varian was raised to think big. His father, Sigurd,
invented the klystron tube, which made radar possible, and
developed one of the first high-tech companies in Silicon
Valley. But Jack gravitated south, to the rolling hills of
interior Monterey County, establishing himself as a cattle
rancher. It was in the mid-1980s, with the combination of
a drought and the return of his post-college-age children,
that he got to thinking big. As in The Big One.
thought, here’s Parkfield, it’s got earthquakes, it’s
got history," Varian said. "Cholame is an Indian
term and it means ‘The Pretty One.’ And the valley is
so beautiful, I asked myself, ‘Would one percent of the
30 million people within four hours’ driving time be
willing to come here?’"
problem was, (the town) was really just a dump. Right
where we’re sitting (the cafe) was a house that had a
big oak tree laying over it. Across the road (where the
lodge now sits) were a couple of trailers only. City Hall
was in disrepair. A lot of empty lots were for sale. I
few years later, when oldest son John graduated from Cal
Poly, San Luis Obispo and "decided Parkfield wasn’t
the worst place to live," according to Jack, father
and son sought to prop up the ailing town. First came the
cafe, then the lodge, both designed and built by John, a
lodgepole furniture artisan. Then the earthquake branding
idea ("What’s that old saying about lemons and
lemonade?" Jack asked). Then Katie, Jack and Zera’s
oldest, and a professional barrel racer, started the
rodeo. Then inspiration came to Jack at a movie theater in
what really started it all — ‘City Slickers,’"
said Varian, referring to the 1991 Billy Crystal movie.
"I leaned over to my wife and said, ‘You know, we
can do that.’"
people started coming to him, asking him to put on events.
The Parkfield Bluegrass Festival brings in more than 1,000
"pickers and pluckers" every Mother’s Day
Weekend. A mountain bike race is held each summer in the
hills above the ranch. The dude ranch draws, well, lots of
been coming (to the rodeo) for 20 years," said Skip
Brown of Sherman Oaks, "and we probably wouldn’t
have known about this great place without it."
STORY CAN END HERE)
locals support Varian’s efforts. Many, after all, are
employed by him. But several longtime residents, including
Joe and Jacquita Jensen, say their peaceful valley has
many people come here, far as I’m concerned,"
Jacquita said, whose business is Parkfield Quakey Shakey
Eggs. "I don’t like the rodeo. I don’t like the
bluegrass. I don’t like the weddings, parties, what not.
It goes on all summer long. We have to put up with the
riff-raff and loud noise."
isn’t exactly quaking in his boots over the criticism.
order for this family to stay in business, the first thing
you gotta do is pay the bills," he said. "If
this rodeo helps pay the bills, then I really can’t
worry too much about a person who’s inconvenienced once
in a while."
could be said for the tectonic relationship between
Parkfieldians and their environment. An occasional seismic
shudder may be an inconvenience, but they’ve learned to
roll with it.
information about Parkfield and V6 Ranch events, go to