PARKFIELD, Calif. — At the Parkfield Cafe in this tiny ranch town tucked inside the Coast Range, scientists and reporters huddle like a pack of expectant fathers. Townsfolk eye them warily.
Never have so many strangers gathered in such a small spot to wait for--even root for--the earth to shake.
They started to overrun this hamlet on the San Andreas Fault at midnight Monday, shortly after a 4.7-magnitude quake struck the narrow grass valley where cattle have run of the one road through town, and where the 34 people who live here are jaded about quake warnings.
State emergency officials declared their first-ever "Level A" alert, warning of a bigger quake in the next 72 hours. It was big news, scientists daring to predict what has always been so mercurial--the day-to-day movements of the earth.
If they are right, this would be the first successful foretelling of an earthquake. It is even more interesting because, for the past seven years, federal seismologists have warned that a magnitude 6 quake should hit Parkfield by the end of this year.
By Tuesday, there were a dozen satellite dishes, mobile units and helicopters belonging to TV news stations from around the state: "Live from Parkfield, the Earthquake Capital of the World."
Under the bright lights of big city cameras, this placid valley of rolling foothills studded with giant oaks has gone a little bonkers. The Parkfield Inn is charging $100 a night, double the usual rate. And the residents, outnumbered by reporters and camera crews, walk around with the dazed look that comes from enduring too many interviews.
Inside the Parkfield Cafe--a log cabin replete with branding irons, saddles and the ribbons won by area riders and ropers--the locals pay no heed to the rather ominous Nikon staring down from the corner. It was stuck there a few years back by National Geographic, triggered to go off at the first big rumble.
Mostly, locals wonder what the fuss is all about.
"The Big One always comes 17 minutes after the Small One," said 15-year-old Jeremy Howard. "When it didn't come Monday night, I knew it wasn't coming. Maybe next time."
It is a nonchalance that comes from being told for years that a major quake is coming, an aplomb born of surviving generation to generation atop the San Andreas Fault.
"This is just a three-ring circus," said John Lemieux, standing outside the cafe watching another news helicopter land. "We moved here from Salinas five years ago. My wife's idea. She used to live here 20 years ago."
None of the six major quakes that have struck here since the 1850s has taken any lives. The worst injury longtime residents can recall is a man who broke his big toe tripping over a fallen chimney. The last two-story building in town toppled in the 1966 quake so there's no real danger from above.
Indeed, some regard the demon fault as a friend who drops in every 12 to 32 years. 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, 1966, 1992?
"Heck, I lived by the fault for 67 years," said Donalee Thomason, who keeps a thick scrapbook of quake memorabilia and photos of the 83 reporters who have come through town.
"It gets out of line once in a while. It's scared the daylights out of me once or twice. But it's never hurt a soul. It's got more bark than bite."
Despite the official alert, no one seems too concerned about a Big One. The piano and computer at the one-room schoolhouse were bolted down long ago. The glass has been covered with thick plastic to keep it from flying.
Nonetheless on Tuesday, schoolteacher Duane Hamann took the children through their usual duck-and-cover drill. Some residents made sure to keep their trucks out of the garage in case they needed to make a quick exit. Others filled barrels with extra water.
"I was here for the 1934 quake and that was a bad one," said Rae-Ellen Reasons. "It went round and round, up and down. But there wasn't a whole lot of damage. The only thing I fear now is the butane gas tanks exploding."
It is drought, not earthquake, that Parkfield dreads most. In the 1890s, according to Thomason, 930 whites, 2 Indians and 1 African-American lived in the Chalome Valley, a 25-mile stretch of rangeland that counts Parkfield as its only town. Today, fewer than 150 people remain.
From her scrapbook, Thomason pulls out a photo of herself and a friend straddling the San Andreas as it wends its way through the valley along a dry riverbed. They joke that locals on the Pacific Plate, the land mass on the west side of the fault, will fall into the ocean and those on the North American Plate--the east side--will inherit beachfront property.
It was in 1981 that scientists discovered the earthquake pattern residents long knew. The U.S. Geological Survey and others buried $19 million worth of telemetry equipment in the earth and waited for the cycle to repeat itself sometime between 1987 and 1992. So far, the sought-after quake has proven elusive.
As the days pass without an earthquake, the chances of the alert prediction coming true diminish. By Wednesday morning, the odds of a magnitude 6 temblor occurring by tonight were down from 40% to 15%, said Andy Michael, the USGS geophysicist in Menlo Park who is overseeing the Parkfield project.
If no quake hit by 10:28 p.m. Wednesday, there was just a 5% chance that the quake would arrive during the alert period, Michael said.
Residents compare Parkfield to a heart patient, arteries occluded and on the brink of a big one, hooked up to all this sophisticated machinery to measure every metabolic reaction before and after a coronary. But it never comes.
"I know the scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey have been waiting seven years for Parkfield to erupt," said Thomason. "I kind of wish it would for their sake. But no one knows this fault like us. It can be a clever one. It likes to make fools out of people if it can."