Published: April 2006
Joel Achenbach

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Beautiful scenery. Interesting topic. Great scientists. Not a rough assignment, this one. I'm not sure what I liked more: the sushi in Japan or the tequila in Mexico. But nothing compares to the redwoods of northern California, growing directly in the trace of the San Andreas Fault, their trunks showing violent zigzags on the way to the sky in what may be evidence of past earthquakes. Scientist Carol Prentice and I scrambled through dense woods in search of something she promised would be impressive: a redwood stump split down the middle by an earthquake. I feared we wouldn't find it. We seemed lost. The forest was a mad tangle. Huffing and puffing, I turned and saw it: a stump the size of a small living room, distinctly offset in line with the San Andreas, the gap in the middle so big I could climb into it. Carol let me help take measurements, and for a moment I could pretend to be a field scientist, not just a scribbler.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I hope the residents of Bombay Beach will take no offense when I say that their town is uninhabitable. It's the terminus of the San Andreas Fault, in the desert next to the man-made lake known as the Salton Sea. And the day I visited, with my family piled into a rented minivan, the thermometer hit 118ºF (48ºC)—in the shade. The ground was baked and cracked like the surface of a planet too close to its parent star. I didn't see anyone on the streets, since that would mean risking one's life. There weren't many plants, and the main form of wildlife seemed to be black flies, which, someone told me, "bite like small dogs."

I tried to explain to my kids that this was a geologically fascinating place, but they didn't see the magic of this type of field research. My youngest, Shane, unwisely jumped out of the car in bare feet, and the asphalt was so hot I don't think her flesh technically touched the Earth before she was rocketing toward space, yelping. I'm sure it's a lovely place once you get to know it. In my case, that's just not gonna happen.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

In the article I briefly described going under a church next to Mexico City's Catedral Metropolitana to visit an Aztec ruin. But a guide also led me up some steps and onto the roof of the cathedral, from which I got a stunning view of uninterrupted urban sprawl. You can see the Aztec Templo Mayor nearby, crawling with tourists. More striking is the way that buildings all over the old part of town are obviously sinking into the soft terrain of the ancient lakebed. The overall sense is of the many-layered nature of human history: Aztec, Spanish colonial, now a modern city, all built in a place seething with seismic forces and vulnerable to the next Big One.