I am in Southern California on a sunny day in October 2020, seven months after the world took an abrupt turn, having just attended a license plate collecting club meet that fit in during a window of time when things are just okay enough for an outdoor gathering of 35 people. A month prior, I couldn’t come to the area for my uncle’s burial due to a virus case where I work; a month and a half later, the state enacted strict stay-at-home orders like they did back in the spring.
It’s been a challenging enough year on a personal, national, and global level. Then my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and particularly deadly type of brain tumor. On the last phone call before the news, he was feeling depressed but optimistic. We’d get through this mess, and travel again, he said.
So while my dad lays in a hospital, post-surgery, I am off for the weekend, in part taking the trip he couldn’t, to process all that happened and to get a much-needed break from the pandemic as it relates to my daily experience.
Parkfield, California, is home to only 18 people. It is nestled in the Monterey County wine country, roughly halfway between Highway 101 and Interstate 5, northeast of Paso Robles and southwest of Coalinga. On my way I pass golden-glazed hills and trees bent in stately poses, as if they were butlers holding up trays, with a handful of wineries and ranches interspersed.
The economy centers around cattle ranching, some wine grape production, and most notably, earthquakes. The Parkfield Cafe and the Parkfield Lodge are the only services.
I read about Parkfield in Simon Winchester’s book A Crack in the Edge of the World, a deep look into the geologic and historical forces leading up to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Parkfield sits astride the San Andreas Fault and experiences an earthquake of 6.0 magnitude or higher an average once every 22 years. The town’s nickname is “The Earthquake Capitol of the World.” Seismologists heavily monitor the area to better understand how, why, and when the earth shakes as it relates to the fault.
The web promises a great burger at the Parkfield Cafe, and this promise comes true. I try the bacon cheddar burger, and it explodes with the taste of those key ingredients, with a patty that oozes juices, a crunchy bun, and the taste of having been having cooked over an open oak barbecue pit. This early autumn day there is a light, warm breeze, woodpeckers and other birds, and the murmuring of six motorcyclists at a neighboring table. Add the burbling of the water fountain, the fresh green lawn my wooden picnic table sits on under the shade of tall oaks, and the country music playing unobtrusively over the loudspeaker, and for thirty minutes there is no pandemic. Life is sweet.
The dining room features saddles for barstools and has cattle ranching paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. The lobby sells plush steers and cowboys, cowboy-themed mugs and air fresheners, a jigsaw puzzle depicting a cattle drive, and other items. A bumper sticker features a cowboy banging a frying pan with a wooden spoon, calling out the town’s slogan “Be here when it happens.”
In 2004 Parkfield experienced its most recent 6.0 earthquake. My server was five and at a little white and blue schoolhouse just paces away from the lodge and cafe when it occurred.
“On average there’s 11 kids (at the school),” she says. “The most we had was 20. I was the only kid in my grade until the fourth grade, when my cousin came.”
A monument in the park bears witness to the theory of plate tectonics. Two concrete slabs, placed some 12 feet apart, show how much the ground has moved since 1931. About 31 million years from now, Los Angeles will slip past San Francisco, and Parkfield will be undersea.
I take State Route 33 past the oil derricks of Kern County to visit Mike and Annie’s McKittrick Hotel, Penny Bar & Cafe. The building came into being in 1903 and for the next six decades operated through several rounds of ownerships, fulfilling multiple functions for West Kern County residents, a group comprised largely of oilmen and ranchers.
Mike and Annie Moore were married the late 1950s, shortly after the hotel part ceased operation, and purchased the property in 1999 after moving from Eureka. Upon his first visit to the town, Mike said “Why the hell would anyone want to live out here?”
But, for the betterment of travelers like me, he followed Annie’s vision of having a bar full of pennies. It started with her own collection, minus the “wheat backs” (pennies manufactured before 1959). Using Elmer’s glue, he installed her collection over about a third of the bar top.
“I told him, ‘Why are you stopping? I want them everywhere,’” says Annie.
Over the course of the next six years, that’s just what happened, thanks largely to customer donations. Over a million pennies cover virtually the entire bar, from floor to ceiling, the bathrooms to the pool table, and a variety of colorfully-phrased signs, mounted animal heads and nick-knacks share the space.
It’s been a bit of a rough road for the bar lately. Annie says the local industry has been hit hard in the last five or six years. Mike died in early 2019. In the spring of this year, she had to shut down entirely due to the virus, and in September the wildfires made outdoor dining untenable. She’s somewhat comforted by the thought that at least Mike was spared the pandemic.
As I leave McKittrick, I feel my soul already refreshed. Can this be? Parkfield left a warm impression in my mind and body, I enjoyed the drive through a region many would find banal, and I just had a fascinating conversation about pennies!
In the evening I arrive at my hotel in Santa Clarita, the city where my Uncle Lucky lived. I think of his unforgettable personality and his humor, of his wife Donna’s cigarette smoke-scarred but warm laugh, of waking up mornings to Lucky moving about in the kitchen as country and western music blared, and the lively banter between him and my dad.
Lucky worked at Universal Studios in the 1950s through the 1980s. He sat next to Elvis, met Marilyn Monroe, worked with Hitchcock (the doorknob from the Psycho house is in his garage), and had interactions with countless other stars. But he was always a quiet and humble man.
My dad’s three older brothers, born to a different father, moved to California as young men. My Uncle Mike recalls how you could just drive down the street, stick your hands out in the sunshine and pick the oranges right off the trees. It was a more innocent time for Los Angeles and for our country, an era my father recalls with great fondness.
On Saturday I drive to my cousin’s apartment, listening to Game Four of the World Series on the radio. The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the Tampa Bay Rays two games to one. My dad is a lifelong Dodgers fan. A friend of his sister-in-law works for the team and arranged for the message “The Dodgers are rootin’ for you, Dr. G!” to be put on the JumboTron.
My cousin and I eat at an Irish pub where tents, strung lights, and heat lamps have created an inviting outdoor space. We talk about my dad’s diagnosis, the virus, baseball, family, and more, all while keeping an eye on the game, playing on a TV they’ve set up by a wall.
Sunday it’s time for a pair of nature-related attractions and the drive home. The Gibbon Conservation Center, located on the outskirts of Santa Clarita, works in unison with zoos, sanctuaries, and breeding programs all over the world. The center is attempting to raise enough capital to move closer to the coast, where the temperatures less extreme and would more closely mirror that of the gibbons’ natural habitats, and expand visitor services.
Gibbons prefer bright colors so they choose orange and red bell peppers over green ones. They are highly emotional apes that kiss, hold hands, hug, laugh, and engage in other traditional “human behavior.” It can take up to a year to successfully habituate them to the wild after having lived in captivity.
“People are very inspired by the acrobatic things they do,” our guide, also the director, tells us.
The gibbons swing from branch to branch and use an assortment of hoops, ropes, platforms, and hammocks. One gibbon hangs upside down from the ceiling like a bat. Another canvasses the ground with arms nearly straight up, shifting back and forth as he walks. Two siblings play wrestle while mother looks placidly out at the crowd.
Gibbons “sing,” a unique vocalization that starts at sunrise and occurs periodically throughout the day. The primary purpose is to establish territory – something the gibbons here don’t have to do but do anyway out of instinct.
Near the end of the tour, a single gibbon sings briefly. Suddenly, the entire lot erupts. The variations include squeaks, hoots, chirps, angry-sounding cries, moans, groans, barks, yips, and shrieks. Guests hold up their cell phones and cameras, recording the hullabaloo which goes on for a solid 25 minutes. I look at the guide’s face, eyes shining and a wide smile, like a child at a carnival. The cascade of vocalizations ebbs and flows. At times it slows down to a trickle, then starts back up in a flurry with every gibbon chiming in.
Next, I head 30 miles north to visit the Quail Run Ostrich Ranch in Lake Hughes. It offers tours and sells chicks and eggs. There are about 40 of the birds on the property, half each of adults and babies. I showed up for my tour time and TK, the owner, introduces me to three ostriches in a pen similar to one you’d find for horses on many farms. Another car drives onto the dusty lot, and three adults and three little girls spill out. The wind whips our faces, and my mask helps keep me warm.
TK rattles off information: they’ve been around since the Mesozoic era, they can live up to 75 years in captivity (about double of that in the wild), ostrich oil is an excellent salve for illness and injury, and the male has black feathers so he can camouflage at night when he sits on the nest, while the female and juveniles are brown and camouflage with the ground during the day. Those things, and more.
They are an odd-looking species: spindly dinosaur legs, plump, feathered bodies, furry leopard-like necks, little heads, big eyes, and big beaks. They are the only birds with two toes on each foot, they have three stomachs, they don’t fly, and they are the fastest two-legged creature on earth.
She lets us feed them alfalfa hay; the three girls on the tour have differing levels of bravery. One coils back as the ostrich lunges at the hay, then smiles and laughs as the bird munches on the offering.
We cross to a yard with three goats. A brown and white one named Jack takes a liking to me, or just wants a nibble of my notepad, camera case, or sweatshirt. Up on a little hillside we see the large conglomerate of babies, some the size of medium-sized dogs but most about a third or half that of an adult.
Throughout the tour, TK extolls the virtue of ostrich meat. It’s 98% fat free, rich in iron, and more environmentally-friendly than the bovine version. Similarly, she boasts about the advantages of ostrich eggs over chicken eggs – you can refrigerate them longer (for as much as a year), and you get more product per bird. And then there’s the oil, which TK used to cure an injury less than half the time it would have taken with traditional medicine.
The tour concludes with a stop in a shed that is part storeroom, part gift shop. TK makes shiny, decorative pieces out of hollowed-out ostrich eggs, lining them with jewels and placing figurines inside of them. She shows Cinderella’s coach in earnest to one of the kids. She also has non-ostrich souvenirs, like honey made on the ranch, leather pouches, and homemade jewelry. The family departs with the honey, while I leave with nothing, having hoped for a more traditional knick-knack or curio.
I take the same road back, through the Angeles National Forest, to the interstate. The charred reminders of a fire that ripped through this area in September are still fresh. Blackened trees and burnt hills stand out in stark contrast to the even gray sky.
My last stop is the Harris Ranch Express BBQ. It’s located in a gas station with patio-only dining, putting it in an advantageous position compared to many other restaurants. A year ago, in what seems like eons before the pandemic or my dad falling ill , my girlfriend and I came here on our way back from a trip to Pismo Beach and Disneyland.
At the beginning of this trip my head was fully immersed in thoughts of my father. Over the course of three days I’ve begun to process it, though not in an intentional way. Tomorrow Monday will come, and it will again be about wearing masks for 14 hours through two jobs, one with children who are learning on iPads and are limited to a small number of classmates to interact with all day, the other at a restaurant that feels like a ghost of its former self.
The main thought I’ve come away with is that travel is not dead even in a pandemic, and that you have to get away every so often. Traveling in itself remedies ills. It puts a pause on your reality while making you aware of others’ realities, and lets you know there are escapes when things feel unmanageable; if you’re lucky, you can return and be a little better able to handle those things. Traveling won’t cure brain tumors or create vaccines. But it makes you feel small, humble, and grateful enough to know that if you can’t deal with it or solve it, it’s because you’re not meant to.