Living on the Fault Line

“I will set it down here as a maxim that the operations of the human intellect are much accelerated by an earthquake. Usually I do not think rapidly–but I did upon this occasion. I thought rapidly, vividly, and distinctly.
With the first shock of the five, I thought–‘I recognize that motion–this is an earthquake.’
With the second, I thought, ‘What a luxury this will be for the morning papers.’
With the third shock, I thought, ‘Well my boy, you had better be getting out of this.’
Each of these thoughts was only the hundredth part of a second in passing through my mind. There is no incentive to rapid reasoning like an earthquake. I then sidled out toward the middle of the street- and I may say that I sidled out with some degree of activity, too. There is nothing like an earthquake to hurry a man when he starts to go anywhere.”
-Mark Twain, “The Great Earthquake in San Francisco,” New York Weekly Review, November 25, 1865

At a mere 4.2 in the Richter Scale, the quake that jerked me awake at 4:42 this morning with a literal jolt wasn’t quite the shaker that Twain experienced in the Great Quake of 1865.

In my 36+ years of living on the faultline, I’ve not experienced any Great Quakes, though I have ridden out countless minor ones (like this morning), some slighter bigger quakes, and then the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake that was dubbed “The Pretty Big One” at 7.1 (or 6.9 – depending on who’s giving out the numbers).

Loma Prieta effected life in the Bay Area for months, years, and even decades, as the new eastern span of the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge slowly rising out of the bay will attest. Slated for completion in 2011, some 22 years after Loma Prieta collapsed a section of the original eastern span, thousands of cars and trucks still cross the repaired old span every day.

But it doesn’t take a huge trembler to experience the “accelerated intellect” of which Mark Twain speaks.

With the first hit, one’s attention is fully focused on the shaking floor and creaking beams the one normally calls home.

Whatever activity one is engaged in the millisecond previous is abandoned as full attention is now on whether this will pass and die away or grow angry and start throwing the furniture around.

It is a breathless pause the calls upon the intellect to assess the situation with haste lest some immediate action be necessary to avoid premature burial.

And then, just as suddenly as it began, it is over and all is quiet. The mind and body slowly relax, and for a moment, one isn’t even sure if it even really happened.

If you’re lucky.

Living on the faultline means that one day, the luck will run out.


Mark Twain’s full account of the earthquake from Roughing It

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