I used to believe I was a geologic disaster coward. I grew up in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, which is actually a single mountain that blew itself apart not all that long ago, on the edge of a volcanic field that was merrily tossing out lava flows and cinder cones a mere 900-odd years back. My elementary school was tucked in the flank of a rhyolite dome. Things had been quite exciting round there, and I used to watch the mountains with a wary eye, watching like a paranoid volcanologist for the slightest sign of steam or ash. We had city-threatening fires nearly every summer, winters sometimes dumped so much snow on us that roofs collapsed (and there was still talk of one winter in the 1970s when snow had reached the second floor and everybody was all snowed in, an event we had happily missed). We had all sorts of poisonous and/or violent wildlife running about. None of those more immediate threats terrified me half as much as the volcanoes.
But, said I, at least there were no earthquakes. Earthquakes were terrible, awful, no good, very bad things that I never ever in a
million billion trillion years wanted to experience.
Then I moved to a subduction zone.
This may not have been the wisest choice for a geologic disaster coward. One might even say I hadn’t thought the matter through, and I really hadn’t. Oh, I knew there were volcanoes (St. Helens had blown her guts out right on my teevee when I was a wee little thing) and earthquakes (Nisqually, anyone?), but the volcanoes at least gave plenty of warning, so I could wave goodbye to the landlord on my way back home. And I just didn’t let myself dwell on the earthquakes.
When I did think about them, I figured the slightest tremor would send me into a blind panic. I’d scream like a little girl in a horror movie, I’d be as useless as the heroine tied to train tracks in a silent film, I’d lose my shit and freak the fuck out and, if I survived, probably flee Seattle never to return. But this place was too magnetically pretty for me to not give it a go, despite hazards. Forget San Francisco. I’d left my heart here and wanted to live with it again.
So this one night, not long after I’d moved up, I was lying in bed. Very late at night, everything’s still. We lived in an apartment complex not priced for college students, so the place was stone dead after midnight. Must have been around three or four in the morning. I had my physical geology textbook* open to the chapter on earthquakes, and I’d just got done with the earthquake strength section and was reading about earthquakes in the eastern United States when the bed did a little judder. I lowered the book and watched my feet. No, no cat down there – she was happily asleep somewhere else. No, no truck sounds. Nothing but deep silence and that tiny quiver. I waited for it to subside, and then flipped back a page to the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (Table 16.2) to look up the intensity (“II. Felt by only a few persons at rest, especially on the upper floors of buildings [hullo, that's me!]. Delicately suspended objects may swing”). I grinned, possibly giggled a bit, had that my-first-earthquake-how-adorable moment, and went on reading.
You never forget your first, even if it barely managed to wobble the bed. And the timing could not have been more exquisite.
So no shit, here I was beavering away at the blogging, and all of a sudden I notice the house is juddering and the cat’s sitting bolt-upright acting like the world’s coming apart. The shaking lasted nearly a minute. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would make a Californian blink, but to this Arizona girl, it was a little intense – and exciting.
Had to be an earthquake. The only other thing that could cause the house to start dancing would be an explosion, and while I had the headphones on, I didn’t have the music on that loud.
The cat is currently sitting by my chair pretending she never panicked, nuh-uh, not even a little bit.
The sensation of an earthquake’s hard to describe – it’s like being on a rollercoaster that’s rapidly weaving side-to-side. The power of it is astonishing. My gliding rocking chair didn’t know what to do – it was trying to go in all directions at once, which added something of a washing-machine-from-hell element to the whole experience. You can feel it in your whole body. Bizarre.
A moment before, all had been peace and stillness. I’d been enthroned in my gliding rocking chair, listening to music, tappity-tapping away on the laptop at five in the ay-em, and the cat had been sound asleep on the bed. I hadn’t noticed anything amiss. When you’re rocking and rocking out, banging away at a keyboard, a little thing like earth movement doesn’t get your attention right at first. But then she sat bolt-upright, straight and still with a panicked expression on her face, and stayed that way. I took my headphones off and looked round for the source of the disturbance. Nothing. I don’t even remember feeling the p-waves, which must have been what she was reacting to. But a few seconds later, the blinds started swaying. I watched them with total incomprehension. Why would they do a silly thing like that?
That’s when the s-waves hit in earnest, and the rollercoaster-washing-machine-from-hell-plus-maybe-a-bit-of-mechanical-bull-riding element impressed itself upon us, and that went on for what seemed like forever. Long enough, anyway, for me to go from confusion to the tiniest bit of fear and straight through to “holy fuck this is fun!” A glorious little 4.6 or thereabouts. A quite wonderful IV on the Mercalli scale. Lovely!
I went out into the living room to check things, and met my roommate coming out of her room. We did the “wow earthquake dude” babble, and then went back to our rooms, and I finished up my post on the excitement, and never did get my desired aftershock, alas.
I’ll never forget it. Never forget the sensation of those s-waves, or the thrill tinged with just the right amount of fear, or the sense that the earth round here is alive and kicking and stunningly fascinating.
There will be other earthquakes. They’re inevitable in a subduction zone. There will be felt ones, and ones that will knock things over, and ones that will do a hell of a lot of damage. But just so long as Cascadia doesn’t slip, and I don’t get whacked in the noggin by falling stuff, and I’m not out on a beach with a bluff just looking for an excuse to really let a landslide go, and I’m not on the Viaduct, I think you’ll be able to tell which one’s me in the crowd of hollering people. I’ll be the one screaming “Woo-hoo-hoo! Gimme a V, baby, yeah!”
And the last time I went to St. Helens, I looked deep into her non-steaming crater and pleaded, “C’mon, baby, just a little eruption. Something phreatic, sweetheart! Do some dome-building for Dana, now, there’s a good girl.” And I was disappointed when she didn’t go boom.
So much for my geologic disaster cowardice, then. I guess I’ll have to go find other things to be mortally terrified of.
*No, I wasn’t studying for class. It’s a book I picked up used and was reading for fun. I do that. Leave me alone.