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PARKFIELD

The sign on the small bridge approaching Parkfield reads: “Now entering North American Plate.” And the sign approaching the same bridge from the opposite direction reads: “Now Entering Pacific Plate.”

Welcome to the San Andreas Fault, the crack in the earth’s crust that lies beneath this bridge and separates two major tectonic plates. When these plates shift suddenly, we call it an earthquake.

Which is how tiny Parkfield in southern Monterey County came to be known as the Earthquake Capital of the World. What other village of 18 people has its very own United States Geological Survey station?

Parkfield may seem a long way from Sonoma County — unless you happen to know that the same San Andreas Fault runs the length of the Sonoma County coast and caused the worst natural disaster in the history of Santa Rosa. At 5:12 a.m. last Tuesday, we marked the 111th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake.

Scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey and cooperating agencies hope what they learn in Parkfield will help them understand earthquake probabilities in other places — places like the street where you live.

We came here by accident on a road trip that reminded us again that when it comes to a diversity of landscape, people and out-of-the-way discoveries, there is no place like California.

In a few hours, we saw the farmlands of the Central Valley, the oil fields of Taft and a spectacular display of wildflowers in an obscure corner of California called the Carrizo Plain. We rambled through the cowboy country east of Paso Robles, passed the remote intersection where the movie actor James Dean was killed and arrived in Parkfield, where the town slogan is: “Be here when it happens!”

The idea for this trip began three years ago when I asked readers to suggest places to visit for our One Lap of California. The Carrizo Plain, said one reader.

We had never heard of it. It didn’t fit into our itinerary then, but we didn’t forget. Then, the news of recent days brought reports of an explosion of wildflowers — the so-called “super bloom” — at locations in Southern California.

One of those places was the Carrizo Plain.

You won’t be stumbling onto the Carrizo Plain. To get there, we drove south and west on Highway 166 in Kern County and then turned northwest on to Soda Lake Road. Between here and Highway 58, 37 miles to the north, there is as much washboard and dirt road as there is pavement. (You can also get there from the north via Highway 58.)

Along the way, we saw mountainsides that look like a passing giant painted with stripes of yellow and blue chalk, and we saw fields of yellow that look like something Judy Garland might have passed on her way to see the Wizard of Oz.

After we reached Highway 58, we turned on to Bitterwater Road. Through a landscape of spring grass and wildflowers, the road rises and falls along — what else? — the Temblor Range. We found out later that others have marveled at the scenery along this rural road, but at the time, we just went down the road because we could.

When Bitterwater Road ended, we turned east on Highway 46 and then north on Cholame Valley Road. Near the turn, you can see the intersection of Highways 41 and 46, where James Dean was killed in the collision of Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder and a Ford sedan. It was September 30, 1955.

We ended the day sitting on the deck of the local cafe in Parkfield, drinking a beer brewed in nearby Paso Robles and hearing stories of the town. When there are only 18 of you, everyone knows everyone. Did I mention that the contraption sitting in the corner of the cafe’s deck is an old seismograph?

The plaque in the town park says the tectonic plates that define the San Andreas Fault are moving in opposite directions at the rate of 2.33 inches per year, which explains why the bridge on the way into town is equipped with an expansion joint. The bridge is no longer straight because one end is moving south and the other is moving north.

“At this rate of movement,” the plaque explains, “Los Angeles will slip past San Francisco in approximately 31.5 million years and Parkfield will then be a seaside community.”

The research effort at Parkfield includes instruments inserted into a hole drilled 2.3 miles into the earth (and paid for by the National Science Foundation), Parkfield’s USGS geologist Andy Snyder told me.

“We can’t predict earthquakes, but we know a lot about their history,” he said, “… so you can come up with probabilities about what to expect next.”

California remains so much more than people from other places imagine. Yes, there is the Golden Gate Bridge and Silicon Valley and the Hollywood sign that looks down on the sprawl of Los Angeles.

But there also are countless small towns with their own stories to tell.

In Los Banos, we strolled the Henry Miller Plaza, which is named for the German immigrant who became the “Cattle King of California.” Among all states, California ranks fourth in cattle production, and, of course, it ranks first in total farm production.

Later, we visited the Oil Worker Monument in Taft, which honors the tough people who helped make California the third largest producer of oil in the country.

El Centro, Calipatria, Needles, Bakersfield, Delano, Atwater, Courtland, Susanville, Alturas, Cedarville, Tulelake, Yreka, Crescent City and more — we’ve visited these out-of-the-way towns in recent years.

These are not glamorous places. But they are towns where people get up every day and go to work. No less than San Francisco or Los Angeles, they are also California. We’re glad we went.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.