At approximately 4:55AM this morning, I felt Edgar grab my arm. Still mostly within Morpheus’ grasp, I wondered what was happening. As I swiftly gained consciousness, I heard creaks and groans and felt the room start to tremble. It was a fairly soft shaking motion. “Sismo!” I heard him say. The shaking continued and started to get stronger. Edgar tried to tell me something else, but I said, “Shhhh,” hoping to be able to hear whether anything was falling or breaking. The building continued to creak, and then it started to shake harder. We clung tightly to each other, not knowing what to expect next. The sensation was a kind of smooth, rolling sensation, not unlike being on the back of a horse at full gallop, only not so regular. The shaking intensified, and immediately the inevitable fear began to grip us.
“What if this is the ‘Big One?'” Every native Californian, every Mexican, everyone who has grown up with quakes knows what you mean by the Big One. It’s a quake that shakes and shakes and shakes. It doesn’t stop in 20 or 30 seconds. It keeps going and it gets stronger and stronger. It’s the quake where you do start to hear things breaking and falling and being ground to dust. It’s the quake that finally drops California into the ocean to join its sister continent, Atlantis. It’s the quake that stops the internet, stops the tweets, stops the power, stops the water. It’s the quake that ends civilization as we know it, and that returns us to a more primitive state. It’s the quake that all of us from earthquake country fear the most.
And yet knowing that the “Big One” is right around the corner, we somehow manage to continue to live our lives. Even in some places where the “Big One,” is due, a near certainty, people give it no thought most of the time. Take the case of the Hayward Fault, which runs up the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. That fault last created a “Big One” in 1868. Geologists estimate it registered between 6.8 and 7.0 on the Richter Scale. That’s a Big One, especially if you’re right on top of it or within a few dozen miles. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, which is to say that each number higher represents a force ten times greater. So a seven is ten times stronger than a six. And that Hayward Quake destroyed most of what was there at the time, which wasn’t much. Prior to the Great Quake of 1906 in San Francisco, which was caused by the San Andreas Fault, the Hayward Quake was the Big One that everyone remembered. The fault slipped something like 12 inches. You can Google pictures showing buildings with half of the building twelve inches farther north than the other half. But in 1868, there were few people in that region, few buildings, and the quake has since been mostly forgotten.
Yet scientists have learned that the Hayward Fault slips like clockwork every 140 years or so. On a geologic time scale, it’s about as regular as the geyser “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone. And it’s overdue. Overdue by about six years, an instant in geologic time. But on any given day, is anyone worried about it? Nope. They’re late for work. They need to get to the dry cleaner before it closes. Kids have got to be gotten off to school. But ask anyone, and they know that disaster lurks. They know that particular sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads. But there is literally nothing to do on any given day. Sure, you can lash down your water heater, bolt your house to your foundation, don’t hang anything heavy (like big art) over your bed. But that’s it. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the gods and you just have to live your life knowing that some day it will all change for the worse.
For us, and for Mexico, we were fortunate this morning. After about 30 seconds of moderate shaking, and then a few more tremors, the earth resumed its slumber. According to the news, the quake was a 5.8, forceful, but not devastating. The epicenter was 26 KM north of Matías Romero in Oaxaca, a rural, lightly-populated spot about 300 miles south of us in Tehuacán. According to the news, there was little to no damage anywhere.
But it was a warning that we can’t take the day for granted. Some day the Big One will come, and it will change everything. And so these little quakes serve as a reminder to us to not take the days for granted. We have to live life to the fullest every day, for some day disaster will strike. And so I count my blessings for yet one more wonderful day in Mexico, waking in the arms of my new love, thankful to be breathing the fresh mountain air, and thankful to be on this amazing journey.