"Most guests ask me, 'so California will really fall off into the sea, right?'" laughs our tour guide William Blodgett as he bumps and grinds a huge Hummer over billion-year-old rocks that are so hot that I'm surprised they haven't melted under the scorching desert sun. "I explain to them that no, we will just eventually have Los Angeles end up by San Francisco one day."
I gaze up at jagged boulders perched above us. It's quite evident where some have recently plummeted to the ground. Layers of rocks, twisted into sharp curves by 3 million years of violent seismic activity, rise all around the vehicle. It's then that I recognize the place from scenes of the apocalyptic movie 2012.
We are driving directly along one of the world's most famous geological hot spots the harrowing, 1,300-km San Andreas Fault, responsible for the devastating 1906 and 1989 San Francisco Bay Area quakes. The most dramatic section of this megafault is a small stretch called Box Canyon, just southeast of the upscale desert resort town of Palm Springs.
For earthquake freaks, it's the best place in the world to experience an active fault line. There, the Salton Basin sits roughly 70 m below sea level, where the Coachella Valley is being pulled apart by the Pacific and the North American plates as much as 35 mm annually. This year alone, the region has experienced three large quakes, including the intense 7.2 Baja California quake on April 4. Elite Land Tours, elitelandtours.com, takes you up close. Their four-hour, $119 It's Our Fault tour includes a desert safari in which mountain lions, rattlesnakes, vultures, roadrunners and large chuckwalla lizards are routinely spotted.
Our 26-year-old tour guide, Blodgett, a local student of archaeology, was philosophical about his part-time profession of peril. "You just get on with your life and live with the risk of major earthquakes here," he surmised. "There's a reason why many of the major religions were founded in deserts. With the immense, contemplative landscape, you just say, 'I'm alive, I am here.'"
Let's hope both he and California stay that way.