Cycling on the San Andreas Fault
“They say she’s 10 months pregnant, so we just hope she doesn’t give birth today”, says Dori with the nonchalance that only a native Californian can muster. Judging by the reaction of our group, we’re not all quite so relaxed about earthquakes or about cycling on the San Andreas fault.
The “she” that Dori refers to is the aforementioned San Andreas Fault, an 810-mile rift that runs along the California coast. To the East, the North American plate; to the West, the Pacific plate. The “birth” is the earthquake that tectonic fault experts feel is long overdue.
Least you should worry, this fault doesn’t mean that the California coast will detach itself and sail off into the Pacific. It is in fact a (ahem) “right-lateral strike-slip” fault, meaning the Pacific plate is moving North and the North American plate is moving South.
We’re at the top of Box Canyon, in the Southern California (SoCal) desert, east of the Coachella Valley and south of the Joshua Tree National Park in Palm Springs. The canyon cuts down through the desert, ending up on the plains of the Salton Sea. The roads here are almost traffic-free, the air is clean and the scenery is, to say the least, dramatic. One of the best ways to see the canyon is to cycle, which is why I’m wearing a helmet and straddling a bike for the first time in, ooh, more years than I care to remember and readying myself for The Earthquake Canyon Bike Express.
This is cycling the easy way: We pick our bikes from a trailer and then our group of 12 (6-yr old enthusiasm to middle-aged nerves via teenage cool) heads off towards the canyon, past the road sign that tells us it’s 20 miles to Mecca (more on that later). Dori follows behind with the trailer, while her colleague Gary goes ahead in a Jeep.
It may be winter, but that legendary desert sun beats down as we pedal gently downhill across a wide expanse of desert. The only plants that litter the sand are small shrubs such as creosote bushes, testimony to the 3-5 inches of annual rainfall that the desert receives. In the distance, a rare splash of green against a rocky outcrop is a Fan Palm Oasis: a break in the fault where water is pushed to the surface and larger plants can grow.
Then we enter the canyon and we’re into a different world. Gone are the wide desert vistas, replaced by a narrow winding road between rocky hills. Gone too is that desert sun, replaced by surprisingly cold shadows. In here there is even less vegetation, just sand and rocks.
About half way down the canyon, Gary is waiting for us at the roadside, holding home-baked cookies and cold water. While we munch and sip, he talks us through the Canyon. After this (which I’m going to call Canyon 101), we can identify the tectonic plate activity by looking at the rock layers: rather than being horizontal, they’re angled where plate movement has pushed the rock upwards.
We carry on at a leisurely pace. A few vehicles pass us, but otherwise we have the Canyon pretty much to ourselves. Suddenly, though, we’re out of the Canyon and seeing another dramatic scenery change. The road flattens, the landscape opens up and the Salton Sea glistens in the distance. In front of us is the green agricultural plain of the Coachella Valley.
It may be winter, but the fields here overflow with produce: we cycle past salad vegetables, grapevines and trees dripping with citrus fruit. Technically, we’re still in the desert, but these fields are irrigated by canals (sourced from the Colorado river), meaning that this area produces a gross annual return of over $500m.
Mecca is our final destination. Oddly-named for a SoCal town, it got its name when a far-sighted investor spotted that the local climate was ideally suited to date palms, imported some from the Middle East and the town was named Mecca in honour of this. The date palms themselves are carefully cultivated in nurseries – you’ll see them growing alongside the roads.
Dori and Gary pack the bikes back in the trailer, and we all head off for a date shake at Shields, which has been selling dates in the town of Indio since 1924. This is the date capital of the US, producing 95% of the country’s output.
Sucking on a date shake at Shields, I feel ridiculously relaxed. SoCal is a laid-back kinda place. Or, as Dori puts it: “The difference between Northern and Southern California is that they’re liberal and we’re fun-loving”.
As we drive back to our hotel, I ponder that whole “right-lateral strike-slip” fault and what that means for Southern California as it moves North. Will it become more liberal and less fun-loving?
But I reckon that, as long as there are still cycle rides, home-baked cookies and date shakes, nothing much will change.