Aug/Sep 1998 Nonfiction

Greenland is Not Bigger Than South America
A Memoir of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake

by Rolf Potts

(Joshua Tree National Monument, California, January 25)

I am sitting exactly 5461 feet above sea-level atop Ryan Mountain in the midst of Joshua Tree National Monument, looking skyward. Above me, manic clouds are hovering and morphing against the blue sky but they can hardly compete with the static brown magnificence of this Mojave landscape.

Below me to the east, the lack of vegetation makes the desert basin look particularly barren and moonlike as if it is impassable without space suits and a lunar rover. Below us to the west out of sight and 140 miles away Los Angeles sits in a disarray of broken sewer mains, collapsed freeway overpasses, and condemned houses: the result of a 6.6 magnitude earthquake that shook the city eight days ago. On that morning, I was jolted awake before sunrise, convinced in a moment of groggy confusion that the world was coming to an end. From what I can tell, it didn't except for the fifty-five individuals who died in the process. Apocalypse is subjective, I guess.


I arrived at Joshua Tree last night under a full moon, which lit everything in a colorless glow that made me feel like I was in a giant indoor arena illuminated by dying fluorescent lights. I hiked a bit in the dim light, navigating a route over the sandy soil between the scrub brush and cacti through the arroyos. I stopped at a cluster of aplite granite boulders to watch the clouds form. To the west, the sky was clear and starry, but directly above, wisps of clouds magically appeared and sped with time-lapse quickness to a growing mass over Ryan Mountain. The clouds occasionally blocked out the neon glow of the moon, and every time the illumination returned, I expected to suddenly grow warmer, as if the moon brokered the sun's heat. I felt charmed as I watched the clouds form, like I'd caught America in her dressing room unassuming, beautiful, and half-clothed.


I have not seen any other people all day, and I am enjoying the deluded euphoric feeling that I am the first person ever to reach this stark mountaintop. A bright red canister here at the summit cairn speaks otherwise. Inside the canister, a roll of paper bears the comments of people who have made the ascent in recent weeks:

"Nuthin' like this in Michigan."

"New Year's Day: My name is Joe, I am too drunk to know where I am or how I got here."

"Sitting and reading in the old birthday suit. Took a picture of my clothes. This is great."

"Unemployed and having fun."

"There will be no gloom and doom. I can do it."

"Sufi sez: "It's the sides of the mountain that support life, not the summit."

"Unplug your TV and give it away. Read a book. Talk less. Look more."

Supposedly, prophets operate in the desert to avoid temptations but I get the feeling that the emptiness of the desert itself is what makes a prophet out of a person. This is not to say that I feel like a prophet right now. In fact, it's quite the opposite: the earthquake has shaken my sense of order. I feel like I have been operating out of a reality that more closely resembles a two-dimensional map of the world than the world itself: it works fine for the most part, but it distorts at toward the poles.

Alas, Greenland is not bigger than South America, and daily life does not always make sense. Random odds carry a casual sort of eminence in this world and the situations into which you place yourself only regulate your life as is allowed by those situations which place themselves into you. This is easy to forget unless you regularly have opportunities to look into the eyes of people whose homes have just been destroyed in the span of thirty seconds.


That I was in Los Angeles eight days ago is an accident. I only stopped there because Michele Poulos a girl I met at a party in Oregon two years ago offered to let me stay at her parents' place while I was passing through on my way from Seattle to New Orleans. Since I am always up for a chance to sleep someplace other than my van, I took her up on the offer.

I have since forgotten what I was dreaming about at 4:30 that morning. I do, however, recall being suddenly awake at 4:31 the lamp above the bed clanging and smacking into the wall, my bed bouncing like it was skittering down a rock-strewn hill. I heard an explosion, and the room was filled with a harsh blue light, illuminating a desk which galloped like a rigid horse away from the wall, the drawers sliding open and regurgitating their contents onto the floor.

Confused and bewildered, I grabbed ahold and my mattress and held on as the house bashed and thundered against itself. Something broke free from the wall and landed across my back. For an odd moment, I thought that reality had given out on me, that I would have to cope for the rest of my life in a world that was shaking itself apart. I tired to wriggle deeper into bed, as if the covers would protect me if the house collapsed. Pillow over my head, I waited for the ceiling to crash down on me. Then suddenly abrupt, exhausted stillness. After a couple moments of eerie silence, I cautiously rolled over the inspect the room. A framed painting slid off my back and thumped onto the floor.

What I did next was the first of the mild absurdities that marked my post-earthquake experience. Lamp swinging above; floor littered with books, clothes, broken wall-hangings; bathroom mirror exploded into a glitter of shards across the carpet; cracks drunkenly zagging the wall from floor to ceiling I lay back down and tried to sleep. Perhaps I assumed that all earthquakes were like this, and that everyone put off cleanup until daylight.

Michele's mother burst in with a flashlight and told me to go down to the ground floor. I put on my shoes and ran down the stairs, where huddled in the doorjamb we weathered a sudden series of aftershocks. We waited out the lulls between tremors in tense silence. Everything seemed so melodramatic and improbable that I half-expected Mrs. Poulos to break into song as if I had somehow entered an absurdist off-Broadway stage production of my own life.


We eventually met Dr. Poulos in the kitchen and sat through the uncertain calm of the pre-dawn morning, grouped around the radio like a post-apocalyptic campfire ring. The safety procedure information crackling from the radio sounded sterile and serenely creepy. I imagined the worst reviving long-latent post-nuclear war survivalist fantasies wherein I wander for days and days through piles of smoking rubble. A live announcer came on after a while, but he mostly described the earthquake in terms of fault lines and tectonic plates. Seismology might be meaningful to some people but to me, the aftershocks came on like the powerful anger of some irrational, obsolete earth-god.

Curious about the non-scientific extent of the quake and somewhat uncomfortable sitting in a dim kitchen with these people I barely knew I ventured outside at dawn to check out the damage and stock up on food and bottled water. Outside, Los Angeles was a full-sized facade of itself: everything looked the same as before, but nothing functioned. Stoplights hung dead from their poles, brick fences slumped into yards like capsized stacks of dominoes, and workers were already out nailing plywood over shattered storefronts. Everyone I passed on the sidewalk peered around with stunned fascination, like they were walking through museum. The air was warm, fragrant, and strangely quiet. I walked and stared for two hours, but never found a functioning grocery store.

I returned to the Poulos house, but none of us knew what to do. We mostly just sat in the narcotic glow of the TV and waited for some feasible official interpretation of what had happened to us. Omniscience was in short supply. We watched helicopter footage of smoking buildings, listened to officials give tentative death-tallies, peered at hastily-assembed graphic maps of the metro area. Awkward and lost for words, TV reporters stood on street-corners making analogies about the Kennedy assassination; seismic scientists squinted under bright lights and admitted that their data was incomplete. Viewers called in and spoke in shaky voices about drinking water, electricity, missing pets, fear, and the book of Revelations. By late afternoon I was pacing around in the Poulos basement, shooting a disjointed game of pool against myself. I could never finish without the balls getting jostled by aftershocks.

That evening in a moment of paranoid boredom I resolved leave: to drive to the desert and check up on my friend Josh in Valencia. Against the advice of Dr. and Mrs. Poulos, I fired up my van and left Los Angeles.

I made it as far as the San Fernando valley before a row of orange cones sent me off I-405 into some of the worst-hit sections of Northridge and Sylmar. Entire neighborhoods sat in a spooky, siege-like blackness as we crept through the epicenter war-zone. National Guardsmen in full combat regalia patrolled the streets, clutching M-16 rifles and eyeing license plates. Brick fences lay uniformly flattened. Water from broken mains rushed through the gutters. On Balboa Boulevard, an office building had crumpled, crazily squashing out its own first floor. Gas-main fires had blackened and pocked stretches of ground like fiery acne on Northridge's face. Cops with flashlights waved me through dead-stoplight intersections.

I thought I might have a smooth, slow transit into Valencia until a National Guardsman shined his flashlight into my face and told me that the route to the Santa Clarita valley was closed. He waved me down another blackened street into a neighborhood full of cul-de-sacs where I wandered lost for an hour. Front yards in this neighborhood had become tent colonies, and residents sat in front of their ruined houses and stared blankly as I drove by. The whole neighborhood looked useless, like an oversized closet of broken toys. When I finally stopped and asked a woman for directions, she spoke in a tiny, ghost-like voice, as if she were saving her breath for fear of another jolt. The yard behind her was stacked with hastily-salvaged possessions, her house charred black at the windows.

Eventually I made my way into Valencia and located Josh's apartment complex around midnight. I parked my van at the curb, since all the gravel-topped carports sagged and wilted toward the ground, as if they had been roofed with bed-sheets.

Josh is a film student, and his living room was a mangled chaos of borrowed cameras, carts, electrical cords, capsized light-stands, notebooks, splintered wall-hangings, and furniture. His huge player piano was gouged into a wall across the room. Every time an aftershock hit, the apartment swayed around like a wooden box in the surf. I pushed aside some of the mess, spread out my sleeping bag, and slept amidst the disarray of the living room.


I stayed with Josh for nearly a week. We jokingly referred to each other as "victims" the whole time, and in a way I guess that's what we were. Josh is an Oregon native who looks like a TV sportscaster, talks like a diplomat, drinks a gallon of Coke a day, attends church regularly, and has the single-minded motivational skills of a cult-leader. Although the aftershocks continued at regular intervals throughout the week and most of the apartment tenants abandoned their units for tent living at the Cal Arts campus Josh somehow convinced me that there was no danger in immediately making his apartment livable again. As military helicopters thumped their way across the sky toward unseen duties, we threw open the doors to the unlighted apartment and went to work. We reorganized the film equipment and swept the floors, then re-hung all the wall-hangings most of which fell down again during the aftershocks. We tossed the broken kitchenware into the rubble piles in the parking lot. One room was littered shin-deep in film reels, antique projectors, screenplays, story-boards, still photos, an old Bolex camera, super-8 films, and various elements of a homemade film editing setup. We spent two days making sense of everything.

Even the most basic functions required creativity. To use the toilet, we had to bring pitchers of feathery green water up from the duck pond in the outside courtyard and pour them into the commode. Bottled water was nearly impossible to find, so we subsisted primarily on two cases of kiwi-lime soda donated by an aid station. For supper, we warmed up cans of Spaghetti-O's on my camp-stove. Josh immediately went to work on the problem of bathing. With all the meticulous detail of a Hollywood producer, he took to the mangled phone lines every morning trying to locate showers for the day. We traveled as far away as Palmdale in the pursuit of functional plumbing. Josh had run out of options by the third day, so he pulled out his file of acting portfolios and landed us showers at an aspiring actress's apartment in Burbank.

The direct route to Burbank had bee rendered impassable, so we crept along desert back-roads amongst a huge snarl of LA-bound traffic. Despite the chaotic conditions, most people were remarkably patient and cheerful. At dead-stoplight intersections, drivers politely yielded to one another. At one point, where traffic was forced to a crawl by a narrow canyon road, a couple of kids went car-to-car selling cans of Pepsi for a dollar.

It took us so long to get into Burbank that we decided to stay in the LA area for the day and salvage the afternoon with some generic Hollywood tourism. We parked off Hollywood Boulevard and wandered around for while, but nearly everything was shut down. Eventually we narrowed our agenda to finding a drink of water but this proved fruitless, as the entire LA tap-water supply had been declared unsafe. After a while, we actually began to crave our kiwi-lime "victim soda." We went to Mann's Chinese Theater hoping to get soft-drinks, but instead we got free tickets to a taping of the "Leeza Gibbons Show." Unfortunately, we got onto the wrong RTD bus on our way to the studio and ended up riding north to Van Nuys with a bus full of laborers headed home for the day. The earthquake had rendered the Hollywood landmarks irrelevant, and everyone stared out at the new attractions: boarded-over stores with "open" spray-painted onto the plywood; patrols of armed National Guardsmen; piles of rubble.

By the time we figured out that we were not anywhere close to the "Leeza Gibbons Show," our bus had come to the end of its line, and we had to catch another bus back to Hollywood. It was late when we arrived, and we decided to go to a Taco Bell drive-through for dinner. "Where the hell have you been?" the Taco Bell voicebox squawked when we asked for water with our food. "Don't you know there's been an earthquake?"

We didn't get water, but for some reason Taco Bell gave us nearly fifty packets of hot sauce. Stirred to callous absurdity by the events of the say, we drove through the snarled LA rush-hour traffic yelling at people out the window.

"Where the hell have you been?" we yelled at pedestrians. "Don't you know there's been an earthquake?" After this got tiresome, we changed our slogan to "Don't eat the fish!"

Perhaps not understanding us, perhaps identifying with our delirium, a surprising number of pedestrians yelled back, or gave us the thumbs-up. Encouraged by the response, we continued into downtown LA for more sloganeering. In one particularly seedy neighborhood, I leaned out the window and asked a transvestite hustler what I could get for four packets of mild. He blew me a kiss with his extended middle finger.


We returned to the apartment that night and never did attempt another foray into Los Angeles. On our final afternoon in Valencia, we went down to the duck pond to loll in the sun and watch the mild aftershocks ripple the water. The management had prohibited wading, but three little Mexican boys made the most of the situation by skimming the water's edge for insects. Whenever one of the kids caught a bug, he would show it to his companions, then triumphantly squash it into the pavement. The mother a slim, pretty girl who didn't look much older than I sat stiffly in a metal folding chair nearby, never taking her eyes off the water. Whenever a tremor shook the pond into a cluster of little waves, she winced. Despite her children's small, gleeful victories over nature, I sensed it would be a while before she would trust the earth again.

Five days after arriving in the Santa Clarity valley, I did something that few other people who had weathered the earthquake could do: I left, and took my home with me.


Sitting here in this Joshua Tree desert, I look up at the hovering clouds and see something that resembles a bull, floating its way overhead. The bull drifts west, where the clouds have laced themselves together at the edge of the sky, dissolving the horizon into mystery. Not a mystery of the unknown but a mystery of the familiar, of places already traveled.

Reality resists triangulations and formulas. In the end, reality becomes a choice a decision after the fact. I am tempted to add up the extremes of the earthquake the dull horrors and the absurdities and pass them off as cloud-like aberrations, manifestations of the surreal melting clocks and fur-covered teacups in an otherwise ordered gallery. But then, surreality only occurs when we believe too much in reason and order, time and space, predictability and consistency. Civilization is surreal, not earthquakes. And when we derive too much meaning from the manifestations of civilization we sometimes find ourselves in a meaningless world.

The olive-drab desert which surrounds me now communicates the same idea: it vetoes the constructs and intrusions of man. There are no horrors or absurdities here because the desert does not allow us to fool ourselves in the first place. Perhaps like Job in the Old Testament we have missed the point: we have looked for answers and received only a reprimand. Unlike good or evil, randomness carries no antipode only a blank expression.

Consequently, we discover that the only way around randomness is to return full-circle into a world of oversized Greenlands to ignore this blank expression as it ignores us: to live by faith. It makes for an odd compromise this faith and it requires that we use it with caution that we resist the urge to glance skyward and brazenly conclude that clouds are bulls.


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