Catastrophe as Adventure

It’s not exactly a lifestyle choice, but it’s definitely a lifestyle

I know a guy who lies on the floor during earthquakes. He says it makes him feel like he’s bodysurfing on solid ground. When others run for the doorframe, he hits the carpet. I used to think he was nuts, but that was before my first fire season, when I overheard surfers hoping for 80-mph Santa Anas because of the glassy, tubular excellence of the waves they create. People who don’t live here imagine that Californians dread disaster. They’re right—and they’re also a little bit wrong.

The other day, I was driving a carpool of Laguna Beach teenagers down Bluebird Canyon when one of them mentioned the 2005 landslide. The canyon was green as we passed; the sunny sky flashed blue and yellow above us. There was—as is often the case—no sign that catastrophe had once hit here. A herd of small goats munched chaparral where, six years ago this month, seeping rainwater undermined the coastal hillside. If you didn’t know (or don’t remember the 1978 Bluebird Canyon landslide), you’d never imagine how that hill slip-slid, right out from under its houses; afterward, it looked like a colossal magician had yanked a tablecloth out from under a loaded buffet. Whole streets were destroyed or seriously damaged.

“We were in the red zone,” one of the girls said. “Our house was OK, but we were evacuated.” I asked what she most remembered, expecting a child’s-eye view of splintering timbers and stampeding residents. I thought of the news helicopters that whup-whupped over her neighborhood, a funky, bohemian place that was not nearly as ritzy as the newscasters reported.

“All I remember is sitting in a robe next to a hotel Jacuzzi,” the teenager confessed, laughing. “The hotels gave big discounts. My mom checked us all into the Ritz when they said we couldn’t go home for three days.”

This is the side of disaster CNN doesn’t cover: How quickly it can become mere adventure in your memory. You’d think Californians would be nervous wrecks, considering the number of ways the world could end here, but, strangely, the “good” parts of bad times end up being the most vivid—the weird beauty of a brushfire on the ridgeline, the comfort of your neighbors’ voices after an earthquake calling out: “You OK?”

Some say Californians are just tougher, but anyone who has ever seen us drive in the rain knows that’s not true. My theory is that there’s something about danger that takes us out of ourselves, that upends our perspective, the way—if you turn a painting upside-down—its colors suddenly seem brighter.

That, or we’re just glad to still be around when the dust clears.

“It’s called coping,” says my nurse friend Kathleen, who grew up here. The bigger the rush, the bigger the release, she once told me: “The most I ever laughed on the job was when I worked in the emergency room.”

I know what she means. The first time our home here was threatened by brushfire, we scurried like Keystone Kops. We ran through the house, grabbing photo albums, spatulas, passports, pillows, pets, duct tape. We expected a ball of flame to roll down the street at any moment. Then, abruptly, the wind stopped, and there we stood, wild-eyed and sweaty, with a pile of random junk in the doorway. I remember staring at the edge of a cake pan and suddenly being unable to suppress my laughter. Who—with her life on the line—saves a cake pan?

And who doesn’t learn a thing or two from that scramble? Because neither quake nor fire nor slide has made our reaction over the years any less frantic. In March, when the Japanese quake hit and the phone rang at 4 a.m. with a tsunami warning, we still hadn’t managed to get it together. We did, however, do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in a tsunami: We ran down to the beach and stared at the ocean.

I’d say it was scary, but all I remember is that the moon on the water was beautiful.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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