U.S. route 395 is a geologic master class disguised as a road. It guides north from the arid outskirts of Los Angeles, carrying travelers up to Reno along the eastern thigh of the Sierra Nevada. On the path, they guide the pitch-black cinder cones of Coso Volcanic Field and the eroded blemishes of a mighty 19 th-century earthquake near Lone Pine. In winter, moves might watch steam emerge from Hot Creek, where spray boils up from an active supervolcano penetrating subterranean. About an hour from the Nevada border, Mono Lake emerges, with its bulbous and surreal mineral patterns known as tufa fortress. Even for someone with no particular interest in rocks, these are captivating, otherworldly sights. But for James Faulds, Nevada’s state geologist, they are something more–clues to a great tectonic whodunit progress in the American West. If he’s liberty, all of this, from the wastes of the Mojave Desert to the night-lit casinos of Reno, will someday be beachfront property.
For more than a century, the San Andreas Fault has been considered the undisputed blue-chip champ of large-scale deformation in the West. It is here that the North American and Pacific Plates meet, jostling for position with often brutal decisions. Eventually, the assumption exits, the thin sliver of arrive between the blame and the ocean–from the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula to the Santa Cruz Mountains–will break off from the mainland and slide northward, until LA wanders past San Francisco. But there’s at least one difficulty with this scenario: The San Andreas appears to have gotten jammed. Northwest of LA, near the town of Frazier Park, the faulting is kinked out of alignment so dramatically that many geologists suspect the pent-up tectonic strain will have to seek release somewhere else.