48 miles northwest
In January of 2005 a mudslide covered the beachside town of La Conchita. Known as punta until 1925, it was founded in the late 19th century by men working on the South Pacific Railroad.
The landslide destroyed thirty-six of one hundred sixty homes. Ten people died. The railroad still a vein running parallel to the city’s nine blocks and highway 101.
1,938 miles northeast
The first time I remember seeing a brick house is not the first time I saw a brick house. It was Ohio and I was nine. Block after block, the houses defied every architectural principle my Southern California upbringing instilled. I wanted ceramic tiles and palm trees, wood frame and stucco, something that would sway as the earth shifted. On the pacific plate bricks are aesthetic, winding around swimming pool edges and accenting hillside retaining walls or the occasional hearth. They did not belong upright and stacked, brick upon brick, making up a home.
Agoura Hills is located thirty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The area was first settled by the Chumash and later in the 19th century by rancheros, padres and bandidos who traveled along the El Camino Real. The historic trail runs from San Diego to Sonoma, connecting twenty-one California missions built between 1769 and 1823. It marked the first desirable rest area between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, relying on the steady stream of fresh spring water pooled at the base of Ladyface Mountain. A half-mile east is Reyes Adobe, built on land purchased in 1845 by a widow with fourteen children. It was occupied well into the next century, and frequented by travelers passing through.
In the early twentieth century it was known as ‘Picture City’ due to the establishment and success of moviemaking at Paramount Ranch. Today, Agoura Hills is home to more than twenty thousand people and six strip malls within 8.2 square miles.
18 miles east
At 4:31am on January 17th, 1994, the earth shook beneath me. Over the next hour we would learn the quake measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. That it was felt as far away as Las Vegas. Communication from the outside world came through a small battery powered radio. Outside, the city was quiet.
At dawn we ate waffles cooked on a camping stove. We sat on the kitchen floor, sheltered from aftershocks by a collection of tables taken hostage from other rooms. With light came increased visibility and new information bombarded the airwaves. Apartment buildings fell. Freeways collapsed. Damage was far worse than we imagined.
Los Angeles shut down while building inspectors scoured the landscape for damage. Homeowners feared a yellow tag, or even worse a red one, signaling the building condemned. Disaster response teams’ roamed the streets in bright yellow shirts before knocking on doors, lifting rubble, and listening for voices.
Southern California schools perform earthquake drills as often as fire drills. During a fire drill the principal speaks calmly through the PA: This is a fire drill. It is only a drill. Remember to stop, drop and roll. Follow all the teacher’s instructions. Earthquake drills resemble a script written for pilot season. This is an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. The epicenter is forty-four miles southeast near the town of Palmdale. It is strong enough to level buildings, cause significant gaps in pavement, death and widespread destruction. Get under your desk immediately. Curl up into a ball and cover your head. We will inform you when the shaking stops.
The Northridge quake left fifty-seven dead and over eight thousand injured.
28 miles northeast
Fourth grade was the year of the Missions; American History boiled down to a two-week unit so we could spend the rest of the year on California. I didn’t recognize this as strange until college brought me to the east coast. I couldn’t name more than five presidents but I could tell you that Father Serra wore wire-laced shirts, whipped himself repeatedly and bore scars into his chest with altar candles.
In late spring we went on a field trip to the seventeenth mission, San Fernando Rey de Espana. On the school bus our teacher pointed out every El Camino Real bell we passed, though no one listened. Maxine Conner kissed Bryan Fleming during R.A.D. (Reading Awakens Dreams!) the day before and the only thing anyone on the bus wondered was if they’d do it again.
I was sitting in the back of the bus with my best friend while my father was up front thumb wrestling with Bryan Fleming. I could tell by what the kids were saying that Bryan lost, repeatedly. My father didn’t let people win, even if it was the right thing to do. And he didn’t feel strange when they amended the field trip permission slips to read “We need volunteer parents!” instead of “We need volunteer moms!”
Inside the mission, we were separated into two groups: boys and girls. The girls made corn tortillas from scratch. We spent hours in the afternoon heat pounding corn meal on the stone ground. The tortilla became flatter and flatter the harder I pounded, and beads of sweat dripped down into what I knew would make up part of our lunch. I stole many jealous glances at the boys, who had been escorted to a mud pit generously shaded by olive trees. They were making adobe bricks.
28-78 miles south
On June 17, 1994 America watched Orenthal James Simpson drive his white Ford Bronco southbound on the 405. Four days earlier, when I heard about the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, I didn’t know who O.J. Simpson was. I didn’t know he was a former NFL player and was only vaguely aware Los Angeles had one football team, let alone two. Shortly the city would be stripped of both. I watched the high-speed car chase from my living room and thought how strange it was to see the freeways so empty. Days into summer vacation I thought of nothing but water balloons and bicycles, and Zuma Beach.
When Goldman moved to Los Angeles from Chicago he worked at California Pizza Kitchen on the corner of Barrington and San Vicente. My suburban upbringing left me with a soft spot for chain restaurants and years later I would frequent that restaurant twice a week with my best friend. We moved into the neighborhood unaware that our apartment was only six blocks from where the murders took place.
Summers before high school were filled with nostalgia before they were over. We spent hours at Reyes Adobe Park, though the namesake adobe hid behind a large iron gate overgrown with shrubbery and cobwebs. It was an ancient ruin among the 1970’s tract housing erected only a few decades before. We lit sidewalks on fire and told each other lies about who we thought we were. We climbed Ladyface mountain at night, determined to find her features. We returned home only to talk on the phone until dawn. By the time summer ended my parents were divorced and I didn’t return to the park for ten years.
50 miles northeast
In those years I drove to Agua Dulce to feel the fault lines beneath my feet. Agua Dulce lies southwest of the San Andreas fault, responsible for over three thousand deaths in the twentieth century and more to come. Countless production crews utilize the mars-like terrain of Vasquez Rocks as the backdrop for movies and television. Angled and ominous, the rocks jut out of the earth, visible evidence of the ground shifting below; they are named for California bandit Tiburcio Vàsquez. He fled under the same rocks I did, but wouldn’t hide for long. He was executed on March 19, 1875.
Long summer days and a mother obsessed with Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman meant many trips to Paramount Ranch. It was a short drive down the road, into a canyon full of oak trees and Panavision. Filming was open to the public, and though my mother’s Midwestern roots made her weary of Hollywood, she never tired of wandering the manufactured western town where her favorite show came to life. We were never the only onlookers, but I knew we were the most frequent when Sully and Dr. Mike nodded in recognition between takes. I knew I should have been excited by the movie magic, thrilled when they asked my friends and me to put on Cheyenne costumes and be extras in the next scene. And I should have been upset when my mother said “no” on our behalf and whisked us back to the car.
At seventeen a successful dance audition brought me to Paramount Studios. I was unimpressed to enter the famous arches and walk the same backlots as Mae West and Veronica Lake. My dream was never to stay in Los Angeles. Not to be a movie star or work behind the camera, nor to defend celebrities as a lawyer, represent them in The Industry, or get their names in magazines. In a few months I would head east. My dreams were to get out.
1,767 miles east
Ohio bonfires and train tracks in the backyard were more exciting than seeing Will Smith at Blockbuster and feeling pressured to rent every movie he’d ever made.
We can forget we remember, but we cannot forget.
Not Guilty. October 3rd 1995. I was eleven, my first year in middle school. A year of too-short shorts, too much chewing gum and too many boys. The trial had been going for eight months and my hormones for five. I kissed four boys and lied to three. Not Guilty.
Ron Goldman is buried across from Village Green Office Park, where my father started his own business twenty-two years ago. In the same cemetery I attended Easter sunrise services with my mother and over a dozen funerals, all at her insistence. In the same cemetery as my best friend’s mother.
In 2004 Reyes Adobe opened to the public as a historical site and museum. Designed to look as it did one hundred fifty years ago, the main house welcomes dozens of school groups each year. The reopening of the adobe also marked the start of Reyes Adobe Days, an annual fall festival and parade that merges history, art and community. Leading the event each year is the Grand Marshall, a position occupied not by local historians, activists, or community leaders, but by celebrity residents including Rainn Wilson and the Van Dyke family.
48 miles northwest
In January of 2005 I was back on the west coast attending the University of California, Santa Barbara. The La Conchita strip of the 101 closed to all traffic and ferry service operated between Santa Barbara and Ventura harbors, providing relief to commuting college students, academics, and wealthy riviera homeowners.
Eager to get home to Agoura Hills and in need of clean laundry and a well-stocked fridge, my best friend and I took the ferry from Santa Barbara to Ventura. The ride felt more like vacation than necessity. Coffee and tea were served to stave off the winter sea mist and a family of dolphins swam alongside the boat for most of the trip. Twenty minutes in we passed La Conchita.
The devastation was overwhelming; an entire mountainside, gone. Emergency crews worked to clear mud and debris, and dozens of volunteers in familiar yellow shirts offered assistance where they could. On deck: a moment of silence for the victims.
Ten years earlier a mudslide covered nine homes but claimed no lives. Ventura County deemed La Conchita a Geological Hazard Area. Residents were warned and development ceased. A city suspended.
71 miles north
I can almost forget the movie stars and strip malls. Salty Pacific air and not-quite-green hills overwhelm my senses.
Agoura Hills a memory.
In 2010 California tore down or replaced many of the El Camino Real bells lining the 101. Around the same time, freeway exits were given numbers over names in attempt to unify the state with the rest of the country’s system. Topanga Canyon became Exit 27B, Sunset Boulevard. no. 57, and Reyes Adobe Drive 38.
All twenty-one missions remain, visited by most fourth grade children in California. Perhaps the girls make adobe bricks now, too, shaded by olive trees as they scoop handfuls of mud into a bowl of dried grass before slowly adding water. The mixture is molded into a brick, and placed in the hot sun to dry.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alonzo