November 09, 2017
Here is a photograph, undated. Jimmy Wallet is seated, his face turned, the sharp lines of his chin and jaw like an alligator that doesn’t bite. He’s terrifically handsome, with a boyish nose and cheeks, a sly smile, a little patch of beard below his lip, long black dreadlocks past his shoulders. His oldest daughter, Jasmine, sits next to him. People say she should be a model. Hannah is sprawled across Jimmy’s lap, looking at the camera, laughing, Jimmy’s hand covering her stomach. Behind him are his two younger girls, Raven and Paloma, and his wife, Mechelle. Raven looks up to her mother, who is turned and kissing the baby, her lips against Paloma’s mouth and nose. It’s a perfect picture, and soon it will be all over the news.
Jimmy Wallet is in motion now. He’s walking to the store. He has a loping, lazy, long-legged walk, arms bouncing near his waist. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a sleeve- less leather vest. The day is serene. Jimmy breathes deep, smells the Pacific, the sage from the hillside, the jasmine from the yard. When he left Mechelle, she was cleaning up the house, packing boxes, organizing the children’s things. There’ve been tornado warnings, and Mechelle is worried they’ll have to evacuate. The three younger girls were on the sofa when he left. Jasmine is in Ventura with her boyfriend. Mechelle told him on his way out, “I need some milk crates or something so we can organize.”
So he’s looking for milk crates, and he plans to buy ice cream for his little girls. Some people say Jimmy gives his children too much ice cream, but he doesn’t care. Every good father knows that children need ice cream. He takes the opportunity to light a cigarette. He’s been trying to quit, but not today. The cigarette tastes good. If he takes his time, he’ll be able to have another one. He checks out the sky, which is mottled in patches of soft blue. It’s been raining for weeks. Dark clouds linger over the ocean and beyond the avocado trees looming six hundred feet high on the edge of the cliff abutting La Conchita, a tiny town of 250 people between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Maybe the good weather is coming back. Maybe he’ll take the girls to look for arrowheads later. This area once belonged to the Chumash, and when rain washes down the hillsides, there are secret pockets where you can find artifacts if you know where to look.
It’s January 10, and the world looks surreal. The sun dips in and out of shadow, casting a filmic light across the town. The lawns are wet and look like they’ve been brushed with glaze. The damp air carries a cool salt breeze. In the distance Jimmy can just make out the Channel Islands and the oil tankers sitting on the water, all of it hooded in fog. And there are no birds. Today all the birds are gone.
Jimmy reaches the store and throws his arms in the air. CLOSED. It’s the only place in town to get liquor, gas, ice cream, the basics. The store is located at the entrance to La Conchita, a precarious left turn off the 101 Highway heading south. The gas pumps are on Surfside, the first of the town’s two streets that run parallel to the highway. Jimmy and his family live on Santa Barbara, one of eleven short streets that crosshatch the town. The house is just below Rincon, the higher of the two long streets, closer to the cliff. Not quite against it. A block up the hill is a row of houses destroyed in a landslide ten years ago. Those houses still stand, never rebuilt, the roofs collapsed, beams poking from hills of dirt.
“Hey, Gator,” says Brie. “What are you doing?”
Her hands are tucked in her sweat jacket, her hood down. She lives with her boyfriend, Isaiah, in the same house as Jimmy, up- stairs in the crow’s nest. Isaiah’s father, Charlie, built the room, all four walls made of windows. Brie’s twin sister, Annie, lives with her boyfriend, Griffin, in an Airstream out back. Brie stands with Isaiah and his brother, Orion, and a half dozen others.
“It’s closed,” Jimmy says, jerking his thumb toward the gas station and extracting another cigarette. He gives Brie a look that says: Can you believe it? But then he remembers why everything seems so strange: the highway is closed, which explains the store being closed. The 101 straps against La Conchita like a tight belt, a four-lane concrete barrier between the town and the beach. Normally, the white noise from the thousands of cars rushing between Santa Barbara County and Los Angeles is as constant as a sky without seasons. You live in La Conchita, you learn to ignore the highway. You look west and you see the big blue ocean and maybe some caps from the turning surf, but you never even see the cars.
But today there are no cars at all, and that gets Jimmy’s attention. No cars, no birds. At two points north of town, water accumulated on the upslope faster than it could drain out; the mud funnelled down from the canyons and poured over the railroad tracks, onto the highway. Geologists call it a soil slip, a debris ow no deeper than the roots of plants. Still, the slush is two to four feet high in some places. More than fifty vehicles, including a passenger bus, are stranded. A UPS truck is buried to its window. A Honda minivan that had been floating toward a drainage ditch has been lassoed, its side-view mirror looped with twine and staked to the ground. Three command transports from the re department are there, including the specialized swift-water res- cue team. The swift-water guys wear wet suits and carry a Zodiac in case they decide to do a water evacuation.
In La Conchita it’s like a silent holiday. There are children out, playing in the road. It’s Monday; those children should be in school. But no one’s driving anywhere today. People who would normally be at work in Santa Barbara or Ventura are milling around, riding bicycles, sitting on their porches. A few La Conchitans have crawled through the four-foot drainage tunnel that runs beneath the highway and connects the town to the beach. A group of maybe fifty is down by the tracks, rubbernecking at the rescue site. But by 1:15, after more than six hours, the operation is coming to a close. The stranded motorists have been helped through the mud to a waiting sheriff’s bus and trans- ported to a shelter. The Ventura police department is clearing the cars.
A news crew covering the rescue resets its cameras just down the street and starts doing man-on-the-street interviews. A helicopter passes overhead, swooping up the slope and disappearing behind the ridge. Jimmy cups his cigarette in his hand. He’s stalling now. One more cigarette and he’ll go home.
“We should have dinner on the beach later,” someone suggests to Jimmy as he slides the cigarette between his lips. Dinner on the beach—why not?
A child throws a ball high in the air. An artist who lives three doors down from Jimmy leaves pasta to boil for her two children and stands on her porch, staring across the empty highway to the water.
“Look,” someone calls. “There’s dirt coming down.”
Jimmy and Mechelle have been in La Conchita only three months. They met at Ventura High School when they were both fifteen and have been almost inseparable ever since. It was adolescent infatuation that never faded. They married just out of high school and had their first child at twenty-one. They’re thirty-eight now and still in love.
But the previous year had been hard. Jimmy suffered a back injury on a construction job and has been out of work. He didn’t belong to a union; there was no insurance, no benefits. There was no money, and the family had nowhere to live. Mechelle left him, took the girls and moved in with her grandmother. Jimmy moved in with friends in Pierpont, sleeping on couches. He stayed out late, got in trouble with the police.
Somewhere in that time Jimmy hit bottom. He had no work. He’d lost his wife and his children. It seemed like every morning he woke on a different couch. He called the best man he knew: Charlie Womack. He asked if he and Mechelle and his daughters could maybe come stay with Charlie and his family in La Conchita. Charlie’s answer: “What took you so long?” Jimmy laughed, relieved, and said he’d just been waiting for the right time. To make room for the Wallets, Charlie moved himself into the teepee in the yard. Then he got Jimmy back to work in his construction business.
But that’s Charlie: the biggest heart in Ventura County. Fifty years old, tall and rangy, a musician and a DJ, a legend in the sur ng community for his contributions to the design of the five-finned Bonzer board (and for being the first surfer to ride it), Charlie moved into his house in La Conchita seven years ago and right away set about making it his own. He laid flagstone tile in the kitchen and mixed concrete with orange stain for the counters. He installed a six-burner stove with a hood and a beer fridge outside. He built decks surrounding the house, tended guava trees, brought in a wooden hot tub from 1972. His children— Orion, twenty-six, Isaiah, twenty-five, and Tessa, fourteen—live with him and revere him possibly even more than his friends do.
Also notable on Charlie’s property is a lime-green bus, a beast of a vehicle with yellow and red stripes and a string of dancing zebras. There’s a gigantic deck on top—the best place in La Conchita to watch the sunset—and a recording studio inside. This year Charlie intends to take the bus to Burning Man. Jimmy and Charlie sit out there at night singing songs, Jimmy on bass, Charlie playing guitar. Isaiah joins them sometimes, and some of the neighbors too. Nobody ever tells them to keep it down.
Twelve people live on Charlie’s property, sometimes more. Charlie’s nickname is Llama, like the monks, and they call them- selves the Llama Tribe. Brie does most of the cooking on Charlie’s giant stove. She loves to cook: roast chicken for Charlie and Isaiah, homemade marshmallows for the kids. Mechelle helps. Christina Kennedy from across the street often brings the food.
That’s La Conchita. Some people down the road in Ventura say it’s nothing but weirdos and hippies, but that isn’t entirely true. The town has an undeniably loose vibe, but most people have jobs: lawyers, electricians, schoolteachers, surfers, engineers, musicians. There’s no crime; you can leave your door open at night. Mike Bell, the unofficial town mayor, a retired safety coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, carts a wagon down the streets and hands out margaritas. People call him Margarita Mike, and he’s friends with everybody.
Jimmy and Mechelle are happy here. They t in. When Mechelle’s not homeschooling her girls, she makes vegan cakes that she sells all over the county, or silk-and-velvet eye rests filled with flaxseed and lavender, to help people sleep at night. Hannah sews, like her mother, makes clothes for her Barbie dolls. Two- year-old Paloma is learning the drums. She’s decided to marry Isaiah but tells Brie she can still live with them.
With Charlie’s help, Jimmy has put his life back together in La Conchita. The two of them build frame houses together, pouring concrete for the base, laying foundation, putting up walls. When Jimmy isn’t working, he lifts Hannah on his shoulders and cruises town with his little girls, Raven carrying a longboard that’s twice as long as she is. Everybody waves at them; it’s like
being on parade. Jimmy calls it Never-Never Land, a paradise for his children.
Beach parties, surfing, community. Sunsets like lipstick on cotton. Whales from your bedroom window. The last place in Southern California a poor man can live with a view of the ocean.
Monday, 1:20 p.m. First a snap, then a pop of white smoke.
The landslide takes eight seconds.
The soaked hillside detaches from the scarp, breaking apart as it tumbles at speeds up to thirty feet per second, dust like smoke above a viscous four-hundred-thousand-ton slab of earth. A collective gasp escapes from the crowd watching the rescue operation. The mud moves like a cement river, makes noises like airplanes piercing the sound barrier, runs like thick soup down the slope, into the retaining wall. The ow rams the wall and shoots thirty feet in the air before blasting through the structure’s center, simultaneously diverting south toward Jimmy’s family. Power lines slap together; a flash crackles above the mud.
“Look out!” yells John Morgan.
Kyle Larson had been loading some things into his car on Rincon. He hears Morgan’s scream and takes off down the hill. Greg Ray, who had been helping Kyle, dives between two cars. A trailer spins over the top of him and flattens the vehicles down to the wheels.
Jimmy and Isaiah sprint toward their home.
The mud fills houses, and the houses pop like water balloons. The slide carries trailers and cars as easily as paper. Below the surface, the trapped vehicles operate as blades, clearing the land of human debris. Phone poles buckle and fall. Everything lifts from, then sinks into, the ground, like fruit in a blender. Countertops crash through garages, dressers spin over shingles, cars ride
upside down across a tide of broken windows and floorboards. Jimmy and Isaiah keep running.
A bus turns over just yards before Jimmy. Mud cakes its fender. Earth plasters its bent grille. Streets disappear beneath mud twenty and thirty feet deep. A roof collapses. That house belongs to Diane Hart, Jimmy’s neighbor. Isaiah and Jimmy scramble up the caved-in roof, onto the top of the mound.
“No, no, no.”
Firemen rush up from the highway, their heavy jackets flapping at their knees. Jimmy digs into the earth, searching for his family. He reaches as far as he can, but it’s almost impossible to get his hands in. As quickly as it fell, the mound has hardened into a dense mass, heavy as granite. His hands fill with splinters and stones as he pulls rocks and beams from the wreckage. Nothing is where it was before.
An eight-hundred-foot shelf of land, pushed up from the ocean eons ago and pounded with near-record rain for two weeks. Most of the rain ran off, leaving the front of the mountain dry and hard beneath its thin, wet surface. But farther up the hill, the water seeped through fractures left from the ’95 slide and soaked behind the scarp like a garden hose filling a swimming pool, raising the groundwater level, saturating a weak layer of clay beneath the mountain. When the mountain failed, it was like a battering ram on ball bearings, the fluid clay deep below the surface carrying the heavy, dry earth above it. It was only a matter of time—the young rocks, the weak material, the near-vertical face, the steep scarp left from 1995, pressured from the ocean like a rug pushed across a hardwood floor, a tug-of-war between tectonics and gravity, the long folds of earth struggling toward their angle of repose.
Search-and-rescue teams are dispatched from Moorpark and L.A. County, the hulls of their vehicles filled with aluminum shoring, video equipment with collapsible necks, gas sensors, wedged cribbing, sound-monitoring devices. The site is quickly divided into disaster zones; round-the-clock support is initiated. Natural gas leaks from pipes twisted like licorice while gasoline spills from vehicles ripped open like sardine cans.
Isaiah hears moaning inside the pile and reaches through the wood, splinters digging into his forearm. Isabel Vasquez, who was visiting a friend, who doesn’t even live here, is pinned beneath an armoire, trapped against an exterior wall. She grasps Isaiah’s hand.
Others are saved too. Diane Hart, a nurse, buried in a closet stuffed with pillows she had made to protect herself from tornados. Kyle Larson, a photography student, moments ahead of the mountain, survives only because of John Morgan’s scream and the thick traction of his heavy fishing boots. Greg Ray, a retired Disney animator, was wedged between the battered trailers and cars in a space no larger than a coffin. He’s pulled from his tomb after three hours.
There are early casualties: Tony Alvis, who led tours on horseback and was said to have known the Los Padres National Forest better than any man alive. Christina Kennedy, who had been putting the final touches on a BMW she had rebuilt in her front yard. Vanessa Bryson, who was supposed to have left town today for a new job at an AIDS hospital in Seattle. And John Morgan, a quiet but friendly man who’d tended the grounds at the naval yard for thirty years and who allowed homeless men to park on his property.
Jimmy digs until he is exhausted, hair matted and soaked with sweat, his arms burning, folded over his knees, working above cracked timber on the perimeter, then throwing a piece of roofing at one of the many camera crews that have descended on the tragedy. “If you’re not going to dig,” he shouts, “then go away.”
The sheriffs seal off the area. Late at night, Jimmy thinks he hears his daughters crying. Monitors are inserted into the ground, electronic ears listening for whispers of heartbeat. Nothing. The geologists say if it rains again the mountain will move, and at eleven the rain returns. Arc lights set above the mounds blur the stars, blending day into night.
Jimmy brings six friends from Ventura, and they help him dig all night. Early in the morning, he drives Jasmine back to her boyfriend’s place, and when he returns to La Conchita, he’s arrested trying to re-enter the area. He’s forced down the road in hand-cuffs, crying, “My family is in there. I’ve been digging for two days!” The battalion chief on duty decides to allow Jimmy to continue with the rescue efforts. When a sheriff warns him that it’s dangerous, Jimmy replies that he doesn’t care if he dies.
On the second day, prison crews arrive in neon jumpsuits. Heavy equipment rolls in. Bulldozers and tractors scratch the mound, searching for spaces. When a void is found, the machinery stops and the prisoners operate in human chains, extracting buckets of earth. Isaiah and Jimmy are allowed to work alongside them. Residents who have left La Conchita to sleep with relatives and friends in Santa Barbara and Ventura sneak back into town along a trail from Rincon Beach.
Thirty hours after the mudslide, hope is all but gone. The birds have returned, but how did they know? The last rescue was made more than twenty hours ago. Dogs troll the earth, snouts pressed into the ground. These are not rescue dogs. They’re trained to smell cadavers. But the air reeks mostly of mineral deposits ripped from the cliff.
Late Tuesday, Jimmy finds Raven’s shoe. Just before he went out for ice cream, he had tucked a jacket over his youngest, placed his bass guitar next to her, and given her a book. Raven liked to feel she had her own space. She was different from his other daughters, louder. Blond hair and blue eyes, like her mother’s father. When she was born she wasn’t breathing and had to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She’d been talking ever since.
No man should survive both his wife and children. Jimmy lies in the street and prays.
In the end, there are ten rescues and ten fatalities. Jimmy and Isaiah are credited with saving two lives. Charlie Womack is found dead a few minutes before eleven p.m. on Monday night. Mechelle Wallet is found late Tuesday night and identified by Jimmy at two a.m. Wednesday morning, mud caked on her lips and in her long black hair, her pale skin like plaster.
Hannah, Raven, and Paloma are the last victims to be found. They are next to each other beneath the purple couch they had been sitting on, exactly as Jimmy said they would be. The bodies are brought to the gas station, which had been turned first into a triage center and now into a morgue. Jimmy leans in to smell his children. He presses his nose against their faces. They smell like the dirt and rock of the landscape around them.
There’s a ranch house in Carpinteria, California, five miles north of La Conchita on the 101. Jimmy Wallet lives here with Isaiah and Brie, Annie and Griffin. Brie’s fourteen-year-old brother, Justin, lives in the house, and so does Charlie’s youngest daughter, Tessa, also fourteen. There’s a room for Jasmine too. Jimmy hopes she’ll move in—she’s only sixteen, after all—but for now she chooses to stay with her boyfriend in Ventura. It’s a small house for the survivors of the Llama Tribe, with one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a small yard in the front where they can see the green mountains in the distance. They’ve planted flowers in the front yard. A friend of the family has given them four months of rent for free. The owners are planning on tearing it down within the year.
Brie has lost her taste for cooking, so they eat out a lot. When they sit in restaurants, people point and whisper: Are those the mudslide survivors? So terrible. They don’t fit in here. Carpinteria is a quiet, affluent community with shopping malls and quaint restaurants. It’s a nice place, but you wouldn’t sit on your porch playing music late at night. The engraved wooden sign that greeted visitors to Charlie Womack’s house—MUSIC IS LOVE—now sits in their living room, which is also a bedroom.
By ten p.m. every night the house is dark. Early in the morning, someone takes Tessa and Justin to school. Twenty-five-year-old Isaiah is the father now, head of the household, responsible for the children and keeping the tribe together. He’s good at it, kind of like his dad was, but a little more practical. He’s returned to working on a construction truck and is fighting to keep custody of his little sister. He watches over Tessa’s schoolwork, and her grades improve from Ds and Fs to As and Bs. He teases her, and she reminds him he’s not supposed to do that anymore, he’s the adult now. “Oh yeah,” he says, messing her hair. “That’s right.”
A lumberyard nearby has offered to donate wood. Isaiah hopes they can persuade someone to give them land so they can build their own house. They dream of moving back near the mountain.
Jimmy’s hair is turning gray. The walls of his room are painted earth red and covered with Buddhist drawings and pictures of his children. There are sticks of willow on the ceiling, which are supposed to keep bad spirits away. He’s been reading books on death and dying, books of poetry, books on spirituality: Highest Yoga Tantra, Tara the Feminine Divine, The Book of Buddhas. He’s trying to homeschool himself the way he and Mechelle taught their children. He wants to write poetry but can’t seem to get it on the page. Instead he speaks his poems to his friends and asks them to remember.
He wears his grief on his outside. It’s hard sometimes to breathe. He searches for other people who have suffered a similar loss but can’t find anybody. His mind floats back to one day in late December. The children were asleep. He and Mechelle were lying in bed, watching footage of the tsunami in Asia, feeling awful for the people on the other side of the world watching their kids float away. They held each other for comfort and they cried. At the time, the rains were just getting started in La Conchita.
One night Jimmy almost gets in a fight at a bar in Ventura when a drunk off-duty fireman tells him he wouldn’t help the people in La Conchita, because they’re living at their own peril. “I would help you,” Jimmy replies, a friend tugging at his arm, trying to keep the two men separated. “I would die for any person in this bar.”
Some people say Jimmy’s doing well, all things considered. As good as can be expected. Some say he hasn’t changed at all, he’s still spiritual, he’s still full of love. He tries to reassure the people around him. But Isaiah worries about him, talks about taking him somewhere so he can get his head straight. He’d like to take Jimmy to Hawaii or Mexico for a little while but can’t imagine how.
Jimmy doesn’t remember where he goes during the day; he doesn’t have an answer for the question of how he spends his nights. He leaves Carpinteria for days at a time. He says every- thing just blends together since the mudslide. He knows he visits Jasmine. And he knows he spends time on the hill.
One night in mid-March, Jimmy pulls the covers and rises from his bed. He gets in his car, gets on the 101, and heads south. The air is cool. He passes an oil plant, its chimney shooting a flame into the night. As he rounds Rincon Beach, a blinking yellow light announces the intersection ahead. He pulls into La Conchita.
More than half the residents have returned, despite warnings. Several days after the mudslide, a journalist asked one of the residents why he lived in La Conchita; the man just pointed west to the Pacific. The reporters are gone now; the houses are dark. There is only the sound of birds and the ocean and the steady whine of cars below. A fence encircles the disaster area, which covers about a quarter mile. Inside the fence, buttressing the mountain behind it, hills of mud and debris rise twice as high as the roofline.
Jimmy lifts the fence at its edge, squats close to the ground, one hand in the dirt, and slips inside. On top of the nearest mound are two yellow-and-red sections of his daughter’s playhouse, held in place by rocks. At the bottom of the piles are toys: a rubber ball, a plastic doll, a torn-up football. The fence is covered in flowers and decorated with red ribbon that spells HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PALOMA. Brie and Isaiah tied it there on March 15, which would have been her third birthday.
This is where he feels most comfortable, where everything was going so well, near his children, the mountain at his back, the ocean spread out in front of him. He comes here almost every night.
Early spring, early morning, and there are already a half dozen surfers in the water. The waves are six to eight feet and seem to run perpendicular to the shore because of the shape of the cove. The water crosses itself, with one set of waves rolling toward the harsh rock outcropping as another set moves in a broad arc toward the beach. The land below the highway in this part of Ventura County curves at nearly ninety degrees, creating a perfect break, provided you don’t stray too far from the cove and get washed across the rocks. Just beyond the pier is the beach attached to La Conchita, the small path beneath the highway its only access point.
A blanket of dark clouds is gathering. The rain may be coming back. A young girl, no older than ten, her hair loose and free, catches wave after wave in the cove. She cuts through the other surfers, riding the water’s sharp edges away from the shore, toward the islands in the distance. She disappears in a tunnel of bright water, then appears again, the ocean bubbly white beneath her. Finally, the wave curls into itself, and the child is flicked from her board like an ant from a lunch table. No match for nature, she spreads her arms wide, a long, thin band attached to her ankle. The board tilts up, dives into the surf. The girl disappears, then emerges moments later.
—Ventura, California, 2005
STEPHEN ELLIOTT is the author of The Adderall Diaries and Happy Baby, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. He is the founding editor of the Rumpus and the director of the movies About Cherry and After Adderall.