RIDGECREST — At a back-to-school event Thursday morning, kids lined up to play a game at the Kerr McGee Community Center in Ridgecrest.
The point of the game was simple: Take a stack of cups and put the top cup into the bottom until you have returned it to its rightful position.
The competition, while not quite fierce, was palpable.
Six-year-olds dropped cups. Others struggled with the surprisingly difficult mechanics of the game, smiling guiltily as parents shouted encouraging words and recorded video on smartphones.
But the energy level of some of the participants was noticeably low.
Easily understandable, given the circumstances.
About a month earlier, many of those kids had experienced two major earthquakes — a magnitude 6.4 quake on July 4 followed by a 7.1 quake on July 5 — and in the ensuing weeks, thousands of aftershocks had rocked the surrounding area.
“Usually kids are very happy and joyful naturally, and I’ve noticed some of the kids, it’s taken a little more prodding, a little more encouragement to draw that out,” said Leon Conley, mentor coordinator for Stay Focused Ministries, a Bakersfield-based nonprofit that was running the game. “That’s probably because a lot of them are facing challenges that most of us don’t have to face.”
Conley, however, said he eventually brought out the joy.
“Oh, it was awesome,” he said. “We have video of the place literally exploding in joy and laughter and fun.”
The key may have been the encouragement Conley shouted during the game, a phrase many in Ridgecrest seem to have taken to in the aftermath of the major quakes.
“Don’t you give up,” Conley called to the kids. “Don’t you quit.”
For many residents of Ridgecrest, the damage caused by the two earthquakes doesn’t show.
Most of the buildings in the city have little evidence of the massive quakes that shook the town, and everyone seems to be going about their day as if nothing had ever happened.
Parents buy school supplies, businesses have bounced back, and kids play in a park that just a month before had held residents afraid of sleeping indoors.
But not all the damage done by the quakes can be seen.
“All of Ridgecrest is basically back to normal from the outside looking in,” said Marian Tuttle, a single mom of three whose apartment still doesn’t have water pressure. “The anxiety is gone, but the stress is still there, and we’re just trying to figure out how to rebuild.”
Rachel Ghilardi, a fifth-grade teacher at Richmond Elementary School agreed, although she said people seemed more relaxed than they had been a few weeks ago.
“Anytime you see people that you know, we always talk about it. It’s definitely something we’re all recovering from,” she said. “I’m nervous going back to school in two weeks. Because I think with my students, it’s going to be something that’s going to be a topic of discussion often.”
Bedtime has become easier for her two young children, she said. One of the earthquakes occurred right around the time her 3-year-old son went to bed, causing anxiety for weeks.
“But he’s doing much better,” she said. “He doesn’t bring it up every day like he was.”
The earthquakes did not strike everywhere equally.
While some businesses experienced only a few items falling from the shelves, others still haven’t reopened because they have been deemed unsafe by the county.
High Desert Medical and Sleep Supplies, a health materials store in a strip mall off Ridgecrest Boulevard, received almost no damage while a Dollar Tree next door was so torn up that giant chunks of its wall had been knocked loose, and a Sears on the other side of the business had flooded.
“We just had some stuff fall off the walls,” High Desert office manager Selina Galyon said. “Other than that, we didn’t have any major damage.”
While the Dollar Tree was still closed on Thursday, other businesses have reopened, including Ridgecrest Cinemas, whose roof had collapsed from the quake.
The aftershocks haven’t been able to scare any business away, and the people of the town are determined to carry on.
“You hold on, wondering if it’s an aftershock or if it’s going to continue,” Galyon said of the small earthquakes. “I think a lot more people are prepared. I know I’m more prepared now. As far as when you go somewhere you kind of look for the exits, just to be aware of your surroundings.”
School will start in about two weeks, and the residents of Ridgecrest will continue their journey toward recovery.
“Everybody has pretty much calmed down and they’re getting back to their new routine,” said Ridgecrest resident Connie Lovato, whose three grandchildren are preparing for school. “Everybody is safe. Everybody still has homes to go to. That’s what I’m glad about.”