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Is San Bernardino at the Edge of the World?

rim of the world highway

For one hundred years, people have driven to San Bernardino to encounter a precipice floating above the city, a highway curiously named the Rim of the World.

The serpentine highway that climbs the city's namesake mountains doesn't offer a vantage point into an abyss, as the name might suggest. It teeters over the eastern wing of the San Bernardino Valley, a yawning gulf of townships and dry riverbeds, all sliced by Interstate 10. The tallest peak in Southern California, San Gorgonio, guards the eastern skyline.

Since its opening in 1915, the mountain roadway has lured visitors with a promise of an escape, to skirt above the city, and sometimes even the clouds. I have traveled the highway, and stood on the peak of San Gorgonio, looking down on the firm ground that my relatives have called home since my great-grandparents arrived here from Mexico before the turn of the 20th century. I remember one winter on the mountain summit, when San Bernardino and the surrounding communities looked so far away, yet they drew my eyes as I peered over the mountainside, trying to spot my grandmother's small yellow house somewhere near the Santa Ana River that flows from the foothills.

On December 2, San Bernardino once again drew my eyes, and the rest of the world, as we peered through television and computer screens at a city in agony. That morning saw 14 dead and 21 injured at the city's Inland Regional Center. I watched anxiously if any family names were reported, or if I could see any familiar homes from the view of the news helicopters hovering above.

Hours after the massacre, bullets raced into the late afternoon sky. The ammunition bursting into the horizon was some of the last fired by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, from their black SUV on San Bernardino Avenue, less than two miles from the social services center. During the shootout with authorities, where 455 rounds were discharged in a residential neighborhood, a bullet pierced the leg of a police officer, wounding him, and more bullets entered the bodies of the two suspects, killing both. More choose a reckless path into nearby cars, windows, and walls of homes of panicked residents, who dropped to the floor and hoped to survive.

And a few bullets bit the sky, aiming for the thin air of the surrounding peaks, before falling back down on homes in a leaded cloudburst. A fist full of them ran into the roof of a one-story yellow home on San Bernardino Avenue. My 87-year old grandmother, Helen Medina, was inside, splayed as flat on the floor as she could make herself. The bullets missed her.

"I thought I was going to die," she remembers. Only moments before, she had been working on her Christmas cards when the gunfire began shaking parts of the house. "I thought they [the suspects] were coming to kill me."

Helen Medina in front of her home, December 5, 2015 | Photo: Daniel Medina
Helen Medina in front of her home, December 5, 2015 | Photo: Daniel Medina

For survivors like my grandmother and others that hit the ground to avoid being shot that day, the edge of the world looked like a frayed carpet, a hardwood floor, or the underside of a table. For anyone looking down that day from San Bernardino's elevated highway, the view from the Rim looked like it had everyday -- a valley floor, patterned with rooftops, street grids, and freeways.

On Friday evening, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, had a similar view from Air Force One as they descended from the skies, landing at San Bernardino International Airport. In the city, they met with families of the victims of the attack and first responders.

Afterward, not far ahead of midnight, before funerals for victims continued the next day, he remarked: "Despite the pain and the heartache that they're feeling, they could not have been...more insistent that something good comes out of this tragedy."

For now, a good start would be to push the edge of the world back from San Bernardino, to not view it as a place on the unknown fringes of a map of the known world. The cruelty that struck the families and survivors here, and the suffering that continues at other sites of mass shootings in the United States, is not isolated in an unmapped, far away realm. It is part of an abrasive narrative of violence, one that does not confront this kind of destruction head on, but rather pretends it operates outside of the frayed borders of culpability.

One day the lives of those taken and affected by violence will push the edge of the world back far enough, exposing the arc that binds us together.

Top Image: San Bernardino Valley from the Rim of the World Highway | Source: reddit.com/DumbVee

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