Sitting at his coffee table, poring over a stack of topographic maps, Jerry Schad looked as happy as a kid in a comic-book store. “I’ve been trying to figure out a place in Anza-Borrego where we can go for a few days,” he said. “Hopefully, someplace I haven’t been yet.”
Trying to find someplace in San Diego County where Jerry Schad hasn’t been is like trying to find a parking place downtown: if you like adventure and wildlife and don’t mind walking for three days, you might find one sooner or later. Though Schad is about a hundred years too late to say he’s been places where no one has ever been, I would venture to say he’s been to more out-of-the-way places in San Diego County than anyone ever has; Schad is addicted to roaming remote places the way most people are addicted to comfort and TV. I don’t know if there’s a term to describe someone like Schad, but there should be. Something like “weekend transient” or “compulsive pedestrian.”
“And what have you come up with?” I wondered, suspecting his answer was likely to cost me ten pounds, perhaps two nights’ sleep, and some pain.
“Well,” Schad said with innocent enthusiasm, “there’s a canyon on the east side of the Santa Rosa Mountains I’ve been meaning to get to for some time.”
“And what’s it called?” I wondered.
“It has no name.”
As wilderness enthusiasts know, the Santa Rosa Mountains, in the northeast corner of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, represent San Diego County’s last truly great wilderness adventure. Remote, severe, and fairly difficult to negotiate, they have remained as wild and unspoiled as anything in the American Southwest. Besides being uncommonly beautiful in their own rugged way, they are also the home to as many as 500 bighorn sheep — which in itself testifies to their wildness. I listened to Schad’s description of the journey he had in mind and was soon caught up in his enthusiasm. I left the planning to him, however.
Schad is the restless, 37-year-old author of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, published by Wilderness Press in 1986. Besides being the most comprehensive guide to public lands available to hikers in the county, the book is a labor of love by a man practically obsessed with observing, thinking, and talking about phenomena of nature. By profession, Schad is an instructor of astronomy at Mesa College, and he was trained in physics and astronomy at UC Berkeley and at San Diego State. But by avocation, he’s an intrepid desert rat, fond of heat and sweat, indifferent to thirst and dehydration, positively blissful in wind and cold.
Schad’s intense curiosity about nature, and about man’s limitations there, might well kill a man less physically adept. He once hiked the entire crest of the Santa Rosa Mountains — 40 miles from Highway 74, near Anza, to the Borrego Valley — in two days. Another time he ran from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the south rim in less than four hours — a record at the time. Yet another time he rode a bicycle from Ocean Beach to Gila Bend, Arizona, in 20 ½ hours.
“Why Gila Bend?” I asked.
“Because it was 300 miles away,” he replied, as though that were reason enough.
With his scientific background, Schad has a gift for observation and an eye for detail. For him, almost nothing in nature is too trivial to take notice of. He once found two rock cairns in Clark Valley northeast of Borrego Springs, which looked as though they might have been Indian summer-solstice markers; he returned there on June 21 to observe the solstice himself and found the markers were in fact two degrees off — far too inaccurate to have been left by Indians. He talks passionately of the time he was camped on Mile High Mountain, in the Santa Rosas, and awoke by chance in the middle of the night to see the zodiacal light (the Sun’s light reflecting off dust particles or biting between the Sun and the Earth) from one horizon to the other. He notes that the honey ant makes its mound of gravel, while the harvester ant makes its mound of grass seeds. He notes that it is a west wind and not a Santa Ana that makes life in the desert uncomfortable, or that a hedgehog cactus needle makes a suitable probe for digging smaller cactus needles out of your skin.
Schad is also a habitual topophile. He maintains an immaculate collection of 7.5-minute topographic maps, covering every foot of the approximately 1500 square miles of public lands in the county, which he uses as the visual inspiration for fantasizing about foot journeys he plans to take. Schad retreats into his maps the way other people might relax with a good book at the end of the day. He compares the topographic maps to geological maps. Then he compares both of them to 19th-century maps, to see what landmarks the country’s early settlers thought were important. And eventually, after he has visited the area, he draws his own maps — or, rather, adds to the original maps, drawing in water sources, desirable routes, difficult obstacles, old trails, and other curiosities. From a hiker’s point of view, Schad probably has the most complete and detailed set of maps of the county.
Two weeks after Schad told me of the journey he had in mind, we were hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon, on the western slope of the Santa Rosas, in search of the unnamed canyon. Somewhere to the north, an arctic storm was on its way, promising snow — or even worse, wind and cold rain. But for the time being, the sky was a flawless winter blue.
We stopped along the way so Schad could make additions and corrections to his maps or point out oddities: a plant with red, orange, and yellow flowers all growing from the same stem; a pinyon pine being defoliated by a worm; an ancient roasting pit where Indians cooked the heart of the agave plant.
“What I really like about the desert is the seasons,” he said. “Fall in December, spring in February.”
Like most desert rats, Schad is enthralled with intense heat. During the summer, in 100-degree heat, he likes to head off into the desert with a gallon of water, a little food, and a sleeping pad. He’ll stay out for three days, holing up under the shade of a rock during the day and roaming about at night like some nocturnal predator. He talks excitedly of his plans to visit Death Valley in July just so he can experience what he thinks might be the highest temperature of any place on Earth.
“I read once that the ground-surface temperature at a site in Death Valley during the summer was 200 degrees — supposedly warm enough to fry an egg,” he said. “I went home and tested that claim with an electric frying pan and found that an egg heated to 200 would indeed be over easy in exactly six minutes. Actually, though” he concluded, “I recommend cooking eggs at 250, in which case they’re over easy in just three minutes.”
We continued up Rattlesnake Canyon taking a short diversion over to Rattlesnake Spring, which was the only known water source for perhaps seven miles in any direction. The spring, which is a favorite watering hole for bighorn sheep during the summer, is with yellow and white mineral deposits. One lonely-looking cottonwood tree grew near the spring. “I sat up on the hillside there in the summer once and watched the rams butting heads during mating season,” Schad recalled.
We drank from the bitter-tasting spring, filled our water bottles, then moved on. Just before dark, we made camp below a saddle on the crest of the Santa Rosas, about 4000 feet above sea level.
The next morning, after just 24 hours in the desert, I must admit I was beginning to wonder about our water situation. We had a little less than a gallon for the two of us, which maybe wasn’t so bad. But Schad’s reputation for self-inflicted torture really had me wondering what I was getting myself into. Also, just thinking about water makes you thirsty. It’s like a Chinese finger puzzle — the more you struggle, the tighter it gets. The previous night, I had lain awake for some time trying to decide if I should get up and empty my bladder or if the body might be able to absorb some small part of that moisture. I finally chose to wait until dawn.
After a light breakfast, we loaded our packs and crossed the crest of the Santa Rosas, further separating ourselves from our only known water source. We were soon headed eastward down Schad’s unnamed canyon, a broad, fairly steep, bell-shaped canyon that was perfectly quiet, still, and extremely dry. After awhile, I mentioned my concern about water to my companion.
“If we had to, we could go until tomorrow night without drinking again,” Schad said, dismissing my concern. “You know, your body can lose about 5 percent of its moisture and still be all right. Of course,” he added with detached scientific objectivity, “you might not feel too good.”
It was then that my anxiety about water became compounded by a fear that I was following a madman who actually enjoyed suffering and pain. My dehydration or eventual death would only be a passing scientific curiosity to him — something he might describe to his sleepy college students in order to keep their attention after the lunch hour.
After we had gone about two miles down the canyon, it became apparent that the upper half of the canyon was as dry as the rocks it was made from. We stopped for a break, and Schad, undaunted, pulled out his geological map to study the terrain, while I munched nervously from a bag of stale granola. Across the canyon, a woodpecker hammered annoyingly on an agave stalk. Glancing over Schad’s shoulder, I saw on the map that the area we were in was brightly colored in red, orange, and yellow: the colors of hell. “It looks like these rocks were made about a hundred million years ago,” Schad observed dryly.
“Just about the same time this granola was made,” I muttered, putting the plastic Baggie back into my pack. I picked up some fresh-looking sheep turds lying at my feet and broke them open. They were as water-stingy as the granola, now stuck in my throat.
Rather than continue down the canyon, we climbed a side ridge, hoping for a view of the lower canyon and (speaking for myself) water. But from the ridge top we saw only a smaller canyon on the other side, and it was as dry as the canyon we’d just left.
All along the ridge top, we found fresh beds where sheep had spent their nightly vigil watching for predators. The presence of sheep, however, wasn’t necessarily an indication of water nearby. During this time of year, the sheep are capable of surviving for weeks at a time on nothing more than the moisture they obtain from eating vegetation. They’ve been known to eat cholla, a cactus about as well-armored as any in the desert. They also eat the beavertail cactus — a feat I tried to imitate and was rewarded with a swollen tongue. The sheep’s favorite delicacy, at least this time of year, seemed to be the fibrous and spiny agave leaves. We saw several places where they’d been nibbling on the plants.
We continued down the ridge for a while. In the distance, perhaps 20 miles away, we could see the alluring and silvery waters of the Salton Sea. Schad wanted to press on to the lower end of the canyon, but I was stalling, instinctively trying to stay close to our only source of water, which was behind us. The canyon below soon narrowed sharply, to a point where the old metamorphic rock had eroded down to a bed of hard, new granite. I ventured to the edge of the ridge in order to peer into the canyon below us, and — “Our lucky day!” — 200 feet below was a thin, shimmering ribbon of water trickling through the sand.
It was a sharp descent off the ridge, over rotten scree, but Schad soon found a sheep trail to the bottom. As he bounded down the canyon side, he shouted back to me Schad’s Rule of Thumb: “I figure I can go anywhere a sheep can go!”
It’s a good rule — for Schad. I slid along behind him, proving I could go anywhere an avalanche could go. “Just because sheep went this way doesn’t mean sheep came back,” I shouted. But I don’t think he heard me or cared.
Once we’d reached the bottom, we filled our bellies from the cool, sweet spring, then refilled our water bottles. I was elated to have been spared a trial by dehydration, but Schad almost seemed a bit disappointed. The challenge had been removed.
The canyon bottom was a narrow, twisted gorge of white granite. Very intriguing. We soon began wandering down its path, and we hadn’t gone more than a hundred feet when we found an enormous ram’s skull. Patches of hide still clung to the brow, and the brain cavity was filled with a hardened plug of mud — the only brain necessary to meditate on eternity. Nearby we found the bleached spine and then one huge horn, which had grown nearly a complete spiral and must have weighed more than ten pounds. The matching horn was nowhere to be found.
“It’s funny how they always seem to die near water,” Schad said.
Not that the water had killed the ram (I presumed). It was just that this trickle of water perhaps 200 feet long, this tiny oasis surrounded by a very harsh world, made a good place to die.
Schad thought this ram must have been at least eight years old when it died — a ripe old age for a bighorn sheep. But a little farther on, we found the remains of a small lamb. The tiny nubbins of its horns made it look like the skull of a baby devil. A short distance away, I found the remains of another lamb. This one had died so recently that brown fur still clung to the forelegs, and the discs in the vertebrae were still pliable.
“The mortality rate of the lambs is extremely high,” Schad said. Not only are the lambs vulnerable to predators like lions and coyotes, which of course frequent these same watering holes, but the lambs are also susceptible to a lung disease the bighorn herds have acquired from domestic sheep. Back at Rattlesnake Spring, where Schad had watched the sheep during the mating season, he’d listened to them trying to clear their lungs. “Their cough sounds very human,” he recalled. “Almost like a hacker’s cough.”
I must admit it was hard for me to walk away and leave that massive ram’s horn lying in the wash. It was a powerful symbol of stamina, vigor, and survivability, and I was attracted to it in an almost superstitious way. I told Schad so.
But Schad the scientist was indifferent to my superstitions. “The idea of a souvenir sitting on my mantel never did much for me,” he shrugged. “Besides, it’s illegal to remove them from the park.”
He was right, of course. The Santa Rosa Mountains have remained wild, not so much because they are unknown or inaccessible, but because the state park’s strict regulations have preserved them as wilderness. Except for one very old and rusted tin can, a clay pottery shard, and a yellow balloon from Center City Ford in San Diego, we hadn’t encountered any sign of another human being in two days. That’s what a wilderness experience is, a relief from the meddling of man — including the hoarding of treasures and resources. I left the ram’s skull where I found it, hoping the next person who finds it will do the same.
Schad was restless to explore more territory and wanted to push on to the lower end of the canyon. But I was content to lounge around the spring, basking in the sunshine and solitude. We agreed to meet later, back on the crest.
He was born and raised in San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley, where, in the 1850s, his ancestor had been among the first American settlers. But after five generations, the pioneer spirit in his family had all but died out. Schad never went camping as a kid, and he had only driven through nearby Yosemite once. He says he was a bookworm in high school and wasn’t much interested in sports. He recalls asking a member of his high school’s cross-country team how far they ran and being astounded by the answer: “Five miles.”
Even at UC Berkeley, Schad’s experience with the outdoors was limited to riding his bicycle through the hills behind campus. But when he came to San Diego State to earn a master’s degree in astronomy, all that changed. “Some guys who lived next door to me in the dorm wanted to drive out to the desert and go for a hike in Borrego Palm Canyon,” he recalled. “Until then, about all I knew of the desert was what I’d seen from the family car, driving through the Mojave in the middle of the summer, years ago. Like most people, I wasn’t much impressed. But when I got up in Borrego Palm Canyon and saw those palms off in the distance for the first time, with the sun shining through their bright green color — something just snapped in my mind. From that time on, I’ve been a desert rat.”
As an endurance athlete, Schad’s first real passion was as a cyclist. He rode from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego several times, and with his friend, Don Krupp, he rode from San Diego to Yuma.
During that period (1975), he and Krupp co-authored 50 Southern California Bicycle Trips. Since then, he’s written a total of seven guidebooks to cycling, hiking, and running, and he has another book in the making, as well as plans for at least five more. Some of his books are self-published.
Schad’s cycling eventually led to an interest in distance running, which he pursued with the same passion he had for cycling. When he was training for the Western States Endurance Run, a hundred-mile course across the Sierra Nevada, he would regularly put in forty- or fifty-mile training runs. After he broke the previous record for running across the Grand Canyon (his record of three hours, fifty-four minutes has since been reduced to three hours, eight minutes), he wrote an article for Outside magazine entitled “Adventure Running.” That article was later developed into a book by the same name, and it received good reviews as well as much national attention.
Schad’s interest in wilderness running naturally led to an interest in backpacking, which is his current passion and the focus of his writing. When he was asked by Wilderness Press, the most successful publishers of trail guidebooks in the western United States, to write Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, he was given the perfect excuse (as well as substantial financial incentive) to visit several of the few remote places he hadn’t already been in the county.
Most of the fieldwork that went into Afoot and Afield was done running. Typically, he would spend all day running thirty miles or so of trails, carrying only the essentials in case he was caught out overnight. He would get back to his VW van at dark, make camp in less than a minute, eat an instant dinner, spend a few minutes scribbling his notes, go to sleep, get up the next morning before dawn, and do it again. He continued that pace for three days out of every week, for most of the winter of 1985 — a period he describes as being the time of his life.
The reason for Schad’s whirlwind style of seeing the country wasn’t just because he had a book to write. It’s his style of choice — the restless, can’t-see-enough-soon-enough exuberance of someone enthralled with the natural world. At thirty-seven, though, he’s realized he’ll have to slow down sometime. But that time hasn’t come yet. “Lately I’ve had this regret that I was missing something by not just sitting in one place for half an hour and letting the beauty sink in. I’ve promised myself that someday I’ll go back to see some of these places I’ve been in a more leisurely fashion. But so far, I haven’t done much of that.”
If Schad’s style proves anything other than his endurance, it’s how big this little corner of the world really is. A man in virtually perfect physical condition, devoting as much free time as his job and family will allow and running as fast as he is able, can’t possibly explore it all in ten years. And even if he could explore all of San Diego County, there’s Imperial County, northern Baja, the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Joshua Tree… “I have no doubt I could spend the rest of my life exploring California,” Schad says.
During his travels in San Diego County, he has accumulated a few scraps of odd information that might be of limited interest to anybody else — but are the inevitable waste products of a mind like Schad’s: “If the eastern boundary of San Diego county were just a few hundred feet east of where it is now, the lowest point in the county wouldn’t be the ocean, but someplace in the Borrego Valley. And if the northern boundary were just a quarter mile north of where it is now, the highest point in the county couldn’t be Hot Springs Mountain but a shoulder of Rabbit Peak.” He happily, almost compulsively, passes along such tidbits of information, assuming that everybody is as fascinated with the peculiarities of geography as he is.
But besides collecting such seemingly pointless trivia, Jerry Schad has become a most passionate advocate for the beauty and wilderness value of San Diego County’s landscape, which he believes is underrated as well as largely misunderstood. “Except for a few trails in Cuyamaca and Palomar, most people just aren’t aware of what’s really out there,” he told me. “Something like thirty percent of the county is public land open to recreational use. Probably fifty percent of the county is untouched — the way it was when we found it. A lot of our land is chaparral. Most people look at it and say, “It’s just brush.” But if they get out in it, smell it, touch it — it’s really pretty nice. Otay Mountain is a perfect example. There it is, just twenty miles from downtown San Diego. Hardly anybody ever goes there, yet it’s absolutely beautiful and has something like fifteen rare and endangered plants, which is more, I think, than anyplace in the state.”
The desert is much the same. “It looks barren, and that turns a lot of people off, unless they’ve seen it at the right time of year,” he says. “Most people driving through the Borrego Valley in the summer wouldn’t see anything that would make them want to get out of their car and walk around. Sometimes it takes a little effort to appreciate the desert.
“San Diego — and most of the Southwest — is different from, say, the Midwest and the East, where there are a lot of small settlements situated fairly close together. Here we have large metropolitan centers surrounded by vast areas of essentially wilderness. The challenge in this part of the country is to somehow preserve those wilderness areas, even though they’re within a few hours of millions of people.”
That evening Schad and I made camp in a little saddle on the crest of the Santa Rosas. To the north, we finally began to see the clouds of the storm we knew was on its way. The wind shifted sharply from the north to the west — an ominous sign — but oddly enough, our saddle, a spot Schad had found earlier in the day, was protected from the worst of it.
Shortly before we arrived at our camp, we had been walking along the crest when two huge birds swooped up from the canyon to the east of us, hovered directly over our heads for a moment, and then were gone. It took us several seconds to realize we’d just seen two golden eagles, less than fifty feet away.
At dusk the clouds darkened around the Laguna Mountains to the west. Below us, to the east, we could see the lights of Indio. “That’s where Prince Charles goes to play polo,” I said, “Except while he’s here, they change the name to ‘South Palm Desert.’”
“Over there,” Schad said, pointing to the north, “is Rabbit Peak.” A long ridge extended from the Coachella Valley (near sea level) to the top of the rugged, 6666-foot peak. “Some runners once ran from the Coachella Valley to the top of it in three hours.”
I made my bed in the lee of a stout little juniper, but Schad, fond of wind and rain and discomfort in general, made his directly on the crest. Then, dressed in parka and mittens, like some lost expedition to Antarctica, we huddled together to cook a meal of noodles and tuna, with a Kahlúa chaser.
“One thing I’ve been meaning to ask you about,” I said, practically screaming over the wind, “is how much criticism you’ve received for your books. Every time I’ve written about some out-of-the-way place, somebody is furious at me for revealing what they think is their ‘secret place.’ As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten several threatening phone calls.”
“You know,” Schad said, stirring the noodles, “I’ve never heard any criticism. I’ve never even gotten a phone call about my books.”
“Maybe that’s because your books don’t have a ‘Letters to the Editor’ section,” I said. “If they did, you’d be hearing from every crackpot in the county.”
“That may be,” Schad said. “My number’s in the phone book, though.”
The more I thought about the lunatics I’d heard from over the years, the more my adrenaline started to flow. Since Schad was the only person there, he was forced to listen while I vented my anger. “These people who think they have a secret place nobody else knows about are not only selfish, but they’re deluding themselves, I shouted. “You can bet the oil and timber and mining companies know about their little secret. And you can bet some developer, or else the government, has a plan for building a road to it. The only way to protect the few wilderness areas we have left in this part of the state is not to keep them secret, but to make sure every wilderness enthusiast in the country knows and cares about them.”
I was hoping for an argument from Schad, but all I got was, “I couldn’t agree more.”
I blew my nose and accepted a plate of noodles. “So tell me,” I said, “can a person make a living writing guidebooks?”
“Well,” Schad considered, “it’s possible. But you can’t count on it. I figure that what all my books are earning right now is about half a living. I try to write books that have a long-term value. They might need to be updated every four or five years, but most of the information in them will remain the same. I figure that over my lifetime, Afoot and Afield could earn $80,000 for me.”
“Is San Diego a decent market for your kind of guidebooks? Or is it true what they say, that San Diegans are only happy if they’re in their cars?”
“There’s certainly no lack of people who love the outdoors. The Sierra Club has close to 10,000 members here. For some reason, though, the market for guidebooks in San Diego has not been exploited. If you go to the Bay Area, there are at least ten current books on places to go hiking. In San Diego, there’s Skip Ruland’s book [Backpacking Guide to San Diego County] and mine.”
“I have no idea why somebody hasn’t beaten me to writing a comprehensive guide to the county. Afoot and Afield has had a lot of interest in the short time it’s been out. Wilderness Press tells me it’s been one of their fastest-selling books.”
(Wilderness Press confirms that Afoot and Afield in San Diego County has indeed been their fastest-selling book since it came out in July of 1986. It went through its first printing of 5000 copies in less than six months and has sold 3500 copies of its second printing.)
“Do you ever wonder what kind of people are buying Afoot and Afield or what they’re doing with it?” I asked.
“I suspect a lot of people buy it as an armchair book. They may take a few trips close to town, but they’re mostly pleased to know there are a lot of places out there, and someday they may go see them. One trend I’ve noticed, too, is that people have less time and money to go on extended trips these days; but they’re still interested in outdoor places close by, where they can go out for a day or two. That may help explain why the book is doing so well.”
After dark, when the wind settled down, Schad demonstrated his gift for not only observing phenomena in the sky but for explaining them to people less informed. He delivered an impromptu lecture on the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, lunar tides, supernovas, and finally, the origin of the universe.
Wilderness, of course, is the perfect place to observe the sky with the naked eye, which is why Schad plans to write a book about astronomy for the wilderness traveler. “The idea would be to point out phenomena which can be easily observed, like earthshine, which is the sun’s light reflecting off the earth and onto the dark side of the moon. The old folk term for that was ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms.’ You’d be surprised how many people have never noticed that. I’m amazed, in fact, by how many of my college students have never even seen the Milky Way.”
Later, as I lay awake watching the stars, I wonder about that. How could a person reach college age and not have seen the Milky Way? What does it mean about our culture, that so many people are alienated from the physical world they live in?
The things a person can learn in the wilderness are exactly the lessons our culture is not learning: the unimportance of our individual lives, the sacredness of nature, the joys of simplicity, and the rejuvenation that comes from solitude. We don’t need fewer people in the wilderness, we need more. If it takes guidebooks to get people to look at the world around them, then we need more guidebooks. And if to some people that wilderness seems crowded, maybe that isn’t because there are too many people going there, but because there is too little of it to go around.
Before going to bed, Schad and I had made plans to get up before sunrise and begin our long hike out of the Santa Rosas. At 4:30 I was still awake, watching the sky and the clouds moving in from the north. “Jerry!” I shouted.
I shouted twice more. “Jerry! Get up!”
But still there was no answer. I think a hurricane could have come in the night, and Schad would have slept through it contentedly. I finally got out of bed, got dressed, and woke him.
We had walked for nearly an hour when we decided to take a break and watch the sun come up over the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea. As far as we could see in any direction was a world Schad knew intimately: nearly every plant and mineral, every quirk in weather patterns, every animal. For those few minutes, I think he was about as close to being happy as a person gets in this life.
We didn’t say anything for a long time after continuing down the ridge. While some people approach the wilderness with their instincts and emotions, Jerry Schad tends to rely on his intellect. That’s what his background and training have taught him to do. So I think he might have been a little embarrassed when he said, without turning around, still picking his way down the mountain, “The real joy in doing something like this is being forced to live in the present. As far as you can think ahead is maybe the next hour, to where your water will be coming from. After that — who knows? There’s a real satisfaction in that.”