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.