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.