"One of the things you get a sense of as you enter this area is you don't see the works of humankind," said Schad. "All you see is nature. You could have been out hiking centuries ago, and when we go out hiking today, we'll see exactly the same thing. So when you're talking about towers as tall as high-rises going right through one of the most spacious parks in the nation..." And his voice trailed off in seeming disbelief.
Schad was talking about the Sunrise Powerlink, San Diego Gas & Electric's proposed 150-mile power line "to connect energy sources in the Imperial Valley to San Diego County." The utility says the line would ensure that the region will have enough power in the coming decade. But its 155-foot towers would also scar the desert wilderness.
Back in the car, we made our way a few hundred feet past the Carrizo Badlands Overlook. It was a right turn down into Canyon Sin Nombre ("Canyon Without a Name"), nothing but a sandy, rocky dirt path hemmed alternately by gentle 30-foot-high hills and 30-foot cliffs.
Schad drove a Honda CR-V with four-wheel drive on demand, and this spot was where the four-wheeling began.
If you're driving through Anza-Borrego, you're either on one of the main roads or you're bouncing and sliding along a wash. In desert parlance, a wash is a dry creek bed. Washes are full of rocks of all sizes, ridges of hard mud, and resolute stands of desert foliage. It's easy to picture water running through a wash. Everything about a wash indicates rushing water: sinuous forms, loose deposits of rocky material, lines of strata in the cliff walls. But most of the time there's no water in Anza-Borrego washes. They're more like the negatives of rivers -- to employ a photography metaphor -- which will be used in future rainstorms to develop ephemeral streams.
"This is a road that passenger cars aren't advised on," Schad said, as we bumped down into the canyon. "The wheels might slip, and we might have a hard time getting back up out of here. And there are some pretty rough sections up here for a passenger car. It may even be challenging for this one."
And if we did get stuck?
Schad laughed. "I've got Auto Club."
A single raven flapped past us in silence, pastel sky behind it. The Honda bounced and crawled through Canyon Sin Nombre.
A kangaroo rat skittered among the rocks. When I pointed it out, Schad told me we'd probably see plenty of those, as well as lizards, jackrabbits, and maybe kit foxes and coyotes. We passed a half-green mesquite shrub and clutches of small plants covered in yellow flowers, desert marigolds. The biggest plant we saw, aside from the palm trees I'll mention later -- a desert willow -- was no more than 20 feet high and wide, with a trunk as big around as my ankle.
But the most common plants, which is to say there were more than a few of them thriving here and there among the rocks and sand, were the smoke trees. Seen in backlight, smoke trees did appear like puffs of smoke. But up close, these bushy wisps were thorny and sharp.
The most extravagant display, though, wasn't provided by plants but by rocks. Desert varnish forms on many desert rocks, adding to the colors of the landscape. A chemical change involving oxygen, iron, and manganese, which occurs over the course of hundreds or thousands of years, causes many desert rocks to acquire reddish and brownish hues. In essence, the rocks are rusting in the relentless sun.
"This canyon is probably the single most amazing geologic showplace maybe in the whole county," Schad said. "There's so much here for people who study rocks. Right now we're in what used to be a streambed, and you can tell that because of the basal conglomerate layer in the rock." Schad pointed to a line of strata in the rock as we drove slowly past. "And above that, there's the less-pocked layers of finer silt where the water once brought it along."
Geologically, what's going on in Anza-Borrego is complicated. But the simplified story is, the San Jacinto Fault wandered into the area and mixed everything up. As a result, you can see every kind of rock there -- sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous -- all interspersed, ground together, and folded by the motions of a massive seismic fault.
The squiggly lines of strata laced the sides of many hills. But then, in certain areas, the hills looked more like piles of mud. And other places, the mud was cracked like dried pottery. And the types of hills -- mudlike, rocky, stratified, even bonelike -- clustered together by category. In the badlands, you wouldn't often see a mud hill next to a rocky one, or lined hills next to smooth ones, for instance.
"This terrain seems so static," Schad said. "You know, it seems absolutely frozen. But then it obviously changes, and it changes in fits and starts, great catastrophes, like floods and earthquakes, that happen in short time periods, and then it just sits there and vegetation slowly grows."
The rocks reiterated Schad's tale, jutting and waving and speaking of momentary violence followed by long periods of peace.
If Anza-Borrego were an artist, then rain was her paintbrush.
I wondered just how often water might flow in these sandy washes, and Schad told me that it was likely for at least a little water to flow in most washes every single year. "It doesn't take much rain to start a small flood out here," he said. "I came out here one time, years ago, just because I wanted to see water flowing in the desert, and I walked about ten miles on the rims of the canyons, and I could see brownish, turbid water churning through these canyons. And small sections of the sides of the canyons were sloughing off and falling into the water. Because everything is kind of muddy and silty out here."