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.”