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.”