After dark, when the wind settled down, Schad demonstrated his gift for not only observing phenomena in the sky but for explaining them to people less informed. He delivered an impromptu lecture on the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, lunar tides, supernovas, and finally, the origin of the universe.
Wilderness, of course, is the perfect place to observe the sky with the naked eye, which is why Schad plans to write a book about astronomy for the wilderness traveler. “The idea would be to point out phenomena which can be easily observed, like earthshine, which is the sun’s light reflecting off the earth and onto the dark side of the moon. The old folk term for that was ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms.’ You’d be surprised how many people have never noticed that. I’m amazed, in fact, by how many of my college students have never even seen the Milky Way.”
Later, as I lay awake watching the stars, I wonder about that. How could a person reach college age and not have seen the Milky Way? What does it mean about our culture, that so many people are alienated from the physical world they live in?
The things a person can learn in the wilderness are exactly the lessons our culture is not learning: the unimportance of our individual lives, the sacredness of nature, the joys of simplicity, and the rejuvenation that comes from solitude. We don’t need fewer people in the wilderness, we need more. If it takes guidebooks to get people to look at the world around them, then we need more guidebooks. And if to some people that wilderness seems crowded, maybe that isn’t because there are too many people going there, but because there is too little of it to go around.
Before going to bed, Schad and I had made plans to get up before sunrise and begin our long hike out of the Santa Rosas. At 4:30 I was still awake, watching the sky and the clouds moving in from the north. “Jerry!” I shouted.
I shouted twice more. “Jerry! Get up!”
But still there was no answer. I think a hurricane could have come in the night, and Schad would have slept through it contentedly. I finally got out of bed, got dressed, and woke him.
We had walked for nearly an hour when we decided to take a break and watch the sun come up over the Chocolate Mountains and the Salton Sea. As far as we could see in any direction was a world Schad knew intimately: nearly every plant and mineral, every quirk in weather patterns, every animal. For those few minutes, I think he was about as close to being happy as a person gets in this life.
We didn’t say anything for a long time after continuing down the ridge. While some people approach the wilderness with their instincts and emotions, Jerry Schad tends to rely on his intellect. That’s what his background and training have taught him to do. So I think he might have been a little embarrassed when he said, without turning around, still picking his way down the mountain, “The real joy in doing something like this is being forced to live in the present. As far as you can think ahead is maybe the next hour, to where your water will be coming from. After that — who knows? There’s a real satisfaction in that.” ■
View Life on the Crest, Part 1