We stopped along the way so Schad could make additions and corrections to his maps or point out oddities: a plant with red, orange, and yellow flowers all growing from the same stem; a pinyon pine being defoliated by a worm; an ancient roasting pit where Indians cooked the heart of the agave plant.
“What I really like about the desert is the seasons,” he said. “Fall in December, spring in February.”
Like most desert rats, Schad is enthralled with intense heat. During the summer, in 100-degree heat, he likes to head off into the desert with a gallon of water, a little food, and a sleeping pad. He’ll stay out for three days, holing up under the shade of a rock during the day and roaming about at night like some nocturnal predator. He talks excitedly of his plans to visit Death Valley in July just so he can experience what he thinks might be the highest temperature of any place on Earth.
“I read once that the ground-surface temperature at a site in Death Valley during the summer was 200 degrees — supposedly warm enough to fry an egg,” he said. “I went home and tested that claim with an electric frying pan and found that an egg heated to 200 would indeed be over easy in exactly six minutes. Actually, though” he concluded, “I recommend cooking eggs at 250, in which case they’re over easy in just three minutes.”
We continued up Rattlesnake Canyon taking a short diversion over to Rattlesnake Spring, which was the only known water source for perhaps seven miles in any direction. The spring, which is a favorite watering hole for bighorn sheep during the summer, is with yellow and white mineral deposits. One lonely-looking cottonwood tree grew near the spring. “I sat up on the hillside there in the summer once and watched the rams butting heads during mating season,” Schad recalled.
We drank from the bitter-tasting spring, filled our water bottles, then moved on. Just before dark, we made camp below a saddle on the crest of the Santa Rosas, about 4000 feet above sea level.
The next morning, after just 24 hours in the desert, I must admit I was beginning to wonder about our water situation. We had a little less than a gallon for the two of us, which maybe wasn’t so bad. But Schad’s reputation for self-inflicted torture really had me wondering what I was getting myself into. Also, just thinking about water makes you thirsty. It’s like a Chinese finger puzzle — the more you struggle, the tighter it gets. The previous night, I had lain awake for some time trying to decide if I should get up and empty my bladder or if the body might be able to absorb some small part of that moisture. I finally chose to wait until dawn.
After a light breakfast, we loaded our packs and crossed the crest of the Santa Rosas, further separating ourselves from our only known water source. We were soon headed eastward down Schad’s unnamed canyon, a broad, fairly steep, bell-shaped canyon that was perfectly quiet, still, and extremely dry. After awhile, I mentioned my concern about water to my companion.
“If we had to, we could go until tomorrow night without drinking again,” Schad said, dismissing my concern. “You know, your body can lose about 5 percent of its moisture and still be all right. Of course,” he added with detached scientific objectivity, “you might not feel too good.”
It was then that my anxiety about water became compounded by a fear that I was following a madman who actually enjoyed suffering and pain. My dehydration or eventual death would only be a passing scientific curiosity to him — something he might describe to his sleepy college students in order to keep their attention after the lunch hour.
After we had gone about two miles down the canyon, it became apparent that the upper half of the canyon was as dry as the rocks it was made from. We stopped for a break, and Schad, undaunted, pulled out his geological map to study the terrain, while I munched nervously from a bag of stale granola. Across the canyon, a woodpecker hammered annoyingly on an agave stalk. Glancing over Schad’s shoulder, I saw on the map that the area we were in was brightly colored in red, orange, and yellow: the colors of hell. “It looks like these rocks were made about a hundred million years ago,” Schad observed dryly.
“Just about the same time this granola was made,” I muttered, putting the plastic Baggie back into my pack. I picked up some fresh-looking sheep turds lying at my feet and broke them open. They were as water-stingy as the granola, now stuck in my throat.
Rather than continue down the canyon, we climbed a side ridge, hoping for a view of the lower canyon and (speaking for myself) water. But from the ridge top we saw only a smaller canyon on the other side, and it was as dry as the canyon we’d just left.
All along the ridge top, we found fresh beds where sheep had spent their nightly vigil watching for predators. The presence of sheep, however, wasn’t necessarily an indication of water nearby. During this time of year, the sheep are capable of surviving for weeks at a time on nothing more than the moisture they obtain from eating vegetation. They’ve been known to eat cholla, a cactus about as well-armored as any in the desert. They also eat the beavertail cactus — a feat I tried to imitate and was rewarded with a swollen tongue. The sheep’s favorite delicacy, at least this time of year, seemed to be the fibrous and spiny agave leaves. We saw several places where they’d been nibbling on the plants.
We continued down the ridge for a while. In the distance, perhaps 20 miles away, we could see the alluring and silvery waters of the Salton Sea. Schad wanted to press on to the lower end of the canyon, but I was stalling, instinctively trying to stay close to our only source of water, which was behind us. The canyon below soon narrowed sharply, to a point where the old metamorphic rock had eroded down to a bed of hard, new granite. I ventured to the edge of the ridge in order to peer into the canyon below us, and — “Our lucky day!” — 200 feet below was a thin, shimmering ribbon of water trickling through the sand.