Canyon Sin Nombre. "We're going in there," Schad said excitedly, indicating an opening between two rock faces, and then we parked.
  • Canyon Sin Nombre. "We're going in there," Schad said excitedly, indicating an opening between two rock faces, and then we parked.
  • Image by Frank Glaser
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The narrow opening of the mud cave was nothing but a slot in the rock, barely wide enough for my shoulders. If you didn't know it was there, you'd never know it was there.

We're going into that?" I said.

Large areas of ground had taken on the appearance of cracked pottery, and we got an even greater sense of how water and wind and time had come to contour this unusual land.

It was deep, and dark, and after five steps, you couldn't see a thing. I used my hands and shuffled at a turtle's pace.

The walls were uneven in the tight passage. You had to shimmy sideways. I leaned over right, then left, with either elbow propping me on smooth rock shelves as I crept, and I put my free hand up in front of my face, to protect myself, just in case.

Edging ahead, I could see no difference between having my eyes closed or opened, so I decided to close them. The cave hooked left, swung back right, and the whole time, the bumpy, irregular walls were no more than a few feet apart.

I kept feeling as though I'd lose my balance in the darkness. But the close walls wouldn't let me fall. The air had turned cool, quiet, still.

View from Badlands Overlook

At least I wasn't alone. My companions — one person in front and one in back — and I kept up almost constant conversation, partially out of fear, and partially because it was useful to rely on echolocation to orient ourselves.

Badlands. "To me, this is one of the many really outstanding places in San Diego County," Schad said.

"This is how bats find their way around," the man in front of me said, "by listening to their voices bouncing off the dark surfaces around them.""Mm-hmm," I answered, more to test this theory than to agree with it.

"It's immediately much cooler," the man in front said. "And of course our eyes are dazzled. But I will tell you that at some point, we will see the light at the end of the tunnel." His tone conveyed palpable excitement.

Slot canyon. At the mouth of the slot canyon, the hills had taken on a gothic appearance - ribs and spires and columns, buttresses, arches.

But the woman behind us was growing exponentially uncomfortable in the claustrophobic dark. "I'm going to turn back now," she said finally, with distinct exasperation.

Only then we heard the call, just a few feet ahead. "I can see light!" It had taken about three minutes to negotiate the dozens of feet of the wavy, constricted cave.

View of mud cave openings

We'd emerged into a chamber, 40 feet high and as wide as a big garden shed, with a cut in the rock near the roof where a light shaft went to the opposite wall. In the faint glow, I was beginning to make out shades, some shapes, my own hands in front of my face. My companions, for the most part, remained invisible.

"The unofficial name for this place is Plunge Pool Cave," the man said. I could start to see the white of his shirt.

This was the bottom of a dry waterfall. It was easy to imagine, instead of a shaft of light up there, a water jet coursing through and down to us.

Mud cave opening

We chatted as our eyes adjusted. "The dark-adaptation process in our eyes isn't completed until something like an hour after the light's gone," the man told us. "We use a different set of cells in our retinas at night, the ones that are only sensitive to black and white, the rod cells. So once the cones, which detect color, stop activating, our eyes are able to sense more in the darkness."

U.S. Parks Department map of Carrizo Badlands

This man was a photographer who specialized in photographs taken in darkness. Which was only one of his many related talents. In fact, the person who'd led me into this cave was undoubtedly one of the premier natural scientists in San Diego, Jerry Schad. The woman, whose tone had turned faintly more confident in the wider, slightly brighter space -- "We should have brought a flashlight" -- was Schad's friend, Chong Yim.

But Schad had taught us not to rely on our eyes. Nature reached us through senses other than our eyes.

To appreciate the essence of the great outdoors, perhaps the only thing better than going alone is to go with a great outdoorsman. And Jerry Schad's credentials as a hiker, biker, photographer, naturalist, and scientist are definitely great. Schad is the first person to write recreation guidebooks for the most ecologically diverse county in the United States, San Diego County. By last count, he's published 12 guidebooks, including the popular Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, and three other volumes about wilderness basics, physical science, and the California deserts. Schad, who is 57 but looks at least ten years younger, also teaches college courses in astronomy, serves as the head of the physical sciences department at Mesa College, and, as I alluded to earlier, has gained some measure of fame as a nature and astronomy photographer.

I was no more than two hours from my living room, but I was standing in a dark cave with a master outdoorsman and his friend, and we were talking about light and sound and...

"The park's trying to deemphasize the existence of these mud caves," Schad told us. "They've collapsed quite a bit over the years, so the word is that they're not really safe."

Um-hmm. The perfect thing to tell people after leading them into a cave. But Schad was the expert, and he didn't sound worried.

After a few minutes, we headed back to the light of day.

Outside, it was 75 degrees, about 4:00 p.m., a November early evening. The three of us had driven over a mile up Arroyo Tapiado, north of Vallecito Creek, in the heart of the Carrizo Badlands of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, gone into a mud cave, and lived to tell about it.

"To me, this is one of the many really outstanding places in San Diego County," Schad said.

The 4200 square miles of our county boast an extraordinary biodiversity — marine, sandy beach, saltwater marsh, freshwater marsh, lakeside, sage-scrub, chaparral, riparian woodland, oak woodland, mountain meadow, mountain forest, spiny desert, alkali desert -- all within short driving distance.

Almost a quarter of San Diego County — nearly 1000 square miles — is taken up by the desolate terrains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

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