'In a canyon over there we found a huge bag of, you know, plastic for wrapping drugs in,' Carrie tells me.
'Nice,' is my only response.
'Like, that made me feel really good,' she adds.
Overlooking Balboa Park's golf course an hour earlier, at the trailhead of Switzer Canyon on the elbow of 28th and Maple streets in North Park, I meet Carrie Schneider. She rolls up and locks her bike. It is 1 p.m., two days shy of the merry, merry month of May. As we descend the rocky grade, a common parade of jets in Lindbergh Field's flight path epitomizes human achievement, but who cares about jets when you have canyons?
Carrie began leading 'friends groups' with the Sierra Club in 1999 throughout San Diego's canyons to create what she calls a 'constituency for preservation.' She consistently charts canyon species, notes disruptions such as sewage leaks and grooms areas of natural growth. Switzer was one of the first protected.
We head off-trail and examine the crimson buds of a blooming cholla cactus. It is warmer at the canyon floor, but Carrie is dressed for success in a loose white overshirt, wide-brimmed hat and baggy trail trousers cut below the knee. Wise choices for her fair, Southern Indiana skin, but her shoes were made for walkin'.
'How did you end up out here?' I inquire.
'Looking for a job, following my profession. I'm a molecular biologist and I'm locked indoors all day. I work on bacteria to make drug pharmaceutical proteins.'
Carrie is a self-taught naturalist but recognizes that some of a canyon's hidden treasures are manmade, like the graffiti under the 30th Street bridge, too secluded to be either an outcry or an eyesore. An insulated quiet surrounds us the deeper we head into Switzer. As we walk, she points skyward to a California towhee and the large shadow of a red-tailed hawk. I resist the urge to ask if the hawks have large talons.
We enter a dry creek bed, and Carrie crimps a sprig from a California sagebrush, handing it over for a sniff. Ah, parched-green desert perfume. The creek makes for the 'the most beautiful cobblestones in the city, the color combinations,' she notices. We trample the scree underfoot, and there's the sound of stones crunching.
'It's funny,' she says, 'you think that these areas, if they hadn't been steeply hilly, wouldn't be here. This whole area is covered with a development grid, but it never actually happened because it was just too much trouble to try to put a house on a hillside.'
Carrie bushwhacks off-trail again, and I follow.
'Looks like a black sage is blooming,' she says. 'This is another one of these plants that has a really strong odor, very minty.' She pulls a sprig and cracks it, then hands it to me. 'In fact, it is in the mint family. That flower's great, almost a pink or purple-they're usually white.'
I can hear birds chattering about us in the underbrush.
'Oh, and there's a bumblebee just landed on one,' she says, approaching, but the bee buzzes backward. 'Oop, I scared him off. He's buzzin' around.
'I was in Penasquitos once,' she continues, 'when a big swarm was, like, flyin' around, all over, I'm, like, ‘That scared me.' You don't know, but they didn't hurt anybody; I was the only one in a ball covering my head and everyone else is goin', ‘What's wrong with her?''
We haven't met a single person here in Switzer.
'Don't get a whole lot of hikers,' she admits, 'but there's a few urban campers.'
'Does this canyon lead to a trail that will lead to another canyon?' I ask.
'There's kind of a vision-plan out there called Canyonland Park, which the idea has been raised of trying to connect the different urban spaces into more of a park concept, and then have a trail map and so on, make sure all the canyons are named. Most of them, no one knows what their name is, you know. You have a network of federally owned land, privately owned land, city-owned land, and getting everyone on the same page can be a challenge.'
I lean down to examine a yellow and purple blossom clutching the earth between the pebbles.
'That's Scarlet pimpernel, believe it or not,' Carrie says.
I picture Daffy Duck as a swashbuckler-but wait, that's Pumpernickel.
'Just like the movie,' she adds. 'Let me tell ya, you'll find the most amazing things, and some things you don't wanna find.'
'How 'bout snakes?'
'Occasionally a snake-not very many. I think the rattlesnakes in this area were killed off long ago. I see a gopher snake every now and then, but they're pretty wary.'
'What's your favorite canyon?' I ask.
'Aw, shoot, c'mon...'
Carrie broke down and told me her favorite canyon is Switzer because it's so close to where she lives. If you'd like to find your own favorite canyon, participate in a guided hike or learn more about San Diego's canyons, check out the Sierra Club's Canyons Campaign web page at www.sandiego.sierraclub.org/canyons, call 619-284-9399 or stop in the North Park office at 3820 Ray St.