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Exercising While Making Your Mark on the World


Normally, in this space, we look for ways to slip little bits of exercise into our daily lives. This has ranged from parking farther away from the store to carrying a football around for a quick, calorie-burning button hook routeN.

This month, we’re taking a different approach. We’re trying to add something new to our exercise routine to make it more interesting.

Nearly all of us multi-task while exercising. We read a book on the treadmill. We listen to music while swimming (yes, it’s possible). We do our taxes while skiing (maybe not possible). But a woman named Sonja Hinrichsen has taken exercise multi-tasking to another, sublime level.

She lives in the Bay Area, but came up with the idea while on an artists’ retreat near Aspen. She puts on snowshoes and tromps around snowfields, making spiral patterns. Then she photographs them from an airplane, helicopter or drone. The resulting photographs are remarkable. She’s since done it all around Colorado, recruiting large groups of volunteers to help her. “It gives people a different nature experience than the typical ones,” Hinrichsen says. “You don’t just go through the landscape, you are in it, and you stay in that area for a really long time.” And, she says, making snow art helps keeps her in shape during the winter.

This sounded up our alley. So, on a regular Saturday afternoon walk with Spoonie (the girlfriend), we decided to try Sonja’s methods. On the slope of Mount Evans, at 10,600 feet, Echo Lake is wide, still-frozen and largely untracked. March and April are actually the snowiest months in Colorado; there are plenty of canvases left.

But. Among people who know me, certain types of decisions have become known as “Reilly Decisions.” A “Reilly Decision” is not like the decision to buy Apple stock in 1984. It’s more like the decision to leave the house in flip flops without looking at the snow-filled weather report, or the decision to drive to the Mexican border without bringing your passport. Stomping Echo Lake may have been a “Reilly Decision.”

Crrrraaaaccckkk, we soon heard. The ice.

“Do you think we’re gonna fall in?” I asked Spoonie. We had none of the recommended safety gear: no drill to take a sample of the ice, no ropes for rescue, no cell phone, no life jackets, and very little common sense.

“It’s probably not very deep,” she said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

She was silent. “Let’s do it closer to shore,” she said.

In following Hinrichsen’s footsteps, we were actually following footsteps as old as history.

“You’re standing where someone stood 800 years ago, creating something. I feel an affinity.”

Bill Convery
Colorado State Historian

“I think there’s strong parallels between (Sonja’s art) and ancient petroglyphs,” says Bill Convery, the state historian. “Pretty much as soon as we got (to the Colorado area), we were marking on the rocks.” In places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, these old drawings of spirals – which look like Hinrichsen’s – are complete mysteries. But when Convery looks at this mysterious ancient art, he feels connected. “You’re standing where someone stood 800 years ago, creating something,” he says. “I feel an affinity.”

The tradition – art and nature – has kept going, even into modern times. In the Rockies, shepherds in the nineteenth century carved pictures of sexy women into Aspen bark. In the 1970s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude draped orange fabric across the Arkansas river valley; activists paint scissors on dams they want destroyed; Robert Smithson built the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake out of rocks and stones. “This ancient desire to alter nature,” Convery says, “it’s one of the thing that makes us human.” Anyone who arranges rocks into a cairn or builds a snowman is leaving their creative stamp on the natural world, and art like this bridges the gap between beauty created by chance – which is nature – and beauty created by design – which is art.

Spoonie and I were trying to leave our little ephemeral marks on Echo Lake. Then, again: Crrrraaaaaccckkk.

“It’s slush over here,” I said. “What’s that tell you?”

“That it’s not frozen,” Spoonie said.

“Wanna quit?” I asked.


Which we did, after walking for just half an hour. Still, was satisfying. We clambered up on some nearby rocks to take pictures. Our spirals were uneven and not that big. Still, we had done two things deeply satisfying to the soul – exercised, and created art – both at the same time.

“Wait,” I suddenly said to Spoonie, as she was pulling away. “I have to go sign it.”

I did. She waited in the car. “Nice job, honey!” she said when I came back. “You even did it in cursive!” There was a silence. “If you can do it like that,” she said, “why can’t you be that accurate at my house?”

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