Silverthorne, COLORADO — Snowshoeing with land artist Simon Beck might be my new favorite workout. Beck treats footprints like brushstrokes, marching across vast stretches of land to draw out shapes and patterns, and he’s currently working with volunteers on a series of “snow drawings” throughout the mountain town of Silverthorne, Colorado.
Silverthorne happens to be a few miles from where my parents live, and where I was celebrating the new year. They are both avid snowshoers, so, after learning about his stint in Colorado through Hyperallergic, we decided to give this strange man a visit.
We stopped by while Beck was “drawing” on Lake Dillon, a large and thankfully very frozen lake. Beck had already stamped out 41 circles of varying size, arranged in five arms that spiraled out across the lake and came together at a central point.
Beck and his assistant met us on the edge of the lake for a quick snowshoeing lesson. Beck laughed at the “designer snowshoes” that the rest of us were wearing, but said they would be fine and wasted no time putting us to work. We were taught to hike in something like an off-kilter military march. One snowshoer followed another, each one slightly offset. With my left foot, I filled in the gaps between the tracks made by the right foot of the person ahead of me. With my right foot, I made new marks. The person behind me would fill in those gaps.
To start, Beck walked us around the nearly half-mile circumference of the design, drawing a sort of curvy outline and creating empty triangles of untracked snow between each spiraling arm. Although Beck does use tools for some measurements, he seemed to be doing all of this in his head, effortlessly. I was just trying to get my footing right.
Once we had the hang of that, Beck taught us his “stripey-shading” method. He split the eight of us into one pair, and two groups of three. I got behind Beck and we formed the first group. With my left foot, I followed Beck’s path, same as before. With a ski pole in an outstretched arm, I traced a shallow line off to my right. Behind me leading the second group, my father followed that line to create a parallel path, offset by a few feet. For the next hour, we used stripey-shading to fill in the triangles between each spiral arm with a labyrinth-like pattern.
Unlike a typical hike, the view was more or less unchanging and the movements mechanical: My eyes were fixed on Beck’s footprints, trying to match his gait and turns, drawing a line with the ski pole. Maybe the end result would be something to see, but this part was work. I peeled off a layer and left my coat in the snow.
Beck, a man in his early 60’s, seemed to have unlimited energy. Or maybe he just came prepared. Both my father and I had forgotten to pack water and snacks. At times, Beck jogged ahead of us. While I trudged behind, mostly lost as to where we were going or what it would look like, Beck moved with resolute confidence and little patience for questions. We were there to leave footprints more quickly than Beck could do on his own. And so, for miles, we did.
After completing three of the five labyrinths, most of us volunteers were hungry, worn out, and had other places to be. We were ready to call it a day. Beck cheerfully prodded us into doing one more section. Understandable, given that if we all called it quits, he might be left doing all the work himself, hours more walking than if we each did our part. We wrapped up section four and headed back up the hillside to see our progress.
From the parking lot overlooking the lake, things finally came together. The shapes we were carving, the way the ski pole left space for a stripe of untouched snow, how the outer curves and the curves of each circle distorted our triangle mazes… Such methodical yet incomprehensible movements at ground level blended into something cohesive and ethereal from above.
Practically my entire life, I have made tracks in the snow, whether with skis, snowboards, or snowshoes. But those marks, like when I search for untracked powder on my board, are essentially made selfishly. This was entirely different. Maybe only a handful of folks saw this finished drawing before it disappears with the next snowfall or strong wind. Fine. There was something gratifying about cutting a trail for others to appreciate. I left Lake Dillon with a blister on my right foot, desperate for some lunch and content with whatever came of the work we put in.