Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

(For this hike, you’ll need to bring a pen or pencil and something to sketch on).

Location: White Ranch Open Space Park, West Access Trails

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on Golden Gate Canyon Road. Travel approximately 4.1 miles to Crawford Gulch Road and turn right. Turn right again on Belcher Hill Road or follow the signs to White Ranch Park.

Duration: Approximately 3-1/2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, hike the north (downhill) Belcher Hill trail, then turn left on Rawhide. Walk through the campground, continuing on the Rawhide trail or taking the Waterhole trail shortcut that meets back up to Rawhide. For a longer hike than 3-1/2 hours, you can continue the Rawhide loop until you loop back around to the Belcher Hill trail, or you can cut across Wrangler Run, which is a pleasant west-facing trail through meadows.

The Hike

View of Arvada from Rawhide Trail, White Ranch Open Space Park

When I arrived at the Belcher Hill trailhead around 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in April, mine was the only vehicle in the lot. The drive up to the trailhead along Crawford Gulch road was very pleasant, with views of endless dark green hills and distant snow-covered peaks (Pikes Peak). As soon as I stepped out onto the trail, I could tell no one had been hiking since our last snowfall Wednesday morning because there weren’t any footprints delineating where to go. It was a guessing game for the first 10-15 minutes downhill through the trees about where I should step next. The ground was a lumpy, snow-covered sheet of ice in places and I had to grudgingly put on my YakTrak. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost—after all, I could always backtrack with my fresh bootprints to guide me.

Eventually out of the snow and down onto the meadows with a view of Denver and Arvada below the hills outstretched ahead, the landscape opened up to reveal rolling hills to the west and a vast, flat plains to the east. This would be a good location for a sunrise hike because it would only be about 15 minutes to a spot where you could watch the sun rise over the horizon. I would only recommend that in the summer, when the trail is dry and obvious from the parking lot down through the trees. It was difficult enough to guess the way down in the yet-undisturbed snow on a sunny morning, let alone at dusk with a flashlight.

There was no one else on the trail when I headed out, and in fact I only ran into only two other people the entire three hours I was hiking. This further demonstrates the advantages of hiking in the off-season on a weekday morning. It was peaceful, and as one hiking guide book describes, “bucolic.” The sounds from the city below—the road noise from Highway 93 and the deep whirr of some industrial machine—only leeched in a few times during the hike. I can imagine this trail is even more bucolic in the summer when the prairie grasses awaken from their winter slumber and hillsides are green instead of straw-colored.

Woodpeckers constantly called out their loud kwik-kwik-kwik call from all directions, drowning out the sound of other, quieter birds like robins and chickadees. Either there are more woodpeckers around this year or I notice them more because I just discovered last year what bird made that raucous call. A few houses are seen nestled in the trees in the hills surrounding the park, but in this part of the park they don’t detract from the feeling of wildness and serenity.

The trail is wide enough for a vehicle and alternated between mud and snow, depending on which direction its slope faced. At the halfway point, about when you begin the turn southward around the hill along the Rawhide trail (the northern-most point of the park itself), you’ll see beautiful rock outcroppings across the valley, then as you make your way further, Ralston Reservoir and a view of downtown Denver below. The trail becomes steeper and rockier here and is the most challenging part of the hike (although if you’re coming in a clockwise direction like I suggest, the steepest part is mostly downhill).  You may spot a black Alberta squirrel scurrying up a tree, or a small group of mule deer. The squirrels are very black, unlike the common suburban squirrel, and have tufted ears.

This park offers a mix of a variety of landscapes: distant mountain vistas, hills, forest, meadows, rock outcroppings, views of Denver. For this reason, I found the following activity to be perfect for this particular hike.

The Activity: Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

This is a fun activity for adults and older children (age 10+). It requires that all participants have a pen or pencil and something to draw on, like a notebook.

As you begin the hike, imagine seeing yourself in the landscape the way the birds and trees and animals might see you. At about the halfway point, you will be sitting down and drawing yourself in the landscape. This is something you may wish to contemplate before you actually do it—not the act of drawing itself but how you see yourself in this landscape.

Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for about a half and hour and draw. Ideally, this should be a spot that’s visually appealing to you. Pretend you’re an artist and you’re scouting around for a good view to draw. One suggestion is along the Rawhide trail after you pass through the campground and past where the Waterhole trail meets the Rawhide trail. The trail will make a south-facing curve and there will be a view of the meadows and hills in the distance. There are some rocks to sit on. But don’t let this suggestion limit you! Pick a spot that calls to you.

Settle in and start drawing in your notebook or whatever you brought for sketching. The only instruction here is to use your non-dominant hand to draw yourself in the landscape. The reason you will be using your non-dominant hand is because the drawing will flow more from your subconscious and creative brain, rather than from automatic movements that flow from assumptions about what you’re drawing, as they would from your dominant hand. This can be any kind of drawing: abstract, detailed, gestural, geometric. Do whatever feels natural to you. You aren’t trying for a masterpiece here. This is a contemplative exercise, not an artistic contest.

How I drew myself in the landscape. I circled where I am in the drawing.

Important instruction! Do not read the questions below until after you’ve completed your drawing. The questions themselves may alter how you do your drawing and will ruin the activity if you think about it while you’re doing it. It’s best to do the drawing first, then come back to the drawing with these questions to see what is revealed.

When you feel that you’ve finished your drawing, ask yourself or your hiking partner the following questions about the drawing:

What surprises you about the drawing?

Are you a part of, or distinct from the landscape in your drawing?

Are you the central figure? If not, what is? What do you think that means?

What is the vantage point of your drawing? In other words, if this were a photograph, from where would it have been taken? Or is it so abstract it has no vantage point?

If your drawing has a vantage point, look to see where the “photographer” or the “artist” is situated. Can you imagine that there is something watching you from that vantage point, and perhaps you drew what it saw?

How would you describe the mood of the drawing? (angry, soft, tenuous, peaceful…) Does the mood of the drawing reflect your mood or the mood of the land? What do you think?

What do you think your drawing says about your feelings about the land? What might it say about the land’s feelings toward you?

When I drew myself in the landscape (see image above) I noticed a few things. The trees and mountains in the background were more wispy and tenuous. The trees in the foreground were drawn jagged, pointy, dark—scary. I was feeling a little apprehensive on the hike because I was the only one on the trail and I kept imagining a cougar stalking me (I have to get over that, I know…). I am the central figure, but I’m drawn into the landscape in such a way that you can’t recognize me or that it’s even a person at all. This perhaps means that I see myself as part of the land, or that I belong in the landscape. I’m small and humble under the scary trees and looming hills, but I don’t look threatened or frightened. You can’t really tell what I’m feeling from the drawing. The vantage point was from above and behind me. When I noted that, I formulated the question about it, so I didn’t know that it was an issue until after my drawing was finished. I was sure to do the drawing, THEN come up with the questions around it.

As I turned around to see where exactly the “watcher” would have been perched to see me from this vantage point, I noticed several large pines in about the location that would have resulted in this drawing. At that moment, a raven croaked at me from one of the trees at exactly the height I was estimating, as if to acknowledge, “I see you.”