Sure, you can raise your heart rate and a nice sweat on the elliptical machine in the basement. You’ll stare at the wall, though, and play mind games to keep yourself from watching digits on the timer count too slowly downward. Save that for the days when the wind sucks the air from your lungs and freeze-dries tender flesh. No, if the weather’s fair, make tracks down the road. It’s 2.2 miles roundtrip to the cul-de-sac and back. If there’s a skiff of snow on the road, you’ll see who else has been out and about, and they most likely won’t be the human neighbors.
Let’s go: out of the house, past the barn, and between the gates, where a raven lifting off the top rail sometimes sets off a gentle metallic rattle. Wave at the horses out in the pasture as you cross the flat and, if it isn’t deep winter, watch for bluebirds hovering over the grass. This is your warm-up, where kinks from the office chair will get shaken out of your thighs.
At the T-junction, turn right. Borrow from the slight downward incline to send each footstep reaching long. No need to fear traffic, especially in winter when the second-home owners have all retreated to warmer climes; if you do encounter a vehicle, the shock of its appearance will send your pulse surging, and that’s what you’re after anyway. The road is graded smooth: you don’t have to watch where you’re putting your feet, which is what makes this different from a hike. If you do look down, though, on an autumn day you might see marks scuffled in the dust from two bucks shoving one another. In early winter, you may find yourself stepping through a churned path of dirty snow where a herd of elk flowed across the road, forgoing the engineered lane for an ancient migratory route. Heading down the hill, you have an uninterrupted view across the platter of Beckham Basin to the grassy buttes beyond, where those elk were headed.
The road hugs the ridge as it drops a few hundred vertical feet, mostly over three gradually pitched grades you’ll hardly notice until you’re on the way back up. As it descends out of the sunny grasslands of the ridge’s top, the road cuts a swath into dark timber. Watch for turkey tracks in the mud in spring, neat chains of chevron imprints left by birds that prefer hiking to flying.
If you put a little snap in your pace, you’ll be huffing when you reach the cul-de-sac and execute your about-face. The evergreen shade here is cool and quiet, unless the Clark’s nutcrackers and Steller’s jays are gossiping. On one still day you heard the tootling calls of Sandhill cranes flying north while you were down here; you had to stop to scan the sky for a skein of birds you never saw.
When the road begins its first uphill slant, your calves go to work; the incline is subtle, but it’s long. This is a good place to listen for the chirping bustle of chickadees and nuthatches among the evergreen boughs. The pitch levels off for a bit, but the respite ends where you found the mystery gilia a few years ago: one solitary plant clinging to the cut-bank, festooned with tubular flowers. They were pure white, ghost blossoms of a wildflower familiar to you since childhood, but only, until then, in its vibrant scarlet form.
The second uphill section is a little steeper, but it’s short, and you’ll get another breather where the road throws a bend into the notch of a small drainage. There’s no permanent stream, but runoff and snowmelt water a remnant aspen grove being overtaken by the successional generation of evergreens. Fresh snow here is promptly and prolifically stamped with a tangle of shadowy impressions: rabbit, mouse, coyote, fox, and deer prints, with your less dainty contribution cutting through.
This last uphill stretch is no steeper than the one before, but it’s longer. You’ll be inclined to stop and take in the view, but this is a workout, not a nature walk. Keep your chin up: let the span of sky above the shoulder of the ridge be your visual lure until Cap Rock Ridge heaves into view. As you top the hill and make the turn onto the plane of your home-address road, you start your cool-down. Everything here is as familiar as a front yard, albeit an expansive one: grass rippling through the pasture, the distant crenelation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, lightning-scarred trees. But don’t let your attention be snatched by the idea of a snack or the work waiting on your desk on this literal home stretch, where the house beckons from its fringe of ponderosa pine. That last power pole before the pasture gates is where the woodland raptor was perched last summer—whether a Cooper’s or a sharp-shinned hawk you couldn’t tell. You heard the dainty sneeze, though, before the lean bird shook its head, tilted forward with outstretched wings and, veering, vanished from sight.