I've always been drawn to cairns, those totemic piles of rock that appear alongside lakes and trails, almost as if by magic. Think about it: Have you ever seen anyone actually build one of these? I'm half-convinced that there are sprites in the woods whose sole purpose is to find a seemingly disparate pile of rocks and bring them into perfect balance.
Last summer, our family took a two-week driving tour to Wyoming, spending the largest part of our trip at Yellowstone National Park. On a day trip to the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone, we took a short hike around scenic Colter Bay, in whose blue water the snow-capped Tetons were perfectly reflected. We bounded down to the water's edge and were astonished to see the rocky beach full of cairns, large and small. The cairns were a clear nod to the mountains in the distance, a way of mimicking their towering forms while at once acknowledging that they couldn't possibly be matched.
They were lovely and powerful, and I felt perfect peace there.
Ten years ago, my husband Eric and I spent a week in Acadia National Park, a province of rugged but accessible peaks jutting out from the Atlantic coast of Maine. There too, the trails and summits are marked by cairns, some of which are known to be more than 100 years old. Yet the cairns invite so much fiddling by visitors in the form of adding and subtracting rocks that the National Park Service has to post signs urging people to leave them alone. I don't think I touched any of the cairns when I was there, but I confess to wanting to.
Part of me feels guilty about this cairn fetish, though, as if I should stand up for nature in its unaltered state. But I'm enough of a realist to know that not much of nature is truly unaltered. The same trail that brings me to the cairn was carved out by someone. Park boundaries are limited by the highway (or farm, or ranch, or suburb) on its edge. That might make me sound cynical but truly, I'm not. As a city girl, I want to let it all go, to believe I am a little bit lost and that nature prevails. When I'm out in the woods, I'm used to pretending I don't hear the jet engines overhead or see the footprints of others who have gone before me.
And yet I can't ignore a cairn. So it was yesterday. I'd just arrived at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for an eight-day writing fellowship in southwestern Virginia. After getting settled and actually getting some writing done (I'd expected more daydreaming for my first day), I decided to go exploring.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the VCCA Fellow's Residence and Studio Barn are surrounded by thick woods. When I checked in, I was told to look for a white- and red-blazed walking trail. This was easy enough to follow, for a while. But with it being winter and the trees barren, the trail was covered with leaf litter and hard to keep track of in places. The deeper I went into the woods, the farther and farther apart the blazes seemed to be. I tried not to feel nervous--after all, I could still hear the cars on a nearby highway, my cell phone still had a signal (see "city girl" reference above), and I knew the whole trail was no more than two miles--but I was a little chagrined that the trail wasn't clearer.
Then I walked up a hill and there was this beautiful cairn--a beacon bathed in late-afternoon light, a wayfinder in the woods, a sign telling me that I wasn't lost. It was a reminder, one I get far too rarely in my life, that everything was in balance and I was on the right path. I sent a silent thanks to the unknown soul who built it and kept walking.