In Montana’s Glacier region last October, I hiked through old growth (Hemlocks, Larches, Ponderosa Pines). I followed the sound of swift water, like a pied piper, as a woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat provided cadence. I climbed a cool, dense section and spied a cairn atop the knoll. Cairns are one of my favorite encounters on any tramp through the woods. I paused and offered quiet thanks for the land and the sky and the trees.
Cairns are far more than ornamental. On more than one occasion, they have rescued this directionally-challenged fellow from a cold, dark night stranded only God-knows-where. On our walk through the Scottish Highlands a couple years ago, cairns dotted the way, granite fingers pointing us through eerie, moss-covered forest and into the village where a warm fire and a warm whiskey awaited us. Last summer hiking with my family down Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the route cut across vast slabs of slick rock with no trail markers other than cairns, like lighthouses, guiding the way.
Cairns tell us we are not alone, that others have walked this lonesome path. Cairns coax us along, assuring us that if we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll make it – do not fear, we’ll make it. Cairns dot the trail sparsely, appearing only (barely) enough to keep us from getting entirely lost. Scattered in unfamiliar territory, they keep us watchful, curious, a little uncertain, always scanning for signs of hope. If we intend to circumvent the struggle or the rugged adventure, cairns are no help. But they do tell us to keep on trudging. They offer us signs from those who’ve gone before us, and they allow us to leave signs for those sure to follow. Cairns assure us the night will not devour us. Cairns lead us home.
At our old house on Warren Lane, we have a small cairn beside both our front door and our back door, our beacons of hope. One more step, friends. Just a little bit further, sons we love. One more act of courage, weary souls. You can make it. You’re almost home. We’re here waiting for you.