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Cairns of the World

Needles District in Canyonlands National Park, 1998

Needles District in Canyonlands National Park, 1998

I read a piece published today by John P. Weiss in Medium What Doesn’t Last Is More Important Than You Think about the moments we forget to observe because we’re busy memorializing them (guilty as charged).

D will attest that these days my main distraction is a Nikon D7100, though I digress.

John Weiss’s work is reflective. But this morning I was merely scanning his words until I reached the YouTube video he included about Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who creates temporary ‘works’ from what he finds on walk-abouts. Goldsworthy explains these are exercises, perhaps like sketches are to drawing artists. They feed his muse.

Early in the Goldsworthy video, he passes a formal work, his egg-shaped cairn built of stone left standing in an open field. Taller and more massive than a man, you can spot it a mile or more away. A first thought was of Henry Moore’s site sculpture. I envy Moore, that he stayed at it, and left such a profusion of art. Is it the landscape they’re found in, or the sculpture themselves? Either way they speak to me; the totality of the space is what’s important.

My second thought was that Andy Goldsworthy’s stone egg stands in a long tradition of cairns, particularly in such a cairn-strewn land as the British Isles. In a sense, Goldsworthy’s stone egg provides a clue about a human urge that’s been with us for thousands of years.

And the stone egg cairn brought to mind a trip D and I took to the Western US parks, and a particular hike in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.

By the time we arrived in Canyonlands, we’d hiked a variety of parks, and had come on a number of cairns. It charmed me when we first encountered them laid by previous hikers marking a trail. Early in our tour where the path was obvious, they struck me as innocuous ‘Kilroy was here’ expressions. But in fact it’s a tradition in country where no tree blazes can mark the way (being an ex-boy scout I expect them in our Eastern forests.)

It’s true you can become lost in an Eastern forest, but there are always clues if you see them, the creek on your right, the hill ahead that you’re approaching, sun angle, etc.

The hoodoos are stone statues to admire from the shade. Canyonlands photo, 1998

The hoodoos are stone statues to admire from the shade. Canyonlands photo, 1998

Canyonlands is enormous, and the fact that the sun’s in your face isn’t much help in orienting a hiker. To list the park’s stats doesn’t really describe what it feels like to be out in the middle of it. Nor can photos. It’s divided into four sectors, and unlike nearby Arches National Park where you’re running into others coming and going, the Canyonlands territory is vast and the people few. You might see more eagles overhead than other hikers. No development past the unpaved parking area, and very few visible trails. Carrying water is essential. You leave your car, turn past a rock outcrop and are gone.

We were aiming to try the Needles District where every ten minutes you’re passing from one landscape into the next. A narrow way through masses of rock opens past a solitary pine into a long valley, or wider views across to another stack of eroding red rock miles in the distance. This is high desert country, nothing like the Carolina low country where I grew up.

An hour into it, we had only the vaguest sense of where we’d come from, and two hours later, it was clear that following the cairns would be the only way we could make it back out. These cairns weren’t elaborate mounds. Some were at most a handful of smoothly worn rocks stacked in rough pyramids placed strategically where they were most visible. I began to think about the hikers who’d come before us and less about taking photographs. In places we’d look around, questioning, was this the best way forward, though we weren’t foolish enough to seek another. We had water for the hike and snacks, but no shelter, so we weren’t lingering. The water we rationed and were disciplined in how we moved through this quiet space of wind and sun. Red rock country.

After a while I began to rebuild a cairn here or there whose stones had fallen out of shape. Other places where it seemed a cairn needed to be made more visible, I’d look around, select a distinctive stone or two to add. Though I never added new cairns. It was as if I’d be second guessing the trailblazers, even disrespecting their judgment.

When I think about that singular day’s hike, one crossing stays with me. We were traversing the back of an enormous rock face, a hundred feet or more across, brilliant blue sky and all around us high desert rock, no trees. Scant feet to either side the rock face sloped dramatically away to a valley a couple hundred feet below, and ahead it suddenly sloped as well. There was only air between us and the next rock outcropping that we could see. Though as we approached the steep downslope, cautiously feeling for foot plants on the rock, we spied the small cairn halfway down, then a second just ahead of it, quietly telling us ‘it’s OK; this is the way.’

On the return, I focused on the cairns more than photography. I knew the pictures, beautiful as they may be, would never capture the enormity of that place, and the feeling of following those other quiet humans who’d traveled the way before us. On the way back, the cairns I straightened, or reconstructed, were in my mind a small way of paying respects.

Needles District, Canyonlands, 1998

Needles District, Canyonlands, 1998