When I was 17, I went on my first backpack trip into the High Sierra. At that high altitude the terrain was solid rock. My companions and I walked for miles across bald, granite faces that supported only a few gnarly trees. It was a pristine, naked landscape.
My hiking mates kept talking about the region being carved by glaciers.
I learned that as a glacier expanded and advanced across the land, it picked up debris, small and large, from the surface of the ground and carried it along, embedded in the ice. Then, as warmer weather returned, and the ice became thinner and finally melted entirely, the cargo of debris was lowered to the ground and left in the new landscape, perhaps hundreds of miles from its source.
As we hiked, we sometimes would see the results of this process. One day we came upon a large rock balancing in an odd place. It could not have rolled into this setting, resting higher than all of its surroundings. It towered above, like a monument to gravity. Everyone agreed it had been set down by a glacier. It was not granite, like all the other rocks – clearly not a local. Its weight was so great that once it settled into its position on its perch, it was apparently very stable.
I really enjoyed my companions’ stories and explanations about things we saw along the path. They knew so much. I felt lucky to be with them for my first serious mountain adventure.
Even though I was a new-be in the group, they made me the lead hiker occasionally. I enjoyed the chance to have the open view, to see the path take a bend around a corner or disappear over a ridge. Sometimes, the path was barely more than a hint of wearing on a broad expanse, or a slight difference in color.
Once, as we made our way across a wide shoulder of granite, I saw in the distance to the uphill right, a stack of five small rocks atop of a bolder. It seemed both haphazard and magical, a pyramid of stones, each one balancing upon the one beneath. I stopped, waiting for the few of us to gather. I pointed to my find. “Look at what the glacier left behind! Isn’t that just amazing? A perfectly balanced stack of stones!”
My enthusiastic comment was pretty funny to everyone in the group. My buddies were kind, though. Everyone agreed heartily that I’d found a reliable trail marker. This type of marker had a name: cairn. Each hiker had something to say.
“A cairn is a mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark. It’s typically on a hilltop or skyline, just like this one.”
“Cairns are terrifically difficult to build and you should never rearrange or disturbed them. For that matter, you shouldn’t build new ones, either. That can confuse hikers about where the true path is.”
“Cairn is a Gaelic word. Sometimes they mark a gravesite, but this one is a trail marker. In Scotland, there are some huge ones.”
“Some are said to have stood for 4,000 years.”
I was embarrassed. Not knowing about cairns was understandable. And my friends were filling in my knowledge. But I had grossly over-estimated glaciers’ tricky powers to stack rocks. Furthermore, I had almost missed a directional signpost when I was looking right at it. And we really needed a marker at that point on the trail to guide us over the featureless granite slopes. That stack of rocks was my first cairn. I knew it would not be my last.
Continuing in the lead as we made our way across the granite and down into a ravine, I thought about landmarks, natural and man-made. I thought about how they can give vitally important information, even though the information is sometime so simple as “this way.” I thought about how life-saving knowledge is passed from one pathfinder to another. And I paid attention to the path ahead, alert for more cairns or any sign that would help us on our way through this landscape of rock.