July 2009
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Between a rock

By David Feela

I had never seen a cairn the first time I hiked a trail in canyon country almost 30 years ago.

In Minnesota where I was raised, if anyone planned to use rocks as markers they’d have painted them white and lined them up along the driveway. I’d like to think I was not the only newcomer to the desert Southwest to be confused by a pile of rocks, but it’s possible.

Since then I have hiked many trails and come to appreciate these stacked rocks as a subtle system of canyon turn signals. Most of the time when a hiker comes upon a cairn, the next one is visible in the near distance. This is not, however, the case in deep back country. Here a hiker can easily get lost, owing to the way the native rocks used to assemble cairns blend in with the rocks around them, and also to the tendency for the human mind to aimlessly wander while the body trudges along the trail.

My mind, for instance, wanders quite a bit. Once on a hike to Fisher Towers near Moab, I took a wrong turn and nearly ended up stuck on all that slickrock after dark. The guide book called it a “day hike” which meant I should have started in the morning, not in the late afternoon. But how long could it take to walk 4.2 miles? The map estimated walking time at around 2.5 hours, and the book described it as a “Popular, easy-to-follow trail.”

I missed a cairn about two miles out and probably wandered another mile before realizing the only stacked rocks in the distance were far too large to be cairns. I think they were the Fisher Towers, though I never found out. The sun had already dragged huge shadows out from under the rocks, changing the landscape into an alternate reality. By the time I’d made it back to the last cairn I remembered, the sun had melted into the horizon. I had no flashlight, no companion, and no sense. Luckily, I followed the right rocks this time and they took me back to where my car served as a mechanical cairn left in the parking lot, a perfect pile of junk to leave in case park personnel had to organize a search and rescue.

One other reason I get lost so often is because the desert Southwest has a noteworthy cairn that leads to a place not plotted on any map.

When Ed Abbey died, his friends — sworn to secrecy — spirited his body away and buried it illegally on public land somewhere in the canyon country that Abbey loved. When I come upon a healthy pile of rocks in some difficult and inaccessible area, I tell myself, Don’t worry, it’s just another cairn erected to lead me to safety, but a tiny part of me still walks around it, looking for the skeletal remains of a foot or hand that might be sticking out from between a couple stones. And I say to myself, Ed, if you’re under there, just stay put.

Then I turn and hike briskly away in virtually any direction.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.


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