Looking for the Cairns

Looking for the Cairns

The trail ended abruptly into a noisy creek with Boulder Canyon Trail heading to the left and right. As I approached the intersection I saw two women, probably in their mid sixties. Outfitted for a multiple day hike with brightly colored backpacking gear, they appeared to be on the tail end of their journey. One walked toward me smiling warmly while the other stayed back, wringing the water out of her socks.

“Where you headed?”

I returned her smile. “I’m hoping to get up Battleship Mountain today.”

“Oh! It’s amazing,” She knelt down, pinching the material of her sock between her toes before slipping on her sandal. “But do you have navigational tools?”

I gritted my teeth. “Uh…”

“It’s easy to get lost out here,” She studied me for a moment. “Just watch for the cairns. Head to the right, you’ll cross this creek 9 times (or was it 8?), then in about a quarter mile, you’ll see cairns leading up the steep slope. It isn’t an official trail, so pay attention.”

Like a kid released for recess, I launched myself to the right.

I moved to the Sonoran Desert just two weeks ago. After months of dead end resumes and applications, I secured 4 interviews within the first few days of our arrival. With each step of this transition I wanted to see the means of provision before taking the step. Once again Mary was right. 

“The quarterback doesn’t throw the ball to the receiver,” she explained. “He throws it to where the receiver is going. God is going to give you what you need when you need it, but you’ll have to take the step before you can see it.”

I hopped from rock to rock across the creek as the trail zig-zagged back and forth. Without the cairns, it would have been hopeless trying to follow this section. Much like our present situation. A sudden appreciation struck me. I have a Guide. He’s given me cairns to mark the way. 


When you spot a stack of rocks, it’s likely a cairn. Historically they were used to mark something important, like a tomb or a food cache. Nowadays they’re trail markers.  When hiking I typically see three types of cairns: Social, Directional, and Testimonial. For anyone looking presently for guidance, each type has something of value.

1. The Social Cairn

An Encouraging Awareness

 You’ll often see these along obvious, clearly marked trails. I imagine the kind of person who sets one up is excited and wants to share it with someone. It’s as if the cairn is crying out, “Hey! Isn’t this great?! We’re in nature!” Though unnecessary, these cairns provide a sort of comfort and reassurance:

Others have been here, you’re not alone.

The more foreign a terrain feels the more comforting the cairns. When we are facing new and unfamiliar terrain in our journey, we need these social cairns. It might be an affirmation from a friend, or we hear a lyric or a line that seems to confirm our direction. Sometimes it’s an absurd favor you didn’t expect. 

When I was doing handyman work in Illinois, I was in new terrain in every sense. After my first few jobs I had a truckload of waste. I took it to the dump and was shocked at the cost, I couldn’t pay that much. I paused at the exit, God, what do I do with this trash? 

“HEY!” I looked in my mirror, a man in a hard hat was running up to me. I started to pull out thinking I was in trouble. “Stop!”

I waited as he approached, my face flush.

“What are you doing?” He asked, looking at the waste in the back of the truck.

“I can’t afford to dump here, I’ve got to find another way.”

He rolled his eyes, “It’s no cheaper anywhere else around here.” He sighed, looked to the scale and back at me. “Go back and tell Sandra that Mike said he’ll cover you today.”

Turns out Mike was the manager. I have no idea what caused him to stop me and help. In hindsight it was a cairn. The Holy Spirit put a signpost in the dump, assuring me, I’ve got your back. You’re going the right way. I suppose that’s the value of unfamiliar territory. Our need is just beyond our capacity and we’re freed from relying on ourselves. Trust is cultivated along the path of the unfamiliar. 

2. The Directional Cairn

A Discovery of Wisdom

You’ll find these cairns to be crucial when the trail takes an unexpected turn. The ground seems worn straight ahead, but the cairn is leading in a different direction. Often a trail along a creek will take a sudden turn to the other side of the creek, and you wouldn’t know except for the cairn on the far side. These cairns whisper a caution:

There’s something ahead that you don’t see. You’re going to have to trust me and shift.

If you’re not paying attention to these markers you’ll keep going in what feels like the right way, until you find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be. The ground is well worn by those who have paid the price of inattention.

These abrupt changes often come in our lives when we have a sort of momentum. Our current trajectory feels so right, we couldn’t imagine changing course. Yet we sense a subtle invitation in a different direction. We have to alter course before we really understand why or where it’s headed. 

Are you sensing a prompt to make a significant change? Are you open enough to pause and consider it? Momentum may tempt you to ignore the signs, but these are the cairns we regret ignoring later on. Wisdom is sought at crossroads. Slow yourself enough to value her, she will reward you for it (Proverbs 4:8).

3. The Testimonial Cairn:

A Beckoning to Courage

The least common of the three, these cairns show up when the trail seems impassable. The trail seems to come to an end, as there appears to be no way past an obstruction. When we face an impossibility, we can either come to a faulty conclusion and turn back, or we can look for the cairn.

A few years back we were following a trail through slot canyons in southern Utah. We rounded a bend and suddenly a giant boulder blocked the narrow canyon. We surveyed the boulder for any weakness, handholds to climb, a corner we could squeeze through, but there was nothing. We looked for several minutes before someone saw a cairn, about 10 feet higher than the towering boulder, along the wall of the canyon. As our eyes adjusted to it, we noticed a series of cairns, lining a slight outcropping along the wall. We backtracked 50 feet and carefully crawled our way along the canyon wall past the boulder.

The testimonial cairn is a triumphant shout in the face of the seemingly impossible. It is simultaneously the celebration of others who’ve gone before you, and a beckoning to courage:

C’mon! You can do it! There is a way through what you’re facing.

And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. -Joshua 4:9

Joshua built a cairn after hundreds of thousands of his people somehow crossed a river on dry ground. His reasoning was something along these lines, Our kids are going to face impossibilities just as we have. When they see this stack, they’ll find courage as they remember how God treats impossibilities, and they won’t back down.

Before you back down from your current obstacle, scan the area for a testimonial marker. Has someone overcome something similar? Is there a promise you can grab here? Is there a strength beyond you that’s available now? Courage doesn’t begin when fear is diminished, it begins when resolve beats louder.

Cairns lead us beyond the familiar because that’s where we’ll experience the Comforter. Cairns lead us to paths beyond our control because that’s where we learn wisdom. Cairns lead us to face impossibilities, because we’re destined to overcome. 

I bouldered my way through the top of Battleship Mountain, following clues of somewhat safe passage. Near the top I found tupperware behind a rock. Curious, I opened it to find a notebook. Greetings from those who had come before me. Many of them offered shared celebration, some offered wisdom, no doubt inspired by the views about me. I added mine,

The scares and the bruises of the hike don’t compare to the majesty of this view. 
And wouldn’t you know it, I was in the midst of it the whole time!

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