Cairn

Smith Lake Trail, MT
Cairn on Swift Creek Trail up toward Smith Lake | Whitefish, MT

After meandering several hours through Swift Creek Trail’s old growth (Hemlocks, Larches and Ponderosa Pines) while walking to the rhythm of the woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat, I climbed through a cool, dense section and spied a cairn atop the knoll. Cairns have become one of my favorite encounters on any tramp through the woods. I like to stop and add a pebble atop the mound, to mark that I too have passed this way, to offer 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. Last summer hiking 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 that we are not alone, that others have walked this lonesome path and 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 appear along the trail only enough to keep us from getting entirely lost; they are scattered, keeping us watchful, curious, a little uncertain, always scanning for signs of hope. Cairns don’t remove the struggle or the adventure; they certainly don’t map out the miles ahead. But they do tell us to keep on trudging. They gives us signs from those who’ve gone before us, and they invite us to leave signs for still others who will follow. Cairns tell us the night will not devour us. Cairns lead us home.

At our old house, we have a small cairn beside both our front door and our back door, our beacons of hope. One more step, friends. One more tiny bit, sons we love. One more act of courage, weary souls. You can make it. You’re almost home.

The Place that Sustains You

viewA little over a week ago, we sold couches and beds and our ping pong table. We packed our books (so many books) in cardboard boxes and loaded them, along with our furniture and our clothes and our dog Daisy, for a short jaunt from Brookwood Dr. to Warren Lane. For eight years, Brookwood was our place of laughter and chaos, delight and weariness. It was the place where we lived – and I take that word seriously.

Miska asked me what I’d miss most about our house, and the answer was easy. Of course, what I will miss most is the memories attached to this specific place: the slope that ran behind our row of townhouses where the boys and I tossed the football, the pencil marks on the doorframe marking Wyatt and Seth’s rise to manhood and that spectacular view of Carter’s Mountain. I loved those mornings when misty clouds would roll over Carter’s, like a ghost flowing toward the valley. In the evenings, Miska and I would sit on the front porch with cups of tea in hand, watching the blueish-orange light fade over the ridge. “Over the past few years,” I told Miska, “this mountain has sustained me.” I didn’t know the depth of this truth, the gratitude I felt, until I spoke the words.

I am eager for our cottage on Warren Lane, eager for the ways these old bones and the land that surrounds them will, in new ways, sustain me and those I love. However, it seems important to pause, to say thank you. After our old house was empty, we went by one last time to say farewell. I went slowly through each room. I paused, remembering smiles and sorrows and so much hope. I remembered boys who were little, days that are gone now. In our bedroom where Miska and I shared so much, I had tears. I am grateful.