A cairn is a human-made pile or stack of stones used for wayfinding. Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, for increased visibility or religious reasons. (Tip of my hat to good ol' wikipedia!)
Milestones: Forging New Trails in 2016
The year ahead will bring many milestones for our little family and for our extended tribe. Our eldest will graduate high school in May and is actively discerning his future plans. Sometime later this year, he'll fly the nest and we'll learn to adjust to his absence. Both sets of grandparents are packing up the family homestead and moving to smaller digs. As we put a good foot forward and tread into unknown territories I am reminded of the life lessons I learned while hiking the trails and footpaths of my upbringing. During these times of great change I am especially aware of my own childhood and adolescence. As so often happens when we face the struggles of parenting ourselves, my mom and dad are looking better and better. Here at another crossroads in our journey on this big blue marble, I am grateful (among other things) for the perspective my parents gave me while we hiked together the peaks and valleys of the great American wilderness.
Step by Step: Hiking as Family Philosophy
Ours was a hiking family. When we vacationed and re-located (we moved a lot while I was growing up) to new parts of the country--from tropical forests to lush, slug-crawling woods and barren, frontier deserts--we got to know our surroundings on foot. My intrepid parents filled water bottles and backpacks and led my siblings and me (through various stages of willingness, apathy and downright resentment) up and down mountain paths and historical trails, encouraging us to know local flora and fauna and hints of human progress.
As small children we loved investigating tracks and trail scat; sensing wildlife so close exhilarated us. We checked seasonal blooms in our wildflower guides (an acceptable excuse to take breaks when the elevation got the better of us. Also a handy tactic for grabbing a snack mid-hike). We learned rudimentary survival skills and the art of minimal impact: we took only photos and left only footprints. We thrilled at signs of new life in fragile ecosystems and memorized the calls of coyotes, marmots and distant hawks. We respected the violent whims of Mother Nature, equating the smell of ozone above tree-line with impending lightning, recognizing the dizzying signs of altitude sickness, digging trenches to protect campsites during flash floods. We developed expert opinions on, and world-class recipes for, trail-mix. We read maps. We knew it was cheesy (especially as we explored the fourteeners and ghost towns of Colorado) but we sang John Denver songs full-voice, with wild abandon, whenever we got a chance.
Hard Work (and Physical Pain)=Nicer Teenagers
Even the specter of adolescence couldn't ruin the lessons of hiking. My siblings and I—along with the friends our parents begrudgingly let us bring along—woke before daylight with less enthusiasm (and more grumbling profanities) than we once had. We made nasty comments, wielded surly attitudes and generally made a mockery of the proceedings as long as we could. But the reality of physical exertion, along with the undeniable force of natural beauty, got the better of us every time. Now, in my own middle-age, with my own teenagers hell-bent on destroying any attempt at family fun, I am amazed at my mom and dad’s abject patience.
I know we rolled our eyes at the adults when they complained it was so much worse coming down a mountain. As we young people—invigorated and light-headed from the summit—leaped and tumbled down, our pathetic parents complained of aching knees and wounded hips. It took me until my mid-forties to understand, and the knee pain on an easy descent came with a humbling vengeance. What a drag it is getting old. Here is one secret of raising a family my parents understood: the more exhausted teenagers are from hard work, the more likely they are to crash at a reasonable hour, stay out of trouble and leave you to yourselves. Brilliant. While my friends attended weekend keggers, on hiking days I was more inclined to soak blisters in epsom salts at the kitchen table and make solid plans to get to bed. (In this post I discuss the adolescent need for boundaries, and here I write about various role models for parents of adolescents, including the Personal Trainer who works their bodies into exhaustion and exorcises those poisonous hormones.)
The hikes we took with our family—no matter how reluctantly I participated—formed the best parts of me and my siblings. We are people who believe we can survive, in the wilderness or a new job or a city we’ve never been before. We know the value of being prepared but we can improvise like nobody’s business, no matter where life takes us. There’s wilderness and there's urban wilderness. Turns out we were trained pretty well for both.
Markers on the Trail: You are Here
One thing I loved about hiking with my family and friends—no matter how tired, grumpy or out-of-shape I might have been—was the presence of cairns along the trails. Although I was never truly lost with my parents at the helm, when my adolescent friends and I set out on various adventures we tended to lose our way. How often cairns—those lovingly stacked piles of stones, left by unknown and unseen adventurers before us—set us back along the righteous path! As we puffed our way along mossy switchbacks, as the purple, frail-but-beautiful Rocky-Mountain forget-me-nots appeared in finger-holds on rocky outcroppings, cairns reassured us. Cairns center us, remind us where we are, guide us gently on our way. As we gained elevation and the adolescent fog lifted, I always marveled at the beautiful significance of cairns along the trails.
I often thanked unknown friends as I sucked in breath and took the next arduous step toward bagging another peak. Cairns—their elegant simplicity and vital function—seemed a bit like angels along our path. How often I have prayed for trail-markers along life’s journey! How often—in forms I sometimes recognize only later—have I been blessed with signs. People are living cairns on the trails of life. Advice from people who love us—parents, grandparents, trusted friends and elders—act as way-finders when we stray. In times of great transition and struggle, our connections to one another save us from the abyss and draw us into the glorious gift of life.
As a new calendar year dawns, may we remember the importance of cairns. May we continue to act as silent guideposts for our children as they journey toward adulthood. Angels on our paths—in the form of family and friends who are there for us when we need them—sanctify our journeys. I am endlessly grateful for my childhood, my family, and the mentors who remind me where my path is when I am lost. Let us be thankful for--and let us remember to notice-- the sacred markers along our way. May we be signals—signum fidei, signs of faith—to one another. May the rough stretches of our lives give way to expansive views and better times. And may we all--even with teenagers in the house, even when things seem impossible--remember to take in the scenery and try to enjoy the hike.
Also, perhaps we should add to our list of resolutions a few forays into nature with our kids. (On that note, please enjoy this post on the benefits--and challenges--of forced family fun. You may also be interested in similar musings about how to be as shelterbelts to our teenagers.)
I create these clay sculptures—inspired by cairns along the trails I’ve hiked—by throwing closed forms on my potter’s wheel. The whimsical and organic "stones," stacked in a yard or garden, seem to change with the seasons, like life itself. They are my homage to the cairns I loved so much during my childhood spent hiking. [For information on purchasing a colorful cairn for your home or garden, please contact me. :-)]