Cairns illuminate the path not taken |

Cairns illuminate the path not taken

Ellen Hollinshead

I forgot the directions to Black Powder Pass, but I knew it was between Bald and Boreas Mountain and clearly visible from Boreas Pass Road, so we just parked and started walking. Nothing better than a little bushwhacking, skirting the willows, crossing a couple boulder fields … the tundra wildflowers are the best I’ve seen in years. I kept the pass in site and immersed myself into picking the best route. We climbed to a gorgeous red rock ledge in the middle of nowhere and saw a rather large cairn (a pile of rocks usually signifiying that you’re on a trail). I’m not sure why that cairn was there, we didn’t see anymore nearby. Another one of those obsessed ‘Cairn Builders’ confusing us. Eventually we were funneled towards a creek that headed directly to the pass.

Next to this creek is a worn trail. Even though our final destination was blatantly obvious, every thirty feet or so along the trail were those silly cairns again.Years ago I was hiking a popular trail in Arches National Park with my friend Lynn, an Outdoor Wilderness Instructor who taught people how to survive in the mountains or desert. Lynn was this mellow happy gal who got along with everyone…but she didn’t like cairns. I will never forget how angry she became that day.”God, I HATE these things!!!” and with a cackle she’d kick the whole pile off the trail and then the next one and the next. I do remember that we were hiking up a series of sandstone ramps, usually a good place to have cairns since there wasn’t a visible path, but with our destination of the Arch in our faces, and our route limited by a dropoff on one side and shrubs on the other, there really was only one way up and it did seem a bit redundant to have cairns.

For Lynn, they were almost a personal insult. She had spent so much time teaching people how to travel in the wild, to always look around, to memorize the lay of the land, and figure out how to get from point A to B without relying on trails or cairns to show you the way.For her, those piles of rocks symbolized what is wrong with America, that we’re just a bunch of lemmings, relying on anything but ourselves to get us where we need to go because we’re too lazy or scared to figure out how to do it on our own.As you might guess, I’m not a big fan of cairns either, but I see their value. If the trail isn’t obvious, they certainly help. If cairns reduce impact within a fragile area and keep us all on one trail, that seems fine too. And that ‘cairn’ at the Dredge next to the Colorado Trail that from a distance looks like a Redtail Hawk perched on a boulder, well that’s trailside art at its finest!

I think what it boils down to is that I have trouble with people or trails telling me where to go – it’s the Libertarian in me. I love figuring out a new way up a mountain, or feeling confident that I can wander through the woods for hours and find my way back home. I’ve come across enough cairns that go nowhere, to realize that you shouldn’t always trust them. I’ve watched cairns seduce Jeffrey into following them, and he ends up at someone’s favorite campsite, while I’m already at the top. I admit, I’ve kicked a few over as well.But by far the most annoying are the ones which lead people off the beaten path and into these special places where you probably wouldn’t have gone. I have a favorite secret route that parallels one of our most popular hiking trails in Summit County. It’s a great bushwhacking alternative because it travels mostly on rock – ecologically correct – and I’m guaranteed solitude, which for me is key. This spring someone built a series of cairns through this zone, and what’s worse is that I followed them. Of course they disappeared and I ended up going sideways rather than uphill. We knew we were at the top of Black Powder Pass because any further and we’d slide down a snowfield thousands of feet into South Park. But just in case we had any doubt, there it was, the biggest pile of all, signifying to those who are clueless that yes, “You Are Here.” I didn’t knock this one down. Cairns on summits are a tradition and it was the home for a noisy pika and quite a few of my favorite Sky Pilot flowers growing around it’s base. But on our return trip…well…I’m sure you’ll do just fine making your way down…minus a few of those piles of rocks.

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