Making Mountains Out Of Trail Markers? Cairns Spark Debate In Southwest

Originally published on August 5, 2015 10:07 am

When people go hiking these days, all kinds of gadgets can help guide their way. But historically, humans used something a lot more low-tech: a pile of rocks.

The piles, technically called cairns, have marked trails for millennia, but in recent years, these stones have become steeped in controversy.

To Beth Dinet, stacking stones provides "an overwhelming sense of peace, and connecting with onenness."

As she builds a pile at a popular swimming hole — and "spiritual vortex" — near the New Age hub of Sedona, Ariz., she searches for rocks with the right smoothness, flatness and metaphysical energy. She tops it with a white rock, sparkling with a bit of crystal. Nearby, others have built dozens of other cairns.

"When someone else walks this path, and they see these rocks, they know that, 'Hey, someone else experienced maybe the same thing or had the same thought as I did when I was out here,' " says Dinet. "So it's a unity."

That's not the feeling they inspire in Robyn Martin, a lecturer focusing on ecological oral histories at Northern Arizona University. She experiences something a bit more aggressive.

"Yes, I have knocked a few down, sure," she says, adding that she considers the cairns "pointless reminders of human ego."

"There are so many different ways to express yourself, and to be out in these wilderness areas with your family or by yourself, where you don't have to leave a reminder for somebody else to find that you were there," she says.

Through the years, she says, she's seen cairns go from being navigational tools to becoming a kind of backcountry fad, popping up like mushrooms.

Martin's irritation isn't just about aesthetics. Moving rocks alters the landscape, she says, causing erosion and evicting insects from their homes. They can also confuse hikers, leading them astray.

She recently wrote as much in an essay featured on the website for High Country News magazine. Some commenters agreed with Martin, but others were blistering: "Go murder some kale," "get a life," "#istherearockshortage."

Author David B. Williams says he turned up similar passion while researching his 2012 book Cairns: Messengers in Stone.

He says that national parks have been inundated by these towers of rock, from Maine to California to Hawaii — and that careless cairns go against the very nature of the stone columns, which Williams says have been used on every continent to convey critically important messages.

"This is a way to go, this is a way to avoid; this is a way to appease a deity, this is the way to honor the dead," he says.

That said, given that humans have felt compelled to construct these piles for millennia, he understands why people continue to.

Dinet says she understands the argument against building cairns, but feels her little pillar shouldn't be compared to graffiti or litter.

"There's worse things in life that you could do to make yourself feel good than stack some rocks," she says.

And so the fad continues, one stone at a time.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hiking these days, pretty different than it used to be. There are so many gadgets to help, GPS, apps with radar that tell you if rain is coming - assuming if you have service of course. Maybe you leave the phone at home to truly get away. But humans used to have no choice at all. The only gadgets to guide the way were more low-tech, like a pile of rocks. It is technically called a cairn, and it's been marking trails for millennia. But as Stina Sieg of member station KJZZ in Phoenix explains, these stones have become steeped in controversy.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Beth Dinet is searching for the perfect rocks, smooth, flat, easy to stack and with the right metaphysical energy for a cairn.

BETH DINET: I don't know. They just give an overwhelming sense of peace and connecting with oneness.

SIEG: She's crouched on the banks of Buddha Beach just outside the New Age hub of Sedona, Ariz. It's a popular swimming hole and considered a spiritual vortex. Dinet's cairn celebrates that energy and joins dozens of others left here.

DINET: And when someone else walks this path and they see these rocks, they know that, hey, someone else experienced maybe the same thing or had the same thought that I did when I was out here. So it's a unity.

ROBYN MARTIN: Yes, I have knocked down a few, sure.

SIEG: That's Robyn Martin, a senior lecturer at Northern Arizona University. She calls these cairns pointless reminders of human ego.

MARTIN: And somebody might think I'm kind of a crank or at least curmudgeonly.

SIEG: But for years, she's seen cairns go from being navigational tools to becoming a kind of backcountry fad, popping up like mushrooms. And Martin's irritation isn't just about aesthetics. Moving rocks alters the landscape, she says, causing erosion and evicting insects from their homes. It can also confuse hikers, leading them astray.

MARTIN: There are so many different ways to express yourself and to be out, you know, in these wilderness areas with your family or by yourself where you don't have to leave a reminder for somebody else to find that you were there.

SIEG: She recently wrote as much in an essay featured on the website for the magazine The High Country News. The online comments were immediate and blistering. Some readers agreed with Martin, but others wrote things like, go murder some kale.

MARTIN: Or get a life.

SIEG: Or #istherearockshortage.

MARTIN: I was completely blindsided by those.

SIEG: But it didn't surprise author David B. Williams. He turned up similar passion while researching his 2012 book, "Cairns: Messengers In Stone." He says national parks in particular have been inundated by these towers of rock from Maine to California to Hawaii.

DAVID B. WILLIAMS: They're everywhere.

SIEG: And careless cairns go against the very nature of these stone columns, which Williams says have been used on every continent to convey various messages.

WILLIAMS: This is a way to go. This is a way to avoid. This is a way to appease a deity. This is the way to honor the dead.

SIEG: It's been that way for thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years, Williams says, which is why even though he's frustrated by many cairns, he also understands the human urge to construct them. Back at Buddha Beach, Beth Dinet is topping off her cairn with a white rock, sparkling with a bit of crystal. She says she gets the environmental argument but feels her little pillar shouldn't be compared to graffiti or litter.

DINET: There's worse things in life that you could do to make you feel good than stack some rocks.

SIEG: And so the fad continues one stone at a time. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Sedona, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.