“…. the obligatory cairn will soon be visible announcing your arrival at the summit,” were the words in the route description of a sweet little country walk I indulged in today from a 24-sheep village named Saline, which included a bold-enough hill and a beautiful glen walk amongst some of the oldest remaining trees in Scotland. I had to ponder a bit about the author’s inclusion of the word “obligatory”. It is true that there IS a cairn at the summit of every mound of earth that rises above sea level in Scotland, no matter how remote or blushingly insubstantial it is. “Cairn” can mean a big pile of rocks in a variety of organizational states, or it can be as complex as a formally erected slab of vertical concrete, complete with a compass map on the top of it and a placard or two, but it is always there and all paths lead to it.
I have mixed feelings about the existence of cairns. They tend to make me too goal oriented, make me yearn to reach it by its mere existence , and I don’t like the idea of the desire to reach a man- constructed object usurping my desire for the mountaintop itself with all of its vistas and undulations. And then there’s it’s blaring reminder that I am not in the wilderness, that I was not the first to conquer Saline Hill, that all boundaries, summits, and features have already been duly claimed, recorded, and defaced. On the Arizona Trail, cairns were my petrified saviors, necessary for navigation on tricky, pathless routes. But they were usually modest and infrequent, and quickly swallowed by overgrowth, perhaps a healthy demise as the path becomes more worn. Scottish cairns are genuine beasts. I can’t imagine the force that builds them and the cause for their insistence on architectural grandeur. I prefer to mark my accomplishment of the summit by sitting myself onto a quiet outlook spot and eating a muffin, but you know what, if that cairn is there, I will go to it, and touch it. I won’t feel like I’ve “succeeded” unless I do. And I think that is my real problem with the cairns. It’s a man-made marker, a judgment, like “passing go”, an aspect of human-ness I am always striving to be away from when I step out onto the land.