Yet whenever I come across one of these heaps on a wild and windswept ridge—on Jay Mountain, for instance—I feel cheered. Aha! I am not alone. Someone else has been here before me, and no doubt someone will pass here after me.
A cairn exists to point us in the right direction, but it often evokes an appreciation that can’t be explained by its utilitarian purpose. You don’t react in the same way to a paint blaze.
As an analogy, think of the difference between a word’s denotation and connotation. The word rose refers to a flower. That is its denotation. But a rose can symbolize love or passion, among other things. So whatever Gertrude Stein may have said, a rose is not just a rose. And a cairn is not just a heap of stones.
The word cairn derives from Gaelic and dates back at least to the fifteenth century, but the building of cairns is an ancient custom, not exclusive to the Celts. Its primitiveness is part of the cairn’s appeal. The cairn connects us to humanity across the ages and reminds us that we are all wayfarers. It is a symbol of our journey.
Cairns appeal to our creative spirit. On many mountains, they resemble sculptures. A fine example is the cairn in the photo above, from the summit of East Dix.
You can read more about cairns on the Adirondack Explorer website by clicking here.
And if you have a favorite cairn, please tell us about it.
Photo by Phil Brown: Cairn on East Dix.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.