Praise the Lord, who is so good; God’s love endures forever; Praise the God of gods; Who alone has done great wonders; Who skillfully made the heavens, Who spread the earth upon the waters, Who made the great lights; The sun to rule the day; The moon and stars to rule the night… Praise the God of heaven, God’s love endures forever.
— Psalm 136:1-9, 26
None of my children were around as a bad knee and ankle were groaning at the thought of trekking up into the foothills. Still, a promise was a promise, and I was already late in my delivery.
My dog seemed game as I started gathering some light essentials into my pack. Her tail was wagging furiously with building excitement until I finally headed into the garage and opened the car door. Somehow she had managed to launch herself into the passenger seat in a blur before I had even lifted a foot into the car.
Ten minutes later we were crunching gravel on an old miner’s trail that wound its way up into an unnamed canyon in the McDowell Mountains.
I’ve attached a video of the small expedition if you’d like to get a glimpse of the setting and terrain, but I also wanted to point out a few other things about the journey.
I rarely run into other adventurers on the trail, but when I do I’m almost always surprised at how distracted they are. I’ve walked past people talking business on their cell phones on Sundays, pairs or small groups chattering away with all the latest gossip about family and friends, earphone wearing mountain bikers jamming away on tunes as they rip up the trail on the way past… well, you get the idea, and to be fair, not everyone I’ve encountered comes from that ilk. I sometimes cross paths with other pilgrims who are quite friendly, peaceful and deeply thankful for their surroundings.
My dog, Lily, and I didn’t run into anyone on the trail today, so I just slogged ahead on tender joints with a gentle breeze as quiet as my thoughts. A few miles later we rounded a left bend and came upon a special place in a secluded arroyo.
A year and a half ago, I built a large rock cairn with my son to mark a special place of prayer. I had previously built others on the same spot, but someone always promptly knocked them down as I discovered on subsequent visits. For whatever reason, the latest cairn is still standing after quite a long stretch, so I had resolved a couple of weeks ago to add another in prayer for a faraway friend who was getting ready to celebrate a new phase of life as a Benedictine Oblate.
This all seems somewhat silly and pointless to some people who know me, but I have my reasons; not the least of which is a profound respect for God’s creation and a love of wilderness places. Places that remain the way God made them, where every little unspoiled detail is a joy to experience and contemplate.
I took my time building Cairn No. 2 (Benedict’s Cairn) while the dog sniffed around and stood watch. Building a solid foundation on the right spot is essential of course, and then the tower quickly starts to take shape as there are initially easy pickings for flat rocks on the ground nearby. It gets a bit tougher as you go higher, and I found myself having to go farther and look harder for just the right additions that would hold up the integrity of the cairn.
Finally satisfied with the effort, we headed back down the trail with the moon rising over my shoulder and the sun setting over the westerward trail home. The air was clear and the colors were spectacular, lighting up every detail of the desert with a special clarity that is so dependent on the just the right conditions in the proper season.
It was under that special light that I started noticing little cairns, small markers left by other hikers that mark the difficult trail, winding its way back and forth across the arroyo, up and over scattered boulders and across miles of river rock. Someone had even tied a little ribbon marker on a palo verde tree to mark a confusing bend in the route that leads to the larger cairns. Various footprints in the sand here and there also left sign of other hikers.
This gave me momentary pause on the trail, and I started imagining those occassional hikers with cell phones or other distractions, rounding the bend to be greeted by the mystery of the two cairns.
What must they think? Do they stop what they’re doing and take a good look around? Snap a picture or two on their cell phones? Ease away from distraction and notice the peace and quiet? Well, I’m not sure what they do or think, but I can’t imagine that it could possibly make anything worse, and I’m rather hopeful that a little more light shines on their souls.
I forwarded a couple of pictures to my friend and her family and thought that you would also perhaps enjoy the video and this short narrative.
Of course she was appreciative of the small gesture, and commented that Benedictines everywhere are probably benefiting spiritually in some way, not knowing until heaven that it was due in small part to an Irish runner building cairns in the desert of Arizona.
That’s funny, since I’m quite convinced that I do nothing but benefit from the prayers of truly holy people, such as Benedictine monks in various abbey’s of which I’m unaware. Who can possibly imagine how many prayers it took to get me just to this point and how much thanks I owe them.
Cairns of thanks. That’s just another of the reasons that I do it.