Part I – Tortoise in Hell’s Canyon
That is why I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart. I am going to give her back her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a gateway of hope. There she will respond to me as she did when she was young, as she did when she came out of the of the land of Egypt.
— Hosea 2:16-17
There are seemingly endless things that can agitate us and cause anxiety if we let them, and yet there is a simple remedy if we only let go and let God. With that internal battle playing out in my head that day over 15 years ago, I fled to the desert for some sunshine, fresh air and peace.
The sunshine was as abundant as usual over my home which lies in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Arizona. The air was exceptionally fresh and clear from a recent rain and a favorably gentle breeze. The peace seemed elusive.
I was heading northeast across a stretch of raw desert, careful to avoid the jumping cholla cacti that were growing prolifically in my path. It was made all the more difficult by their castoff pads that littered the ground. Having been stuck by the barbed spines on numerous occasions, I knew that if I wandered anywhere near them they would easily ‘jump’ at me and imbed deeply into any patch of flesh.
I managed to hook up with an old jeep trail that continued up into a canyon with only two cholla pads lodged on the side of my boot. I paused to scan the distant mountains for any interesting features that might be worth exploring while I flicked the pads back into the brush with the tip of my knife.
There were in fact a number of striking features in the canyon off in the distance including some stunning red rock towers, exposed multicolored strata and thick desert greenbelt that ran the length of a deep and wide arroyo. It would be a long climb, but I was definitely in the mood for some strenuous exertion to quiet the angst and immerse in the deeper quiet that surely awaited in the remote areas off in the distance.
After another couple of miles the old jeep trail abruptly narrowed and was getting rougher by the step due to tailings littering the way. I spotted what looked like a small cave in the mountain above me, but figured it might be a mine because of the red tailings piled up at the entrance. Curious, I scampered up the steep rock face for about 100 yards and peered down an old abandoned mine shaft. Quartz outcroppings were abundant around the shaft, so I guessed they had been mining for gold.
There were a couple of other abandoned mines nearby that I explored as well. One cut directly down into the mountain. My best guess at the depth was about a 250 feet deep after I dropped a couple of rocks into the abyss.
From the higher vantage, I was able to take in more detail of the canyon stretching higher up to the east into Bell Pass. The sun illuminated a unique red rock outcropping about a quarter mile further up the canyon, so I dropped back down into the arroyo, careful not to slip on all the loose rock littering the side of the mountain.
I plodded on with a number of thoughts still swirling in my head, until the deepening quiet and solitude of the canyon began to present an opportunity for a new line of thought which centered on God and His great Mercy.
I passed a number of coyote dens cut into the soft clay of the arroyo walls with the very ripe scent of game on the air. It was midday with the sun shining brightly, so that old trickster of Navajo lore was bedded down for the day, waiting for the sun to dip beyond the mountains and the night hunt that was sure to come.
I paused there briefly with a great weight of sinfulness weighing me down and a great yearning for forgiveness building within me. Father!
Maybe I paused there only a brief moment, or perhaps it was quite a bit longer, but I’m sure I was simply held in the timelessness of God’s now which was flush with His infinite mercy. Thank God.
Apparently not content to work that great mystery of grace on my soul and leave it at that, Our Father punctuated that moment with the perfect signal grace, one that He was certain I would understand.
The healing embrace of Our Merciful Father and the warming quiet was gently broken by the faintest of sounds. There was a little shuffling nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source. I took my time scanning the area up and down the surrounding wash until my eyes caught the slightest movement ahead and to my right.
Fancy that. It was a very rare and solitary desert tortoise with armour measuring roughly 18 inches in length. Surprised and delighted, I could barely move as a small stream of tears started to flow down my cheeks.
Tortoise was slowly plodding up Hell’s Canyon, past some smelly coyote dens, with the greatest of effort. Upon closer inspection, I could see some scarring on the back and sides of his old shell, probably the result of battles with coyote who no doubt tried to make a meal out of him on multiple occasions.
Even so, there was tortoise looking no worse for the wear, and I couldn’t help but marvel at this simple little creature of God’s making, so perfectly and lovingly outfitted for survival in this harsh environment.
Okay, so I’m about as human as they come, and the little encounter at the tail end of the Big Encounter was the icing on the cake as it were. Truly profound and refreshing!
Invigorated, I headed further up into the canyon to explore that area that I had spied earlier from the higher vantage point.
Twenty minutes later I turned a sharp bend in the wash just past a large mesquite tree and came upon a secluded spot at the base of a massive red rock outcropping. For some reason, I simply felt like I had arrived, though I can’t quite express why. It was a unique spot, not nearly as stunning as other scenery I had experienced in Arizona, but there was simply something compelling about it.
I rested there for about a half an hour as I took in the surrounding features and began to wonder who in their right mind would name this area Hell’s Canyon.
In the soft sand and clay of the arroyo I could make out various tracks. Horses had been this way, so had the occasional hiker. There were fresh deer tracks and I could also make out the smaller hoove prints of javelina. Of course there were coyote tracks here and there as well.
Above me in the rock face was a small cave that sort of gave me the creeps. I decided not to explore it that go round, for fear of what might be holed up there. Maybe that was not very rational, but the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end.
The ocotillos were in full bloom with their marvelous little fiery flowers on the tips of long extended branches. In fact the whole desert was fairly green and fresh from the recent rains and it seemed as if a variety of curious little birds suddenly decended on the area with their talkative chittering and lovely bird song.
Of course I was surrounded by desert rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes, including one peculiar red rock that stood out in sharp contrast to all the others. Not entirely sure why, but I immediately came to think of it as the mercy stone.
A few yards past the mercy stone, just on the edge of the arroyo, I spied another pile of rocks that looked like it might have once served as a fire pit.
Hell’s Canyon. Bah! For the time being, I started to think of it as Hidden Canyon.
I immediately set about clearing the fire pit and got down to the business of setting a very solid foundation for what was to become a massive rock cairn constructed as a tower measuring about five feet in diameter. On that first go round I managed to get it to about four feet in height and named it St. Patrick’s Cairn for one of my patron saints.
Eventually tired from the handpicking and moving of some very large rock, but satisfied with the effort, I headed back down the trail wiith the intent of many more trips to the spot to finish the work.
The work maybe seemed a bit fuzzy and odd at the time, but it was slowly taking shape in my heart nonetheless.
Part II – Cross of Cairns
Set up signposts, raise landmarks; mark the road well, the way by which you went. Come home, virgin of Israel, come home to these towns of yours. How long will you hesitate, disloyal daughter? For Yahweh is creating something new on earth; the Woman sets out to find her Husband again.
— Jeremiah 31:21-22
As intended, I returned to Hidden Canyon many times over the subsequent years following my first visit.
St. Patrick’s Cairn rose to about six feet, only to be knocked down on several occasions. Each time I found it flattened, I simply rebuilt it, endeavoring to use a little more care to fortify it with better construction. Sometimes I was really irritated by the destructive behavior of people. Other times I didn’t let myself get bothered at all.
I would also run into desert tortoises on two other occasions, a repeated signal grace that followed on journeys of deep sorrow and repentance for my sinfulness. The second time it was a pair of tortoises in the wash of Hidden Canyon. The third time I ran into a tortoise at about 1,500 feet on the mountain just to the north of Hidden Canyon. God is so good to us.
I began construction of St. Benedict’s Cairn a couple of years ago, in gratitude for the prayers from a friend I met over at The Pelianito Journal Blog. She was in the process of joining the Benedictine Oblates and I felt it was the least I could do. She was so delighted that she forwarded a picture of the cairn to her Benedictine house in Ireland and shared with me that they would be pleased to have the prayers of some guy half way across the world from a Hidden Canyon in the Arizona desert. Heck, I can’t imagine how often and powerfully I’ve benefited over the years from the prayers of religious hidden away in the convents and monasteries of the world.
Maybe it was just such a prayer that got the whole ball rolling the first time I visited the canyon.
I built a third cairn on the other side of the arroyo and dedicated that one to The Flame of Love, which I was also introduced to on Pelianito’s Blog. You can read more about that devotion at theflameoflove.org.
The fourth cairn was dedicated to St. Regina, inspired by the story and sufferings of another of the Pelianito family, but also everyone else in that same territory of souls.
In the end, the four cairns formed a simple cross spanning the wash. That wasn’t really the intention, but not surprisingly just the way things turned out.
I took my children out on different excursions to the spot so they could also pitch in. The long hike in and out always provided a great opportunity for me to share the faith, answer questions and help build them up. Funny how often I seemed to learn more from them than I imparted.
I also took some holy water up one day and blessed all the cairns with a liberal dousing and no one has flattened the cairns since to this day.
I noticed various little cairns (two or more rocks piled up) popping up along the rough route to mark the trail up to the cairns. Apparently, other hikers are starting to find the site. I haven’t encountered any, but I always wonder what they must think when they come upon the site. Hopefully, they’re running into tortoise as well.
I’ve also seen an increase in horse tracks and can tell from the sandy wash that they’ve spent some time pausing at the site with their riders. That’s good.
On one trip with my daughter, we finally explored the cave in the rock face above the cairns.
On a subsequent visit we were working on St. Regina’s Cairn when we found an interesting gray rock that formed almost a perfect square and was about an inch thick. It looked like the perfect tablet rock, so I decided to chissel a little map of the Cross of Cairns on it, indicating the arroyo cutting through the middle. We added the year and our initials and decided to place it up in the cave on a small eagle’s perch.
In addition to my wife and kids, I started taking friends up to the site when I could talk them into a strenuous hike in the desert. It can be like pulling teeth because some folks aren’t much for the outdoors and exercise, but they have all felt rewarded by the trek to the cairns.
Part III – Tongues of Fire
Yahweh is an everlasting God, he created the boundaries of the earth. He does not grow tired or weary, his understanding is beyond fathoming. He gives strength to the wearied, he strengthens the powerless. Young men may grow tired and weary, youths may stumble, but those who hope in Yahweh renew their strength. They run and do not grow weary, walk and never tire.
— Isaiah 40:28-31
During the course of erecting the Cross of Cairns I was called away to the desert, so to speak.
My professional life that filled my time with the din and demands of large companies was suddenly altered to working for myself in the relative solitude of a home office. As shocking a change as it was, the flexibility enabled me to spend quite a bit of time outdoors running around the neighborhood and hiking in the desert when I wanted for the most part.
I got in the habit of carrying little stones on my runs, symbols of the particular prayer intention I had each day which usually consisted of someone in my territory of souls. As rough as my prayers were and as difficult as it was to stay focused throughout, I managed to keep this up for many years with the hope that God would hear and answer me.
The prayer runs and cairn building with larger stones continued for about seven years, until I was once again called to change direction with a dramatic shift back into a large company culture. This time around I was tasked with leading the charge, but the seven years in the ‘desert’ had prepared me to approach things from a completely different perspective from my previous experiences.
Where the stakeholders saw only a challenging time for their company’s direction and profits, I saw a group of souls in desperate need of hope for something infinitely larger and lasting. Overall, it’s been quite the battle with little respite and only the most tenuous inklings of future victories. Even so, I hope and trust in the Lord.
I had previously mentioned that someone would occasionally knock the cairns down which was obviously frustrating, but once I allowed it to really get the better of me.
After reconstructing them I went so far as to knock down the little trail markers all the way down the hill, determined to obscure the path for any would-be vandals that wandered that way.
Later, I repented of the folly, when my nine year old once again marked the trail with little cairns of her own, without the slightest prompting from dad.
I resolved to exercise the utmost patience from that point on, whether I had to rebuild those cairns seven times seventy times. To this day, I’ve never had to repair them once. In fact, I can clearly see where others have effected some repairs of their own, even adding to the structural integrity and overall height with their own little additions.
Having encountered the tortoise on those three occasions, one would think that I should never have gotten angry at all to that point of selfishness and pride. As I also mentioned previously, I’m all too human though.
Bit by bit, I started asking people from work if they wanted to take a nice hike with me up into Hidden Canyon. Again, it’s a bit like pulling teeth, but I’ve managed to get some all the way up to the cairns.
On those occasions I’ve done everything possible to avoid the topic of work. Why spoil the great outdoors with shop talk, unless I see some clear opportunity to guide the topic into something really important.
For the most part, hiking lends itself to plenty of quiet and contemplation, so avoiding the wrong topics isn’t that difficult.
I also find that when it comes to matters of faith, a great deal of talk isn’t that necessary either when you’re surrounded by so many symbols in nature of God’s presence.
With every little detail proclaiming, “God exists,” what could my words possibly add?
Well, it turns out that sometimes words are necessary, on which occasion I immediately implore help from the Holy Spirit before the first word crosses my lips. Sometimes that word lingers there a long time before release, while at other times it just seems to burst forth. Sure, sometimes I also have to backtrack a little before eventually getting it right.
On a recent trip with one of my sons and my trusty trail dog, Lily, we were resting peacefully and having a chat at the cairns. He was wondering if anyone else had ever found the spot, when I heard some faint voices a bit down the arroyo, apparently heading our way. “Someone will be here shortly,” I said.
A short time later, two girls about his age came around the bend and we exchanged greetings.
Pointing at the cairns, I asked the girls, “What do you make of those?” One of the girls wasn’t quite sure and the other thought they were some kind of Indian ruin. My son looked at me waiting to see how I would respond.
“Actually, he and his sister helped build these,” I said while pointing at my son. “Maybe if you climb up to the top of that outcropping, you might get a little more perspective. There’s a bit of a mystery here, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” And with that, I added a couple of stones to St. Patrick’s cairn and we headed back down the trail for home.
My daughter and I were recently sitting quietly up at the cairns on a gloriously sunny day. I was admiring a tall butte that rose majestically in the distance, dwarfing St. Benedict’s cairn in the foreground. The butte was lit up like a vibrant orange torch, while the little cairn was sitting in the shadows. That certainly put it into perspective for me.
I smiled at the humbling lesson, then turned to watch my daughter who was humming a gentle little tune while she erected a mini cairn from a small pile of flat stones she had carefully chosen.
She turned to me when finished, beaming with a look of great accomplishment and delight.
“Awesome,” I said.