Cairn-making (and being) on the spiritual journey

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Cairn-making (and being) on the spiritual journey

By | 2018-03-02T18:56:03+00:00 September 7th, 2012|

Moab, UT—At the trailhead in Arches National Park, my daughter and I launch our hike on a relatively benign dirt path, easily followed, marked with a metal sign.

As we move toward Delicate Arch, an amazing natural stone structure carved by wind and erosion over centuries, the path takes us across an open space, sloping steadily upward, paved with nearly unbroken layer of flat red rock. The trail, worn by countless hiking boots, cannot be seen clearly—although in some spots, the path is a slightly lighter shade than the acres of flat red rock surrounding it.


There are no metal signs anymore. We find our way, because hikers before us have built cairns to mark the path. Cairns are small piles of rock, set along the path. They do not tell you which trail you’re on, or have an arrow pointing out a direction. They simply mark the path. Over a long open area, we can see more than one cairn, and so make our way from one to the next. In Arches, they are particularly poetic, mimicking in miniature the ancient naturally balanced stone formations for which the park is famous.


Cairns are not permanent. Anyone could easily dissemble them. But there is a camaraderie of hikers on a shared mission. Although we’ve never met the people who assembled these small structures, we trust them. Following them requires that we pay attention. They simply let you know you’re on the path, but don’t necessarily direct you. Still, we follow and protect these markers, like a trail of breadcrumbs that birds cannot eat.

And where we can, we build some—contributing to the collective wisdom of hikers, showing others the way. (Sam Van Eman wrote a great post over at The High Calling blog on how using our voice and wisdom can make us “human cairns” for one another.)

These sweet small piles of flat stones, balanced like a child’s building blocks, provide a picture of my purpose. I want to guide others on the journey of faith, to be a spiritual mentor. But I cannot take the journey for others, or carry them. But I can build cairns—small markers that point the way. And as Sam points out in his essay, I can be a cairn for others by fearlessly sharing wisdom, using my voice.

God has called me to guide others in their spiritual formation—to teach and write about spiritual practices that will help them to grow. To invite them into an adventure of discovering the path. To build cairns, to be a cairn.

I see this blog, for example, as a series of cairns, marking the path to a deeper experience of God. Each time others leave a comment or insight, they place another rock on that particular cairn. My vision is for this blog to become a place of community where we can travel together, to find the beauty that the path leads us to. How about you? Who’s traveled before you to build cairns for you? Who are you building cairns for, or being a cairn for? We all need guidance on the journey if we are to find our way.

Mel looking at Delicate Arch

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  1. Tim September 7, 2012 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Hey, I’ve followed (and contributed to) cairns on rock faces too! That kind of hiking is a fun adventure, Keri. I can just picture you and Mel making your way from one rock pile to another until the arch came into sight.

    What type of life-cairns am I building for others to follow? One way I’ve tried to guide others in their relationship with God over the last several years has been to write a weekly Bible study insert for the church bulletin. It’s a fairly comprehensive six-day study covering the Scripture passage and topic from that Sunday’s sermon. This ministry is coming to a close this month though, so I’ve been looking for another way to write and teach. I think I found it.

    Starting Monday 9/10 I’ve got a blog. We’ll see what happens. Hope nobody kicks over my cairn!


  2. Sam Van Eman September 8, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Keri, thanks for stopping in at I enjoyed your reflection here. So much meaning in these little pile of stones, isn’t there? And all the more when you’ve not only seen them, but have been guided along the path by them.

    I’m jealous of your hike.

  3. Keri Wyatt Kent September 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm - Reply

    Sam, so honored that you stopped by! This trip was the first time I’d encountered cairns, and I didn’t know what they were called until I saw your piece at The High Calling. And I agree–those little piles of rocks, reminiscent of altars–they are full of meaning.

  4. Keri Wyatt Kent September 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    WHOO HOO! So excited that after a year of being an affirming presence and guest poster on other blogs, you’re finally hanging out your own virtual shingle to share your wisdom with the world. May God bless your efforts and multiply your influence! Way to go, can’t wait to read it. Be sure to share the URL once it’s up and going!

  5. Lara Krupicka (@amusingmom) September 9, 2012 at 6:47 am - Reply

    I love your illustration here. I’ve never had the opportunity to hike a trail marked by cairns. But I can imagine how precious they are when there are few other markings.

    I’m used to well-worn paths with big signs and clear edges. They’re so easy to follow that you don’t even consider going any other direction (okay, those rebel types will plunge off in their own direction, but I’m a rule follower). And that makes me think of our culture. It’s so easy to go along with life just as everyone else does. But I see a lot of people around me not liking where that path has taken them. So I too am trying to leave cairns, to show the way down the less obvious path.I’m so thankful for God’s word and mentors in my life who’ve left cairns for me to follow. And I’m thankful for authors like you whose books (and blogs) act like cairns on the path.

    Now I want to take a trip to Arches National Park. It looks breath-taking!

    • Keri Wyatt Kent September 10, 2012 at 9:16 am - Reply

      Lara, thanks for stopping by and your kind words. Glad to have a fellow Redbud Writer here to offer some insights.

  6. Terri Kraus September 10, 2012 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Love this concept of cairns as a spiritual metaphor. So inspiring! Great job, Keri.

  7. Sarie Anderson September 10, 2012 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Hi Keri,
    Your writing always inspires me and usually speaks right to where I am at! One of my favorite places in Spain is the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage (750 km) that runs across northern Spain. I was so intrigued with the cairns (hitos in Spanish) that I saw the first time I experienced the Camino 6 years ago. Ever since, I have been pondering some of the spiritual parallels and you so beautifully expressed in words that which has been on my heart. I am going up this Friday to do two days on the Camino with my husband for the first time. He has biked it a couple of times and hiked much more of it than I have. It will be a great time for us to have our days of prayer and vision for the upcoming year of life and ministry and we both turn 50 this fall, so what better way to celebrate?! I will take your thoughts and questions with me as I will have many hours to walk and contemplate how God might have me answer while I am on the trail. If you ever want to experience the Camino in Spain, you know where to find me! It is an amazing experience!!

    • Keri Wyatt Kent September 10, 2012 at 11:42 am - Reply

      Sarie, Welcome to our little community at Deep Breathing for the Soul! Thanks for commenting and sharing your story. My daughter (the one in the photos) went to Spain last year! she will be delighted to learn the spanish name for cairns! And hey, I will also turn 50 in February and hope to go hiking to celebrate that as well!

  8. Tim September 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    50 in February, Keri? Yer jes’a kid!

    • Keri Wyatt Kent September 10, 2012 at 3:41 pm - Reply

      That’s true. My grandmother is 95 and still going strong, her mother lived to be 98. On the other side of the family, my grandmother lived to be 98 and her sister, my aunt, lived to be 101. So by my family’s standards, I’m quite young. :0

  9. Rev. Yvette Eber July 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this blog from several years ago. I am planning to quote you verbally in my sermon this week!

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