Moab, UT—At the trailhead in Arches National Park, my daughter and I launch our hike on a relatively benign dirt hiking trail, easily followed, marked with a metal sign. As the hike progresses, the trail becomes less clear. We don’t know it now, but we will be grateful for those who have gone before us, showing us the way.

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. I feel a bit of worry–the path is steeper, and seemingly unmarked. It feels just a little dangerous, and uncertain. I look around for a park ranger to ask directions from–but no one from the National Park service seems to be anywhere in sight. Though it is late summer, only a few hikers share the path with us.


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.

And yet, we find our way, because hikers before us have built cairns to mark the path.

What is a cairn?

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. These rudimentary yet beautiful trail markers show us the way. 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.

I recently noticed a cairn of rocks in the woods where I run several times a week. The trails are very familiar to me, enough that I simply don’t get lost there–even little side trails feel like home. I didn’t need the cairn to find my way. Seeing the rock cairn, though, reminded me of what they symbolize: an offer of hospitality and human connection, a reminder that we’re not alone. They also remind me that God speaks even in the mundane and familiar.

These simple piles of stone are trail markers. But to me, they are much more than that.

What does a cairn represent?

Reflecting on it now, I can’t help but think of the spiritual meaning of a cairn. Cairns exist because of the benevolence of strangers–cairns symbolically represent to me a sort of hospitality, in the biblical sense of the word. That is, hospitality to strangers. Someone who didn’t know me is welcoming me and making sure I find my way.

When we do something we don’t “have” to do, for people we may not even know–we are cairn building. Even if we are not creating a pile of stones, when we show kindness to strangers, or mentor others who need our guidance—we begin to uncover the spiritual meaning of a cairn.

But cairns also symbolize the quiet voice of God–this simple piles of flat rocks are easy to miss in the rugged landscape. Only when we pay close attention do we receive the guidance of cairns. Cairns can teach us to listen to God, to pay attention on the spiritual journey. And by the way, every journey is a spiritual one–whether we are aware of that or not.

Cairns are not permanent. Anyone could easily dissemble them, which is what makes these piles of stone so precious. But there is a camaraderie of hikers on a shared mission. Although we’ve never met the people who assembled these small rock structures, we trust them. Following cairns requires that we pay attention. Cairns remind us to pay attention on all of our journeys. They simply let you know you’re on the path, but don’t necessarily direct you. Cairns don’t tell you where you will end up–again, the similarities to spiritual pilgrimage abound. Still, we follow and protect these trail markers, like breadcrumbs that birds cannot eat.

And where we can, we build a few more cairns—contributing to the collective wisdom of hikers, showing others the way. Offering those on the journey a symbol of our hospitality. Welcome to the journey, we say. Walk in confidence and faith. (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 faith, of calling. Perhaps you wonder about your own purpose, and wish someone would build cairns for you, to show you the way. But maybe they have, and what you need to do is stop and look and pay attention.

Where will your spiritual journey take you?

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. Sometimes they’re made of rock but sometimes they things we do or even ways of being. 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. He’s also called me to guide those who want to write their story–a different sort of spiritual mentoring. In both cases, to invite others into an adventure of discovering the path. To build cairns, to be a cairn. To be a trail marker, a trail guide on the adventure of spiritual growth, on the spiritual practice of writing.

I see my own writing, for example, as a series of cairns, marking the path to a deeper experience of God, inviting others into an adventure. Each time others share my words, they place another rock on that particular cairn.

What is the next step on your journey? Which path are the cairns in your life directing you to take?

Next month, I will launch a writers’ group–a place of community where we can travel together, to find the beauty that the path leads us to. I will teach and encourage: building cairns for this group of travelers to follow. 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. You may not feel it, but someone needs your wisdom.

That day in Arches National Park, Mel and I made our way to the stunning Delicate Arch. We were grateful for the beauty, and for those who had trod the path before us and offered us the kindness and hospitality of simple stacks of rock to show the way.