AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID B. WILLIAMS, AUTHOR OF CAIRNS


This interview first appeared in The Mountaineer magazine

 

Cairns

 

Download the first section from Cairns now

 
 

You write that “Cairns are a sign of community—of hikers, of family, of humanity.” Is this true in cultures all over the world

One of the pleasant surprises of my research was how pervasive cairns were around the world, not just as trail markers but as cultural monuments. Perhaps the best known are the inuksuit of the Inuit, which are used to indicate everything from good hunting grounds to safe river crossings to the best route home. There are also the tsé ninájihí (where stones are repeatedly placed) of the Navajo, Icelandic beinakerlingar, in which people left bawdy poetry, and oboo of Mongolia, where people sacrificed animals to the spirit within the cairn. In each case, the cairn . . . helps inspire and inform group members and their understanding of their place in the world.

Do you have a personal story of when you thought you were lost in the wilderness, only to stumble upon a cairn that helped you find the right direction?

I have been fortunate not to have been lost and needed a cairn, but when I lived in southern Utah I regularly had to rely on them for route-finding. One time three pals and I were hiking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It was getting toward sunset and we were trying to follow the trail back through a series of narrow slot canyons. We had spaced out on bringing headlamps, so as the light dropped we had to focus intently on finding the next cairn. I forget who was leading at the time, but that person stopped abruptly and the following trio ran into him, one after another, like in some stereotypical cartoon of buffoons.

I was intrigued by the fact that cairns can be problematic at national parks. What does this mean?

In many parks, there have been what one ranger calls an “epidemic of cairns.” At Yosemite, for example, there are areas with hundreds of short stacks of rocks, as well as stacks in trees and stacks towering more than six feet tall. These cairns are a safety issue and an esthetic concern. They also are an environmental problem, as removing rocks for cairns disturbs fragile habitat for plants and animals.

In the book, you range from the Northwest to Iceland to the Middle East and beyond. From all the various piles of rock you describe, do you have a favorite cairn?

 

I have two favorite areas of cairns. The first is in Iceland, in the broad, flat valley of Þingvellir. Around 930 AD, the early settlers of Iceland gathered to hold the Alþingi, the world’s first parliament. More exciting to my little geologic mind, though, is that this is one of the few places on earth where the boundary between two tectonic plates is at the surface. The valley is formed by North America and Eurasia spreading away from each other. A cairned trail leads across the valley and by following it you can walk from North America to Europe.

The second area is on Hawaii’s Big Island on the route up Mauna Loa. The trail is very Southwestern in that it is all on rock, in this case on basalt flows, some smooth as concrete, some ropy, and some so sharp they are known as a‘a , in reference to how they feel underfoot. On the ascent I counted almost 200 cairns made of black and red boulders and ranging in size from just a few to dozens of rocks. Without them we never could have found our way.
 
   
 
 
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