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A cairn is, very simply, a pile of rocks.
But cairns and those who built them
tell us much more. Ancient peoples
used cairns to mark territory, good
places to hunt or danger spots. They
were created to provide good luck or
appease the gods, among other pur-
poses. Cairns were often erected to
bury the dead.
According to David B. Williams,
author of
Cairns: Messengers in
, cairns have been discovered
throughout the world. In the British
Isles, cairns believed to be the graves
of long-ago kings, date to 5,000 years
ago. They were constructed of stone
slabs and covered in boulders, perhaps
containing the remains of a sovereign
along with his subjects. “Beautiful,
evocative and enigmatic, these ancient
burial cairns exemplify the long link
between people, stone and the world
around them.”
In southeastern Missouri during the
Mississippian period 1,000 years ago,
people also created cairns for burial.
They placed their dead in a shal-
low depression in the ground along
with plant fibers, beads and pottery.
These gravesites were covered with
small rocks and then larger ones. This
society may have been associated with
the builders of Cahokia Mounds near
Collinsville IL who believed in life
after death. Supplies left in cairns were
likely for the deceased to use in the
Marking a trail has probably been the
most common reason to build a cairn,
Williams says. Anyone who’s traveled
rocky areas of the Ozark Trail, say
across glades on Taum Sauk Moun-
tain, passes cairns that replace the
usual trail blazes found on trees. These
cairns help travelers find their way and
offer a measure of comfort. Williams
says, “Finding a cairn in a wild place
can be amazingly reassuring, a sign
that you are not alone.”
Among the reasons to construct a cairn
are communicating a message or mak-
ing a marker. But building a cairn—
and leaving a trace of our presence on
the land—is also just plain fun. Ozark
Trail Association founder John Roth
was a skilled rock-stacker. His cairns
could be described as natural works of
art that seemed to defy gravity.
During a hike up Stegall Mountain in
May 2005, Scott Campbell followed
Roth to an open glade with a panoram-
ic overlook. While Campbell watched,
Roth began stacking rocks. Campbell
remembers that Roth “would stand
and stare as if he was trying to solve
a puzzle…then with utmost care, he
would place the next stone…”
Roth’s cairn-building expertise has
become legend among OTA volun-
teers. Campbell says that’s because
Roth took the practice to the level of
a chess grandmaster, scrutinizing his
set-up before strategically position-
ing the next rock, ready for the fol-
lowing move. Campbell remembers,
“We didn’t do a whole lot of talking
when he was building the cairns. I
didn’t want to disturb him as he was
concentrating on his creation.” He
adds, “Also, it’s hard to talk with your
mouth hanging wide open after your
jaw drops in amazement.”
It seems likely that Roth was not
building his cairns to drive a herd
toward waiting hunters. And since
Campbell is still with us, the pur-
pose wasn’t to bury a body. There
just happened to be time and an ample
supply of rocks in the glade. Roth often
stacked rocks in improbable configura-
tions in other places, too. Campbell
says, “I believe he hoped, as I did, that
someone would come along someday
and see those amazingly balanced rocks
and wonder who did that and how.
He seemed quite amused and pleased
with his monuments of impossibly
balanced rocks.”
Williams agrees that building a cairn
can come from a need to leave evidence
of being there. “I like cairns because
they are a way for people to connect to
a place and to establish a relationship to
the land and to those who have visited
and will visit.”
If you come across a cairn near the
Ozark Trail, take a few minutes to think
about the story it tells. Consider spitting
on a small rock to add to the pile. It may
help transfer your fatigue to the rocks,
according to many native cultures. May-
be you’ll also feel a connection, through
the stone, to the people who were there
before you.
A cairn on the Taum Sauk section of the trail,
leading the way through a rocky glade
John Roth captures a photo of his
rock art on Stegall Mountain.
The Ozark Trail Association