Lessons From A Rock Cairn

by Jen Slayden on · 5 comments

Rock cairnnoun 1.  A human-made pile of stones erected to define a trail or mark a memo­r­ial    2.  A small breed of ter­rier from Scotland

Cairns are found all over the world, and have dif­fer­ent spir­i­tual mean­ings and his­tor­i­cal pur­poses.   When a large rock is placed on top of smaller rocks the cairn is fondly referred to as a “duck cairn” and it’s pur­pose is to show the way at a turn in the trail.

The sec­ond year of an annual back­pack­ing trip with my sister-in-law was one I won’t ever for­get.  After a whirl­wind of jug­gling kids, activ­i­ties, work, and musi­cal per­for­mances I was ready for the sound of silence that only the moun­tains can provide.

We thought we had our trip orga­nized, but the plan kept chang­ing.   A series of unfor­tu­nate events forced us to make a quick deci­sion about where we were going the night before we left, leav­ing us scram­bling to gather the nec­es­sary belong­ings the morn­ing of the trip.   It didn’t help that I left a pile of intended clothes back home on the couch that never made it into my bag in my whirl­wind to leave my house.

My sister-in-law is a plan­ner.  She likes to have her duck cairns point­ing her in the right direc­tion.   I, on the other hand, am used to being a bit more spon­ta­neous and have always had the habit of doing things more last minute.….call it a rock slide, if you will.

Our final deci­sion was to head into the Cab­i­net Moun­tain Wilder­ness south­west of Libby, MT.   We would hike 5.5 miles to Cedar Lake and ascend Dome Moun­tain the next day.   We pre­pared for wet weather and started our climb through the thick for­est with lush veg­e­ta­tion and Cedar creek flow­ing abun­dantly next to the trail.

Mona at the trailhead

The hike was beau­ti­ful but gru­el­ing.   The ele­va­tion gain was steady, and I had packed my bag hap­haz­ardly.   Mona was hik­ing along with­out a prob­lem, being the plan­ner who loaded her belong­ings in a much more orga­nized way!    We had beau­ti­ful weather.…partly sunny but cool with the shade of the clouds and cedar canopies.   A nice sur­prise along the path were amaz­ing huck­le­berry patches that were in their prime.

We made our final ascent to the lower Cedar Lake and took a minute to take in the view and take a rest, then headed up toward upper Cedar Lake.

We no sooner had found our per­fect camp site and set up the tent when the sky opened up and a steady down­pour of rain fol­lowed.  We ducked into the tent, popped open a bev­er­age and enjoyed the safety of our dry shel­ter while hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion that was not being inter­rupted by chil­dren.   The rain and con­ver­sa­tion washed away any resid­ual stress that remained before our quick break away from real­ity.  We both soon felt refreshed and excited for our hike the next day.

The weather gods smiled upon us, leav­ing us with a beau­ti­ful aroma in our lux­ury retreat for the night, and enough break in the weather to get a fire going to cook up some din­ner.   No fish this year, and our lit­tle moun­tain goat from last year’s trip was fondly missed.   How­ever, after an amaz­ing light­ning and thunder-storm dur­ing the night (which Mo slept right through) our one and only wildlife friend of the trip made his appear­ance at approx­i­mately 7:45 am the next morn­ing.   An obnox­ious squir­rel, who sit­u­ated him­self on a tree limb right above our tent was chirp­ing more fer­vently than any cuckoo clock I have ever heard.

Later, we thanked him.   We lazily made our way out of our tent and were blown away by the beauty of the blue sky reflect­ing on crys­tal blue Cedar Lake with Dome Moun­tain beck­on­ing us to her peak.

The still­ness of the early morn­ing at Cedar Lake

We ate a good break­fast, packed a day bag, and headed up the trail, which took us away from the lake and through diverse land­scapes.  The var­i­ous wild­flow­ers scented the moun­tain air and birds ser­e­naded our efforts.   The trail was good desen­si­ti­za­tion for any­one afraid of heights (aka: ME on occa­sion) as it hugged the moun­tain­side and forced us to pay atten­tion to every step we were tak­ing.    It was easy to be dis­tracted by the view as we climbed fur­ther and fur­ther up in ele­va­tion and were able to see  peaks and moun­tain ranges for miles.

We hes­i­tated at a fork in the road that wasn’t well-marked and con­tin­ued on, later to learn we had gone off track, extend­ing our trip another cou­ple of miles, but worth the beau­ti­ful view we received from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point.   Another spon­ta­neous gift!

After back­track­ing we found our­selves near sum­mit where the last ascent was rugged ter­rain of rock piles.   It took some fancy foot­work and con­cen­tra­tion to stay bal­anced but see­ing the end in sight was great motivation.

After tak­ing in the view from every angle we real­ized we didn’t see Cedar Lake.   Upon fur­ther obser­va­tion and look­ing over at another sum­mit we saw more rock cairns.

More ridge hik­ing and rock danc­ing took place until we made it to yet another summit.….the elu­sive peak of Dome Mountain-finally!

What a won­der­ful, quick, adven­tur­ous trip we had!   After all the obsta­cles we encoun­tered try­ing to make this trip come to fruition I believe Mona and I learned some­thing about our­selves and each other.    I some­times do not plan enough, and prepa­ra­tion is impor­tant.    She some­times plans too much, and flex­i­bil­ity is important.

The rock cairns that were erected on both the peaks we reached were great reminders of life and bal­ance.   Each rock rep­re­sents events in our life.   Some are weath­ered and sharp, some big and some small.    The struc­ture sig­ni­fies the whole per­son, made up of all our events, thoughts, expe­ri­ences, and even where we are head­ing.   The excit­ing thing is that we have the power to take all those lit­tle pieces of our lives and shape them how­ever we want!

LIFE LESSON? Embrace your rock cairn and enjoy the view!

by Jen Slay­den

Jen Slay­den finds her har­mony in West­ern Mon­tana with her hus­band Mark, their three kids, and an out­door lov­ing black lab named Cody. Stop by and check out her life in music, words, and edu­ca­tion at Find Your Har­mony.
Jen Slayden
View all posts by Jen Slay­den

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

rob white April 4, 2012 at 9:40 am

That’s quite an excursion with many a life lesson, Jen. Thanks for sharing. I love how you “dance” with each new challenge another rock cairn represented. True freedom to enjoy our hidden talents resides in a free mind and a soaring spirit. We have the power to exceed our wildest dreams when we mangage our successes so they come with more regularity and with greater outcomes than we imagined.
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Find Your Harmony April 6, 2012 at 10:15 am

Hi Rob,
“True freedom to enjoy our hidden talents resides in a free mind and a soaring spirit.” Wow. What a great quote!! Thank you for your contribution and thoughts here. I do love the way nature has so many analogies on living a life of our dreams.

Thank you so much for stopping by, and for reading my article!
In Harmony,


Galen Pearl April 6, 2012 at 9:28 pm

I enjoyed both this post and the last one, both of which reminded me of my backpacking and hiking days in Montana and elsewhere. It’s so beautiful. My hikes these days are shorter and tamer, but I enjoy the tales vicariously, and the metaphors directly!
Galen Pearl´s Last Fabulous Post ..Just a Little Bit MoreMy Profile


Find Your Harmony April 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

Hi Galen! I would love to hear about your jaunts in Montana!! That is really neat. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I am glad you enjoyed the stories. I know my time will come when I have to pare back the hiking trips, but I hope to have a great journal of life lessons and stories in a book when that happens, so I can always remember the details of my favorite times spent in the wilderness!

Have a beautiful Easter Weekend!
In Harmony,
Find Your Harmony´s Last Fabulous Post ..BILLY GOAT GRUFF?My Profile


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