I spent a few days last week in the Gila Wilderness of Southwestern New Mexico, with my two sons, Luke and Danny, and two old friends, Ed and Don. In 1924 the half million acres of the Gila became the first stretch of land in America—and probably the world—to be set apart as off-limits to all human development. It was the first designated wilderness within the US Forest Service and it’s not hard to see why. It’s remote, a drive of three hours off the main highway on winding mountainous roads to reach the trailhead, and spectacular, with some of the most rugged mountain terrain in New Mexico and tall craggy cliffs nestling the verdant headwaters of the Gila River.
In 2012 the Gila was devastated by forest fires that burned 300,000 acres in the Wilderness and surrounding National Forest. This damage to the watershed led to unusually violent flash floods later in the year. Four years later, the trail up the West Fork of the Gila, where we hiked, remains washed out at many points. One of the chief of the many virtues of the Gila is that most folks don’t make it that far. We saw just a party or two each day of our sojourn, and we were in one of the most breathtaking parts of the Wilderness, camped out by Jordan Hot Springs, a big, clear, blue-bottom pool of 94-degree water—and no one else was using it all weekend. The Gila is hardly trafficked, so its trails are in stretches reverting to the wild. How quickly the wilderness reclaims its own.
In response, hikers and perhaps Forest Rangers as well, occasionally pile up neat little stacks of stone called cairns to mark the trail. There are plenty of trees in the Gila, but to mark the trail with blazes on the trees you’d need an axe or hatchet and such gear is too heavy for backpacking. Stones are readily available and easily stacked into cairns as needed. For a cairn to be effective, though, it has to be trustworthy. The hiker who places a cairn had better be sure it marks the real trail, and if we spot that little stack of rocks we have to believe it’s right. Near our campsite by the hot springs, someone had placed a cairn to mark another campsite, which wasn’t on the trail. An innocent hiker who might be heading a few miles further up the West Fork could be sidetracked by that cairn into a nice sandy-bottomed grove of trees that did nothing to help him on his way. I moved that cairn back to the trail itself, and set up a couple more as we hiked through the day.
We like to talk about life as a journey. I wonder what the cairns might be as we make our way on that journey. Is there really a trail, a right trail, that someone might mark off? In a postmodern world defined by skepticism and enraptured with finding your own way, who will trust the cairns anyway?
It might be a defining feature of religious community that we believe there are cairns out there, marking the way, that we’re responsible to set up a cairn now and then or to move one that’s in the wrong place, and that sometimes we’re only going to advance if we trust a cairn that someone else has set. That’s a counter-cultural thought isn’t it? A cairn does not repeat the current mantras about following your own heart and being true only to your own sense of things. A cairn implies you might well get lost without it. A righteous hiker might pause now and then to stack up a few rocks to mark a particularly obscure passage. So it is with the journey of life.
Hiking the Gila headwaters requires multiple crossings of the river. The stone walls of the canyon tower right into the water, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so the trail has to cross from side to side. I had read in a guide book that between our first-night campsite and Jordan Hot Springs, we’d have to ford the river 14 times. So, when we were hiking back the same way on day four I kept track of the river crossings, which totaled17. I figured that we might have crossed over and back unnecessarily at one point, so the real total was 15—not far off from the 14 mentioned in the guide book. I guess I was keeping track to know when we’d get back to our earlier campsite, from where we’d leave the river, hike up Little Bear Canyon and over a saddle, and then a couple of miles on a high ridge to get back to our minivan.
On that return hike we ran into two younger couples on their way into the Wilderness—a traffic jam! We asked where they were headed and they said Jordan Hot Springs, which of course made sense. Then we asked if they knew how to find the spring. One young guy said, “Sure, we have a map,” and we had to tell him that the map, which we had too, wasn’t detailed enough and the trail had changed since it was printed. They’d have to cross the river 15 or 16 times to get to the hot springs. But if they kept track of their crossings and started watching for the springs after 14 or so, they’d find them. If they were looking for it they’d see a little trail to the hot springs across from a nice open camping area with a couple of fire rings (where we’d spent the night).
Two things struck me as we wished the hikers good luck and walked off: It was worth keeping track of the number of crossings, so that we’d be able to give someone else a sure way to find the hot springs. And it was basic backcountry responsibility to give them the details—to provide a cairn—even though they didn’t realize they needed them. Sometimes life’s journey is that way too.