Building a Cairn

If you have ever walked in wide-open spaces, you know the value of cairns.  In forests, you can usually see the path, but when everything in front of you is rocks next to rocks, spotting that heap in the distance is a life and leg saver.

I don’t know if you have backpacked the rock-next-to-rock country.  It is hard work.  I learned from the Norwegians that the secret to passing across rock country is to make sure you walk fast enough.  By the time one rock discovers you weight and wants to move, you have already moved on.  Slower walking means that you must rebalance yourself every time a rock rocks (sorry, not sorry.)  Rebalancing is good core work, but miles of it is very exhausting.

Detours are not that welcome.  Hence the cairns.  Yes, one could paint some of the rocks.  But in bad light, it may be impossible to find the markers.  The rocks may have shifted if stepped on, hiding the painted surface.  Somebody has to keep painting when the markers get bleached by the sun and rain.

The cairns, on the other hand, are the responsibility of all of us walking the path.  Their height tells that you are not the only one who trudged this way – and your added rock says that you, too, were here, caring about and contributing to the safe passage of the next walker.  It is both an honor and a responsibility to add to the pile.

How often do we get to take part in such community projects that are passed down from one generation to the next?

I don’t know if you have walked the metaphorical rock-next-to-rock country.  It is also hard work.  More often than not, it is Shame Shadow Country with deep bogs and ice-cold streams that want to suck you in.  How lovely to find a guide who has walked the path before us.  Even if the time and circumstances may not allow the guide to walk next to us in real-time: when they have left their rock on a cairn, saying “I, too, was here”, we may still find our way around the bogs and over the safest fords by our own perambulation and their markers.  We might wish that we could pass through faster, but this must be core work as along the way we want to learn which rocks support us and which don’t.

Emotionally, I am like a two-year-old.  You can read aloud Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to me – or I can tip over my cup and see the law of gravity in motion.  (I have been told by my frequently tested mother that as a two-year-old I was quite the scientist.)

Like Newton’s Principia, tons of books can tell you that “safe passage can be found using this map” across Shame Shadow Country.  As much as I can geek out about these things, I have noticed that for doing my own work, I also need the cairns.  Hearing your story – for my inner eye seeing your milk splashing to the floor – motivates me better to go for a walk than reading theory.  I need to know that a real and courageous person was here and put down a rock on this heap.  And in gratitude, I can pass on the favor by adding my rock for all to see.

Eventually, the cairns will be so big and famous that people excited will travel to Shame Shadow Country just for the honor of putting down their rock.  And until that happy day, my step is lighter because I have fewer rocks to drag around when I have put them on cairns.

Sooo… what’s in your backpack?

This post is honoring Diane Wyzga, who introduced the metaphorical cairn in a comment, and the courage and cairn building of Laura Grey and Laura Staley.  May you all walk with lighter steps.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Charlotte,
    I absolutely love the HEART that lives in this essay.
    Eloquent, heart centered, and alive with a rawness that is palatable.

    YES…Diane, Laura and Laura have inspired and touched my heart with their personal stories and given me permission to feel the feels – even when they hurt and then get them on paper.
    And YOU have inspired me with the depth of your writings inviting me to go deeper.
    For this, I am grateful for you. For all of the writers that have opened their hearts and allowed us to witness the tenderness and power of being human.
    May you travel lightly my friend…

    • You have an extra advantage, Carolyn, you have recently had all your sense of normalcy questioned when moving abroad, and that gives a lot of material to work with. I am so happy that you are both able and willing to do that in a loving manner.

  2. As an avid backpacker, Charlotte, I love the cairn analogy.
    Signposts from those who came before, built upon for those who follow.
    At my advanced age, I travel pretty light and so am unlikely to carry stones in my pack.
    But I frequently stop and find one to raise the cairn.
    A figuratively, that is what my writing is about.
    Peace and no shame