Marking the Way

From the dusty parking lot the trail begins over open slickrock. In the distance, the La Sal mountains paint a deep navy blue against the umber terrain. They rise up far in the distance, still snowcapped even in late June. A reminder that somewhere in this dry landscape water exists in abundance.

It’s a steady uphill climb. The rocks worn down with age and weather smooth out beneath our feet. Though it’s not a hike with much elevation, you still have to step carefully. Even dry rock can be slippery. We spend more time watching our feet than the scenery. We remind the kids, “three points of contact when you climb.”

As we crest the first hill, the vista opens up, and we stop to catch our breath. The mountains appear closer than they are now. Their navy mixes with the vibrant cerulean of the sky. We stand in wonder with our hands on our hips. Our breathing, still heavy, cuts the silence. We feel the weight and beauty and wonder of wilderness, standing here on the edge of it. I understand for the first time the ranger’s admonishment to stay on the trail. A person could lose her way quickly out here.

We gather with the kids for a picture. He and I grab a selfie. And then we look for where the trail continues. The map says to the left, but with so much rising slickrock it’s hard to see which way to go. We scan the area, and I see the cairn. We’ll go that way.

For the next hour we pick our way through slickrock following the cairns. We scramble around blackbush. We take water breaks in the shade of pinyon and juniper. We walk step in front of step along the upper edge of a slot canyon. “Watch for the cairns,” we tell the kids, who always are a stone’s throw in front, more intent on the destination than the journey. We may not know where we’re going, but the cairns know.

Cairns point us back as well as forward. For centuries, they have also served as burial monuments. From ancient Gaelic fields to coastal towns in Maine, cairns stand in silent witness to those we have lost. They mark the landscape like little altars, quiet testimonies to great love and great grief. Don’t build them in a national park (They violate Leave No Trace principles), but fill your backyard with them. Or fill your life.

As I consider the emerging topography of my new life without Rob, I know this for sure: my landscape will be filled with cairns. No map exists to guide me as I navigate without him. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, talked to women who’ve been on this journey long before me. Even so, the trail I walk is one I will have to chart myself. Each grief journey is as unique as the person who grieves. And so I write for myself, to chart my path, to find a way through this landscape where — if a woman isn’t careful — she can lose her way forever. Like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, I hope the cairns I write will lead me home.

My cairns will serve another purpose too. In everything I write, Rob will be there. The cairns I build will be for him, a monument to our love. I wrote before I met him, just diaries for myself. I happily lived in the sheltering shadow of his writing when he lived. Now I will write for all of us, to remember. I will write to remember that we carry with us always those we have loved and lost. That their work and witness can guide us even after they are gone. That our going on, our persistence in this climb that feels insurmountable, is both possible and necessary. My cairns will mark the way.

Published by Clarissa Moll

Discovering grace in grief

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