On the east side of I-25 from Denver to Colorado Springs, high atop a mesa called Rattlesnake Butte in Douglas County, something protrudes. And I wonder, is it an old Spanish trail marker?
What appears to be a pile of rocks is hard to discern from the road below. The butte is fenced off, private property. Cattle occasionally ramble across the base. My research thus far has not produced any definitive answer, but my imagination soars when I think of who may have constructed the cairn.
One theory postulates a pioneer family allowed their daughter, a victim of tuberculosis to climb the mountain to obtain healthy quantities of fresh air. I suppose it’s possible, but it is difficult for me to imagine someone so ill climbing and piling rocks up fifteen feet high. And I wonder if this story isn’t confusing Rattlesnake Butte with Nemrick Butte.
Still, an old wagon road attests to the fact that stone was hauled from the top.
What is a Cairn?
A cairn is a conical stack of rock (not to be confused with cairn puppies, a really cute terrier breed). This type of marker varies in size, and can be found all over the world. Some are painted, some have flags inserted through the center thereby making the flagpole visible for miles, but most are simply small trail signs.
You may notice in the side of a cairn a rock that sticks out, which seems to point the way. In North America, these are called ducks or duckies since they can look like a beak, but you shouldn’t necessarily rely on their accuracy. The beak may be a slide out from rain, or an unintentional bump. The expression “two rocks do not make a duck” defines this possible irregularity, so make sure you confirm your path with a map or compass.
The next time you ride your bike though National Parks or hike cross-country trails, if you see a cairn that appears to be eroding, consider whether you should add a stone to counteract erosion or other disturbances.
The Conquistador Connection
What if a Spaniard built the cairn? Who did he hope would see it? Was it a trail marker? A distress signal? A ruse? For me, the cairn atop Rattlesnake butte remains a mystery. Until I learn otherwise, I will enjoy the theater of my mind as I envision who built it and why. And perhaps, someday, I will write a book about it.
Don’t Lose Your Direction
Do you have any cairn mysteries? Or has time eroded the marker from your heart? If so, search until you find it. You don’t have to have all the answers, but I urge you to never stop asking the questions; they are the stones that build the monuments of our lives.