The Ozark Trail ambles down eastern Missouri, flanked by shortleaf pines and tracing the foothills, in places skipping over rocks and roots like a stony river. It’s a dream of mine to walk from its trailhead (just forty minutes from here) clear to the western edge of the Mark Twain National Forest— some 230 miles. I’ve only hiked stretches of the trail here and there, and even then, it can get brushy in places. Every half mile or so, I’ve learned to look up and find an “OT” marker nailed to a tree.
When my brothers, sister, and I hiked to Grizzly Peak in Colorado last summer, we followed a cut path along the bare ridges, the wind whipping over us. Trees don’t grow that high, so there aren’t little marked signs. Instead, climbers pile up stones to make cairns. A cairn is a gift to the next hiker. It doesn’t just signal the way to go, but says, Someone has been here before you. Climb on.
We had hiked since sunup that morning and in a final push to the summit, were picking our way among the loose shale. My lungs felt too small. I wondered how we’d know when we’d summited, or what we’d do if it was (Lord forbid) a false peak. But when I crested that final wall, my eyes beheld something beautiful. Someone had piled stones into a cairn that marked the summit. Someone had been there and had left behind an altar of remembrance.
I threw my pack down, ate my sandwich, and worshiped like Abraham, Jacob, or Joshua might have. In their long, weary journeys toward Mount Zion, they always seemed to be erecting little altars, leaving behind cairns that didn’t just say, Someone was here, but that Yahweh was here.
“‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.’ …So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.”
~ Gen. 28:16, 18
When Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan to Canaan’s blessed shoreline, God directed them to build a sort of cairn: “And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal” (Josh. 4:20).
Just as a trailmarker or heap of Rocky Mountain stones help the next hiker along, those uncut rocks in Gilgal were meant for the next generation who would happen across them:
“When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ …So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (Josh. 4:21, 24).
On the trail that’s winding toward Zion, I’ve often stopped to ask, “What do these stones mean?” Why do we hold to this truth, this tradition, this sacrament, this faith in a God we can’t see? I’ve often stumbled and grumbled and lost my way in forests thicker than the Ozark Hills. And in his grace, God has often lifted my eyes to the Mountaineer who’s gone before— who parted the waters and cut the trail— and I’ve remembered: Jesus was here before me.
And, in his grace, I’ve climbed on.
“…Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:2-3).