The Evolution of the Urban Cairn

I believe that it is fair to have personal interpretations of scientific theories, perhaps non-scientific versions of various processes that may otherwise be unexplainable. I for one have my own personal explanations for any number of scientific rules or theorems and even historical events. Take evolution for one… Chuck Darwin first came up with the theory of evolution while basking on the cliffs of the Galapagos, mindfully observing a long probiscused moth sampling from various long corolla’d flowers (here is where I imbed my own interpretation of science and history). He postulated that this highly specialized long-tongued moth coevolved with this flower that hid its tasty nectar deep in its floral tube. This moth, though likely not the most handsome fella in the schoolyard, had a physical advantage over his short-tongued cohorts and was much more likely to survive and therefore mate. Slowly, year after year those long-tongued moths became the norm amongst the short-tongued moths. Alas, natural selection! Perhaps, the natural selection of one given trait, deselects for another. Maybe this newly evolved long-tongued moth once had larger wings to meet a greater capacity for flight to seek out those few existing short-tubed flowers. But with the adopted long tongue, those muscle bound wings were a thing of the past. Kind of like how skinny nerds with big brains are now cooler than beach bound meat heads with big biceps (think 2010 Steve Jobs vs. 1990 Fabio).

Rewind some tens of thousands of years to the evolution of modern man, Homo sapien. Modern man had a variety of naturally selected traits that made him a more successful survivor and perhaps suitor. For one, modern man (thankfully) lost the massive forehead of its predecessor Cro-Magnon man. He certainly was less dominant at head butting, but he likely had much more confidence in courting a mate. Yes, modern man has many adapted traits that allow him to analyze problems, build tools, run efficiently on two feet, and cool himself without the need of a massive tongue. But the natural selection and adoption of traits comes with a cost as it may coincide with the loss or de-selection of other attributes. One specific trait that I have been observing that has been and continues to be deselected in modern man, is modern man’s sense of direction and general navigation. I have carefully observed my four-legged running partner as he negotiates trails, mountainsides, and meadows. He is a domesticated beast; one with superb abilities to identify where A and B lie. He may not know why we are going to B, but he sure as hell knows how to get there. Fast. He has a highly sensitive nose and a surprisingly good memory to store and recall those clues to formulate some sort of scratch and sniff trail map. This allows him to travel in full stride, nose to the ground, in absolute darkness cutting every single switchback (many of which are hidden from the sight of his 24” stature). It is absolutely fascinating. I do not have such skills, nor do most humans. Though we lack the ability to ‘sense’ the trail, our brains have evolved to have the deductive reasoning required to develop tools and methodology to find direction and orientate ourselves. My Viking ancestors were guided across the seas to the next unsuspecting village by the stars, making maps as they progressed. Travelers afoot used the night sky as well, but incorporated various markers to define and retain specific routes. Stacked rock cairns were used centuries ago to mark travel routes across the seemingly homogenous green hills of Scotland. Though we still use cairns today to mark alpine routes in the backcountry, trails now are marked with numbers that generally mean nothing to anyone except for the person marking them and wooden signs with trail names and directional arrows. This methodology has been further applied to our hard surfaced urban trails (i.e. road names and highway numbers). And now we have GPS devices on our dashboards and in our pockets that actually tell us where and when to turn. As we have become more reliant on trail markings and developed more sophisticated tools to navigate, we are artificially deselecting for instinctive navigational skills. Case in point is the Starbucks on every corner of many metropolitan centers (thank you Missoula for not conforming to this model). Our GPS adapted culture is losing the ability to find and remember locations, so in response these targeted locales now need to always be within eyesight.

By now, you are likely wondering where I am taking you on this literary journey; please stay with me for a little longer as we will soon arrive at my point. I have become fascinated with one of modern man’s latest strategies of navigation and trail marking; the urban cairn.

Thanks to the well place urban cairn, the
Kim Williams trial is navigable.

The urban cairn, like its historical predecessor, is strategically placed to guide travelers along a specific course. But unlike the naturally derived cairns that can be quite aesthetic and perhaps invoke a romantic view of the path, the urban cairn is a contrived marker of man and beast more utilitarian in nature, so void of aesthetics that it actually detracts from the natural beauty of the trail or route. When we first moved to Missoula, I was surprised by the ease of navigating the complex web of trails on the North Hills, the Kim Williams, and the iconic ‘M’. All thanks to the urban cairn. I would often find these cairns highly concentrated near trailheads, sometimes sitting on rocks, partway up hills, covered in snow, but most often right along a well-worn path. Oddly enough these were dynamic markings, sometimes disappearing after a few days or a week, while others appearing in other locations. As an amateur investigative journalist who was intrigued by the urban cairn, I had to find out more. How did they get there? Where are they taking me? Naturally, I spent as much time as possible scouring the trails searching for the purveyor of the urban cairn, often times in the pre-dawn darkness. I would find these urban cairns lining the dark unoccupied trails as mysterious markers to some unknown destination. I envisioned the trails of Missoula being haphazardly marked with these urban cairns by a mythical creature as elusive as the tooth fairy, but not necessarily someone you would want digging around under your kids’ pillow; something more closely resembling Sloth from The Goonies.

I do understand the intended use of these urban cairns, and I appreciate the collection of the waste left by our four legged running partners. Trailheads are often a collection point for eager canines that have just exited a vehicle and are preparing for a jaunt on the trail. If these heavily used areas are not cleaned, they can become quite unpleasant. This is an absolute responsibility of any dog owner, and is encouraged by the placement of garbage cans, collection bags, and written notices at many trailheads. What I question is the indirect application of these vessels as trail markers; as the urban cairn. I will refrain from injecting too much of my opinion (though it is likely easily distilled), but would like to highlight a few of the various ironies entrenched in these green and brown trail markers. I am willing to bet that the majority of the bipedal trail users are doing so for one of two reasons, likely both. The first being recreation. If fitness is the goal, why is there a collection of these cairns within spitting distance of a trash can?

The purveyor of the urban cairn may be willing to walk/run for miles or hours, but unwilling to backtrack 20 feet to place this cairn in its proper location? The second likely reason for a jaunt on any one of Missoula’s urban trails is to access some of the natural beauty of the area that flows right down into our community. The warming temperatures of spring and the plentiful ground water produce a fantastic mosaic of colors on our surrounding hillsides. Many of these trails provide an intimate view to these delicate ecosystems or provide access to vistas of the vast beauty of the valley. The urban cairn along the trail just doesn’t fit my perception of natural beauty, and is often an unappreciated contrast. And last, why capture this natural mishap in a bag if the intention was just to leave it on the trail? Accidents happen, so wouldn’t it be better to remove the material from the trail, from the soles of the next traveler’s feet, rather than leaving a bag of poo sit on the trail? I am far from the model dog owner, and occasionally nature or the pressures of running strikes my little buddy’s tummy when we are without a bag or far from a depository. Thus, the origination of the saying ‘shit happens’. Simply removing the material from the trail and placing it into a natural setting where it can be broken down seems more appropriate than capturing it in a bag and leaving it behind. Better yet, if that untimely natural release can be captured in a provided vessel, then pick it up and haul it off. No one is going to pass judgment, I promise.

With the adoption and development of any new trait or skill, we must be careful to not succumb to the artificial de-selection of other positive attributes. We as humans have the acute skills to develop sophisticated and powerful tools to guide us through the wild. Let us not surrender all of our instinctual navigational abilities of our evolutionary predecessors and become reliant upon our pocket computers or the urban cairn. Let’s, myself included, try to resist this artificial de-selection, use the natural clues for navigation so we can further appreciate the intricacies of our natural surroundings and be sure that our neighbors have the same experience.


  1. Seth I too have spent time thinking about the thought process behind today's urban cairns. The only working theory I have is that contributors or urban cairns believe that park rangers patrol each and every trail 24 hrs a day to clean and restore the trails back to their natural beauty. Urban cairn creators believe that they are doing a community service in packing up the waste in a nice green bag and leaving a visible marker to guide the park rangers in their daily restoration work. My personal favorite is watching someone walk/hike/run an out and back trail segment, create their cairn near the trail head on the way out and then walk right past it on the way back!! There is much to be studied and learned from the urban cairn artist! Signage? Fines? More garbage cans in the wilderness?



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