My cairn along the Genesee River, constructed on November 29, 2020.
[Joshua] said to the Isrealites, “In the future, when your descendants ask their fathers ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground’… so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful.” (Joshua 4:12-24)
On November 1, 2020, I packed a van with all my worldly possessions (and my younger brother) and drove the nine hours from Grand Rapids to Rochester, New York, where I’ve started my new life. When I phrase it like that, it sounds like I’ve been put in the Witness Protection Program or something, but I promise I’m not testifying against the mob—I just got a new job.
I had never set foot in New York State until my brother and I schlepped my stuff across the country (huge shoutout to my baby bro for skipping school to help me move). But as my first job out of college—and during COVID, no less—crossing state lines and blasting Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York felt like a pretty significant life transition.
After about a month, the initial shock of living alone in a totally new place where I knew no one started to wear off. My adrenaline subsided, and after sleeping until 10 a.m. on a Saturday (unusual for me, and what I identified as a symptom of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion), I decided I needed to practice a tried-and-true method of Lillie self-care: be outside.
So over Thanksgiving weekend, on a warm and sunny Sunday morning, I made myself a cup of coffee, hopped in the car, and drove south to Letchworth State Park. This place on the Genessee River, recommended to me by coworkers, is apparently called “The Grand Canyon of the East.” I listened to my audiobook as Google Maps directed me into the park, and eventually I pulled off the main road to go for a hike.
The air was cool and fresh, and the parking lot, shrouded in the shade of the gorge walls despite the sunny day, was deserted. I pulled on my baseball cap and clambered out of my car, happy to see my breath come in clouds and hear the silence that only comes with being alone in the woods. I felt myself beginning to relax after the stress of the last month—the last ten months, really—as my mind quieted and I grinned like an idiot for the joy of being outside. (I told you it was a tried-and-true method of Lillie self-care).
I took the steep trail down to the edge of the Genesee River, bits of ice crackling beneath my boots as I stepped in half-frozen puddles, mud clinging to their soles. Finally emerging from the shade of the trees, the river spread out before me. I was at a bend: clearly the river had migrated over the years, eroding the limestone cliffside on the opposite bank and leaving a broad tumble of stones in the place where the river once flowed. The rocks under my feet were mostly flat, their sizes ranging from coin to dinner plate: small, flat echoes of the sedimentary geography that dominates the landscape in western New York.
Along with my view of the river came the cairns. Stacks of stones historically used to mark trails, property lines, and graves, cairns come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen a wide variety on my hiking adventures, and I’ve even erected some of my own at confusing points in the trail. As the sun warmed my face and I listened to the quiet gurgle of the river, I made my way to the edge of the water and the handful of cairns in various stages of disarray.
Clearly, these rocks were piled for no practical purpose—the wide, flat stones simply lent themselves to stacking. I just stared at them for a moment, smiling as I imagined friends and families building these little monuments to their trip to the riverside. Then I unslung my backpack, rolled up my sleeves, and started a tower of my own.
It’s obvious to start a cairn with large stones on the bottom, a firm foundation. The almost unintentional triangle shape of the finished product is a classically sturdy form, allowing cairns to withstand wind and weather over time. With each stone I added, I thought of the people, places, and experiences that make me who I am. The seemingly insignificant parts of my life that built resilience in the face of a global pandemic and a tremendous transition.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of quiet contentment I found as I picked through the thousands of rocks to find the few suited to my purposes. I bent to scoop up the smooth stones, balanced on the uneven surfaces of the riverbank, and found myself centered and confident in a way I’ve seldom felt since March.
Stacks of stones don’t just mark turns in the trail, though this cairn was certainly a picture of the direction I’d chosen at my latest crossroads. In scripture, God asks the Isrealites to stack twelve stones from the bed of the Jordan River in testament to his provision, and hope for the future. Joshua had been leading God’s people as they wandered in the desert for 40 years, and the Jordan was the last barrier between them and Jericho in Canaan, the promised land.
Notably, God’s parting of the Jordan mirrored the Isrealites’ escape from Egypt across the Red Sea, a bookend to a devastating season of uncertainty and loss in Israel’s history. Each tribe contributed a stone to this monument, intended to remind future generations of God’s miraculous provision, despite everything.
Now, I won’t go so far as to compare my summer months to wandering in the desert for 40 years, and I am loathe to assume that my new home in New York is my version of the promised land, but some of the subtle parallels were hard to ignore. I added the last stone to my cairn, constructed from rocks that once made up the riverbed of the Genesee River, and reminded myself that this isn’t the first (nor will it be the last) time that I’ve taken a breath and noticed God’s provision, though it was the first time I’d built a monument to commemorate it.
As I left, I looked back at my cairn. After waiting for so long for this change in my life, I found it somewhat ironic that on the first day of Advent—a season set apart for waiting—I had constructed a testament to moving forward.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.