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The Cairn Man

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His name is Stewart, and I don’t know whether that’s with an “e-w” or a “u-a.” I don’t know if that’s his real name, or one that simply suited his purposes on the fly. I don’t know where he’s from or how old he is. Whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican, or an anarchist. What I don’t know about Stewart , stretched end-to-end, would run all the way from Big Sur to Morro Rock.

Which is the approximate length of the trail of this man’s art work, left along beaches and on the side of the road for the world to admire in surprised glimpses. Stewart is, not to put too fine a point on it, a rock piler. A more academic description of him might be as sculptor, or environmental performance artist. What Stewart created were assemblies of stone, polished from the rolling and tumbling of the waves along the Pacific coast, and balanced with a breathtaking disregard for visual symmetry or the conventional laws of physics.

One cold spring morning with a storm charging in from offshore, we arrived at our favorite Route 1 campground and hustled through the transition from cars to tents. The kids ran headlong down the steep trail to revel in the angry surf, and came running back a few minutes later to breathlessly announce that they had discovered the ninth or tenth wonder of the world. We followed them back down to the beach and stood transfixed by the unearthly appearance of a dozen stacks of stones, launched from boulders and rising into the air improbably and daringly in the face of the squall blowing in. We scoffed, then laughed, then moved a little closer to look for signs of epoxy or steel rods. There were none. Whoever had created these mineral cairns was clearly not working from a manual.

We made the artist’s acquaintance later that day, when a cold gray shawl of air wrapped the shoulders of the hills after the passing of the rain. Stewart, tall and shambling, walked past our campsite swinging a plastic jug that sloshed with a foamy liquid. He nodded his head, took a gulp, and listened intently as one of the boys complained about a baseball that had just been thrown into a poison oak thicket. Then, without a word, he tightened up his bandana and crawled into the weed patch from hell, reemerging a few minutes later with the ball raised high in the air. He laughed about how far the ball had traveled through the murderous stalks and branches. “Somebody has a real arm,” he observed. Again, we stood transfixed. “I’m immune to it,” he laughed.

Stewart lives in a generous dimension, giving freely of the materials at hand in exchange for a little of this and a bit of that, a few beers, a plate of something, a soon-to-be-recycled poncho, an appreciation for the music he created with the spoons always in his pocket. It is shadowy barter of the type that allows you to see old ideas still stirring at the edges of our modern sensibilities. Living moment to moment is a creative act performed with fleeting heirlooms. Whatever’s in your pocket, well—there you are. We wish we could be content as beachcombers, playing tug-of-war with the tides, improvising, with one eye fixed on the distant sky as if it really mattered. But that’s not our station. We’re secure. Fixed in place. Regular people with our priorities straight. And forever grateful to Stewart for bringing back our ball and pointing the way to heaven with his rocks.


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