Rock cairn

In August, we paid a visit to the seaside in Maine. It was the first time in Maine for my mother, and the first time my daughters had seen the Atlantic Ocean. We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather. The sky was blue, the sea was bluer, and sun and wind had conspired to produce the perfect temperature for strolling along the cliff-side path at Ogunquit.

It was crowded, of course. Ogunquit has perfected the concept of “charming seaside village” and it has become very popular as a tourist destination, for day-trippers and vacationers alike. (My girls were surprised to see Canadian license plates on a car in the parking lot – I had to remind them how much closer Canada was, up there in New England.) But the parking was free, the views were amazing, and there was lobster for lunch – so who could complain?

Sailboat off the coast

The one-and-a-quarter mile walk that winds along the cliff between beach and harbor is called The Marginal Way…just stop and let that roll around inside your head for a moment. The Marginal Way. It would be hard to come up with a more suggestive, more evocative name for a path, am I right? Marking the liminal space between the solidity of the shore and the ever-churning ocean, the path invites you to step outside your everyday constrictions, to walk between worlds, for just a little while.

Rocky shore

All thresholds offer the chance of transformation, and perhaps it is the implicit call that inspired the cairn-makers of Ogunquit. It’s not surprising to see a cairn of rocks or two, balanced atop a boulder by the sea. But upon the rocky shelf that divides that Way from the waves, there were hundreds of such cairns. Maybe thousands – this photo only shows a small segment of the workmanship (and you will probably have to click through to the larger photo to really see how many cairns are there – the midday sun eliminated any shadows that would highlight the structures). It went on for an astonishing half-a-mile or more.

rocky seashore

How many hands contributed to the building of these cairns, I wonder? Are they the work of locals, escaping the press of tourists in the shops and restaurants for a quiet moment by the sea? Or were they built by visitors, seeking to leave a mark of their presence behind when they depart? (Aside from the occasional guestbook, travelers are not usually welcome to change the places that the visit – look, but don’t touch.)


Both, most likely. Social beings that we are, when we see that someone has created something meaningful, we want to take part in that meaning ourselves. Thus one cairn-builder inspired the next, growing this makeshift monument, this spontaneous tribute, this marked threshold.

Rocky seashore with cairns

Did any of them stop to think that their handiwork would probably not survive the first Nor’easter that winter brought? The surge of stormy seas will doubtless knock askew the carefully balanced structures, restoring the rocky beach to its natural condition, unmarked by human artifice. But really, that impermanence only adds to the liminal sensibility of the effort. This moment, too, is marginal, balanced precariously between the past and the future.

Rocky shore

I was not prepared, alas, to venture down onto the rocks for more effective photos – or to add a cairn of my own to the monument. Wrong sort of shoes entirely. But these photos are a bit like a cairn themselves, don’t you think? One photo stacked up on the next, held in balance by a thread of thoughts, marking a moment in time…or maybe a moment outside of time.

Rocky seashore with cairns

December 3, 2013

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