A cairn-do attitude

Home painter finds pastime and meditation building cairns.

When dozens of cairns mysteriously popped up along the Lagoon Drawbridge in Vineyard Haven, it didn’t take long for Islanders to notice. In a line spanning almost the entirety of the bridge, these stone structures can be seen balanced deftly yet robustly, seemingly defying the laws of gravity. Behind this feat lies not some supernatural event, but a man who’s been building these spectacular structures. His name is Steve Jones. 

Jones is a house painter who lives in Salt Lake City during the winter, and works on the Island in the spring to get homes ready for summer residents. He first discovered this rock-mounting practice in 1995. Wandering around San Diego’s waterfront, he stumbled upon a man who, just like him now, was balancing rocks on top of each other. After observing the man for a while, Jones asked him for the basics behind this practice. “The bottom line is every rock has a balance point, and the tiniest flat spot on the rock is all you need. It can be like a quarter-inch square, on the big rock,” Jones said. “That’s all you need. And then you can balance it. You feel it, and you twist it — just gently — and you can feel it lock in.” 

But no matter how much experience you have, luck remains an inescapable part of being able to balance these rocks on top of each other. Some stones take just a few seconds to balance, while for other, more wily ones, it can take Jones up to 10 minutes to find the sweet spot.

Beyond technical skill and patience, it is the connection one finds to the rocks and to oneself that is particularly special for Jones. “It’s really a meditation, because you’ve really got to intensely focus on the feel, on the rock. It takes all your attention and it is very relaxing, you know. And then suddenly it locks, and then this thing is like impossible. I mean you look at those and don’t they look impossible? It amazes me.”

Along with the relaxing and meditative benefits he garners from this practice, Jones also sees this activity as having potential for children to have fun with and learn a lot. “You can do it with beach rocks and tiny rocks … You learn a lot from doing it. You learn manual dexterity skills. You’re feeling the rock, you’re just connecting, you feel it lock in, you get a sense of a balance.”

Why Jones started setting these structures here this summer is partially a coincidence. His first inspiration occurred on July Fourth, when he was spending time with friends in Aquinnah. There, for fun, he started balancing a few beach rocks on top of each other. To his surprise, people on the beach started taking pictures of his creations and admiring his work. Then, as he was driving by the drawbridge, he noticed the railing separating the rocks from the sidewalk, and thought this was a perfect setup for a display that wouldn’t be tampered with by passersby.

But why Jones kept building so many, even he doesn’t know. After seeing the outcome of the first few cairns built along the bridge, he enjoyed their “otherworldly look,” and decided to keep mounting more. Altogether, it took Jones more than a week to build the several dozen cairns. This included having to start all over after the remnants of Hurricane Laura swept by and blew them down. 

Jones enjoys going to the bridge when he gets off work, and can spend several hours a day balancing these rocks on top of each other. 

Ultimately, just like for those who walk, bike, or drive by and cannot quite grasp how these rocks stay in perfect equilibrium, it is the mystery of his own cairns that keeps Steve Jones coming back to build more: “And when you start, you never know how it’s going to come out. You don’t know where the rock is going to balance. You don’t know what it’s going to look like. And it’s always a surprise. It’s really kind of neat.”