I spend a lot of time each week walking mountain trails alone. Pine & Cedar Lakes Trail, a steep trail in the North Casccades, is just five minutes away from an urban center but light-years away from the frenzy. Car drone, from Interstate 5, diminishes with each step up the trail until at some point I cross that invisible line where the sounds of the forest overtake the sounds of the road; a point that inevitably varies based on humidity, cloud cover, and time of day.

I do not understand headphones along a forest path where I want my attention and my senses awake and alert for whatever I meet. So, when sudden pounding greeted me rounding a switchback, my startle reflex kicked in. I looked up and down the trail with one hand on the orange can of pepper spray hanging from my belt. I heard it again. It sounded like footsteps pounding the forest floor. A few runners also use this trail. I chuckled when I finally spotted the piliated woodpecker busily working a dead stump.

Several hundred yards further along the trail, I stopped again, not for a sound but a sight. Nestled at the base of a cedar, I spotted a painted stone. I've walked this same trail for 25 years. I know its rough and smooth places, its crevices and crannies, like one knows the body of a lover. Occasionally, every few months, someone places a painted stone in an inconspicuous spot along the trail.

Often there's an animal painted on the stone, sometimes just a decal. Today, the stone was painted purple and affixed with the decal of a teddy bear and a rabbit. Finding that stone is like finding a diamond buried in dirt or a pearl inside an oyster. It's a sacred moment to bend down and pick it up, then walk with it further along the trail before planting it for someone else to find.

In all these years, I've not discovered who leaves those stones. Although I feel a transcendent connection with them as I imagine an act of uncommon kindness to take the time to find a stone, then paint it, then let it dry, then paint or affix an image to it, then walk it back up this steep trail, and finally find a spot to leave it for me to find.

These painted stones transform a hike into a pilgrimage; the trail through the dark forest into a descent into the darkest parts of myself; there only to find a waiting boon that I stoop to pick-up; a gift enabling me to emerge from the darkness ever renewed; ever faithful that uncommon kindness will meet me again, and again, on this path through the forest of life.