All along the Llano River, rock towers rise like tiny skyscrapers engineered by Mother Nature.
Knobby rocks the size of hiking boots balance like ballerinas on smooth, egg-size stones. Some bend into graceful arches, supported by gravity. It looks like glue is holding them together, but it isn’t.
The forest of cairns, which sprouted last week during the Llano Earth Art Fest, represents the latest obsession in a Hill Country town long known for barbecue and deer hunting — rock stacking.
Binky Morgan hatched the idea for a rock-centric festival here in 2015. With rock stacking as a focus, the free event evolved into an entire earth art festival. Bands played, artists peddled wares, attendees camped and workshopgoers learned about light pollution, shamanic practices and how to start a fire without matches or a lighter.
The second annual festival unfolded last weekend, featuring what organizers proudly proclaimed the Rock Stacking World Championship. Organizers don’t know of any other rock stacking competitions anywhere on the planet, but they know now that Llano loves the concept.
“People are digging this,” Morgan said. “It’s taking natural elements and making art of out of them.”
It helps that Llano is located at the center of the Llano Uplift, a huge, dome-shaped formation of Precambrian rock, mostly granite.
“We’ve got no shortage of rocks in Llano,” said Rich Houston, who headed the competition portion of the festival. He spent hours driving truckloads of rock to Grenwelge Park in the days leading up to the festival so stackers didn’t have to look far for building material.
So many rock piles sprouted along the river during last year’s festival that for days afterward school buses drove kids there to look at the artwork.
Someone eventually toppled the stacks last year, purportedly because they believed they represented pagan worship. But locals, protective of the artwork, headed back to the site to restack the tumbled stones. And this year, rock stacks appeared outside festival grounds, at nearby parks and even the courthouse square.
Last weekend, three nationally known rock stackers, or “rock stars” (yes, some people make a living doing this), made the trek to Llano for the event. Amateurs, juniors and experts vied for honors in competitions that included tallest stack, best rock balancer, best arch-maker and most artistic stack.
“I think people have been stacking rocks since people were people,” said David Allen, 40, a pro from Maine. Like performing surgery or baking the perfect souffle, rock stacking requires focus, he said. That makes it deliciously meditative.
“It’s a great mind cleaner. If you’re thinking about the bill that was late or your girlfriend, it’s not going to work,” Allen said.
At home, he sometimes stacks beer bottles, coffee cups and even pumpkins into teetering piles. “It’s extremely meditative,” he said.
Tim Anderson, 44, another pro from Acme, Pa., squatted on a car-size island, working to balance a boot-shaped stone atop a 3-foot tower as cold water dripped from his neoprene overalls and the river swirled around him.
“It’s a way to express my creative side,” said Anderson, who teaches rock stacking clinics and travels the country demonstrating his skills at festivals and art shows. “And the office has a hell of a view.”
Like a beachcomber searching for seashells, he selects rocks based on texture, color or shape and looks for subtle indentations that help them balance. He likes to cap each sculpture with an improbably big, heavy stone.
In Llano, he finished a precarious-looking stack, then watched as another of his creations toppled to the ground, the victim of an impalpable breath of wind. He shrugged and smiled.
“Believe it or not, (that gives me) a sense of satisfaction. It’s the life cycle,” he said. “People ask me, ‘Can I buy one of your sculptures?’ But it would be a bag of rocks.”
That fleeting nature of the art seems to be part of the general appeal of rock stacking, even among amateurs.
“You make it, you look at it,” said Randall McGehee, 56, of the small town of Noonday. “You say hello and goodbye at the same time.”
He especially likes creating rock stacks in the wilderness, where no other human may ever see it.
Shiree Schade, 55, of Austin, agreed.
She calls it freeing to make structures that visually defy the laws of gravity. For her, it’s about the Zen of the process.
“It’s making order out of chaos — the same thing that makes me pick up cigarette butts,” Schade said.
She works a piece of iridescent broken glass into her stack and leans back to check the effect, which she says combines elements of nature with her urban life in the city.
She knows it won’t last, but that’s OK.
“That’s one of the most amazing things about it — you have to give up that the rock is going to stay there.”