On a mild Saturday morning in March, I wound my way west from Austin through the Hill Country along Texas Highway 29, took a left through downtown Llano, the barbecue haven and “Deer Capital of Texas,” and clambered down to the banks of the Llano River into another world.

In the shadow of the county courthouse and the historic Roy B. Inks Bridge, every corner of the hillside revealed another bit of improbably arranged nature: rock cairns stacked three or four or a dozen high, a stone beehive hut fit for a flock of porgs, and a dozen smooth river rocks balanced in a neat line on the ridge of a chunk of gray granite, like petrified travelers in an airport security line.

This idyllic little ripple in space-time was the Llano Earth Art Festival, a three-day celebration of nature gently modified. The quirky, nine-year-old event, which drew about five thousand this year, is an invitation to solo exploration and quiet contemplation. It’s a communal happening too, a drum-circle party and an outrageous fashion parade, the carefree kind of weekend that can rejuvenate your inner cloud spotter and dandelion blower.

But in the midst of the easy reverie, a series of tough competitions was in store too, contests judged not by fuzzy things like wonder and awe but by the unforgiving measures of minutes, seconds, and inches. This wild and airy wonderland on the Llano is also home to the world championship of rock stacking.

Tracen Gardner conferring with other judges before the balance contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival.
Tracen Gardner confers with other judges before the balance contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival. Photograph by Patrick Michels
Kasper Jucha-Read of Australia watching his prize-winning eight-rock stack during the speed stacking contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival.
Kasper Jucha-Read of Australia watches his prize-winning eight-rock stack during the balance contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival. Photograph by Patrick Michels

Humans have been stacking rocks for a long, long time. The land art movement of the sixties and seventies embraced rock stacks as minimalist, temporary works that confronted the commodification of art. Highbrow projects such as Amarillo Ramp and Spiral Jetty, in Utah, celebrated the nascent environmental movement and the absurdity of trying to impose order on a wild planet. Lately, though, rock stacking is really happening on TikTok and Instagram, where you can watch artists standing hip-deep in rivers, assembling pointy rocks in seemingly impossible equilibriums. The hobby has gotten so popular that many parks now ban rock stacking because of its potential to damage ecosystems. Today’s most famous practitioner is probably Michael Grab of Colorado—his handle is “Gravity Glue”—whose videos shows him at work in a creek, demonstrating endless patience and, sometimes, deep acceptance as the current scatters his work back across the creek bed.

Grab has been among the Llano festival’s biggest cheerleaders, and he was among the speakers this year. On the Saturday when I went, a contestant in the first contest, Parker Durant, credited Grab with inspiring him to try rock stacking; he was excited because he’d just met Grab and had gotten to hand him a sticker he’d designed. Durant had come from Florida with his younger sister to compete, and both wore custom T-shirts that read “ROCK STACK SQUAD.” Back home, Durant said he practices along the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville, using rocks that “look like they were dumped there from some project. Definitely not natural,” he said, “but I make it work.”

Now, though, Durant and his competition had finer materials to work with. Spread out on an animal hide were sixteen locally sourced stones, curated to offer a variety of colors, textures, and shapes. One would become known, during the contest, as the “potato rock,” because it looked like a potato; the “skull rock” was another popular choice.

In the upcoming balance event, contestants would have three minutes to stack as many of the rocks as they could, with extra points awarded for difficulty and artistry. Nine contestants milled around the stage, sizing up the rocks, and as the band finished the last of its Bob Marley covers, emcee Charley Jordan III stepped onstage from behind a large hand-painted mushroom to announce that the competitions had begun.

Ceto Desai, a hotel manager in Llano, went first. He knelt among the rocks and started stacking. “The secret to doing this is three points of contact,” Jordan explained, “and every once in a while, something magical happens.” After another minute spent testing the right balance on his fourth rock, Desai found a good balance, the rock held, and the audience erupted in applause. Desai waved that he was finished.

Llano earth artist Debra Mastenbrook sat down next, peering at the rocks from under a broad straw hat. “The secret is a solid base, no wiggles,” Jordan said, and Mastenbrook quickly found hers. After ninety seconds, Mastenbrook reached for the potato rock, her fourth. “She’s trying to control the wiggle,” Jordan called. “She’ll make microadjustments till that bad boy wants to stand up.” She placed her fifth rock, but relief melted quickly into doubt as she looked at the stones left on the mat. There was time to add on, but the wrong move could set the whole pile tumbling. “I’m just gonna quit right there,” she announced.

Next up was Durant, who quickly reached a five-rock stack. But as he pushed to outdo Mastenbrook, he struggled to find balance with a sixth addition. The stack tumbled, and Durant quickly rebuilt it up to five. He tried again, and again it fell. Time ran out and he’d rebuilt his stack to four. “Ain’t afraid to push yourself,” Jordan said. “That’s awesome. Very proper.”

Crowds wandering around the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival.
Crowds wandering around the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival.Photograph by Patrick Michels

It went on like this as more contestants took their chances—the slow, deliberate climb to four or five rocks, the anguish over whether to tempt fate and reach higher, and, when the balance failed, the scramble to stack the rocks back again.

But then came twelve-year-old Kasper Jucha-Read. He’d traveled from Sydney, Australia, with his father, an artist who’d been invited to the festival. Kasper sat down on his knees and began working quickly, his eyes hidden behind dark shades like a poker player on TV. He stacked five rocks in one minute, reached for the potato rock, and neatly balanced it, thrilling the crowd. “Getting skinny at the top; what’re you gonna do?” Jordan called. Kasper kept moving, placing a seventh rock—it also looked like a potato—then a bulky, craggy rock atop that. “Just like that! Just like that! Drop mic, walk off Kasper,” Jordan hooted. “Eight rocks, ladies and gentlemen, eight rocks!” No one else could top that. Kasper won in an upset, besting his father and a field of seven others.

Jordan had mentioned onstage that he’d been a past champion here, so after the contest, I asked what rock stacking meant to him. He answered immediately. “Changed my life, saved my life,” he told me, twice.

Jordan said he’d first learned about rock stacking at this festival, and had enjoyed the camaraderie in a group competition to build the largest rock arch. At the time, he’d owned a radio station in the nearby town of Mason, but early in the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, dwindling ad revenue forced him to sell.

“I was spinning my wheels after I sold the radio station,” he said. “That was the dream, you know? That was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life. And then it fell out from underneath me and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

But he remembered the fun he’d had at this festival. Alone, walking around the Brady Creek Reservoir near his home northwest of Llano, he began practicing. His new hobby forced him to listen to the birds and the falling leaves, to pay attention to his breath, and to focus on the rock in his hand. What he found, in those moments when everything clicked, was a kind of life-affirming magic.

“It’s friction on friction, man,” he said. “Anything can be balanced, no matter its shape. There is a straight line that runs through it. And if you can find it, that son of a buck will stand up and literally blow your mind.”

Jordan also found companionship at this festival. Tomorrow, he told me, was his wedding to the Welsh earth artist Brioney Jordan; they met here in 2019. He mentioned the small army of volunteers who set up and run the festival, and the vendors who come to sell handmade soaps and art and clothes—all key to the spirit of this place. “You feel it. It’s an attitude,” Jordan said. “There’s kids being kids. And that inspires these old folks to really just let go.”

Rocks on an island in the Llano River near downtown Llano.
Rocks on an island in the Llano River near downtown Llano. Photograph by Patrick Michels
A stacked rock sculpture by Anthony Jucha at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival.
A stacked rock sculpture by Anthony Jucha at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival. Photograph by Patrick Michels

Compared with rocks, of course, none of us are all that old. And here in Llano you find some of the oldest ones in Texas, broken pieces of the billion-year-old Llano Uplift. The festival grounds at Grenwelge Park sit mostly on a formation known as the Packsaddle Schist, whose rocks were described in a 1911 report from the United States Geological Survey as “dominantly basic and generally of dark color.”

Or as the visiting artist Anthony Jucha—Kasper’s dad—told me, “It’s like heaven. . . . This is the mecca of rock stacking.”

Jucha said the rocks he finds at home in Australia are “pretty poor,” “rubbish rocks.” I found his dismissiveness a little funny, but when I asked what exactly was the problem with the rocks back home, he got straight to the point: “Too ugly would be the biggest thing.” But in Llano, he found “nice, smooth river rocks . . . so beautiful that you could almost just put the rock there and it’s a sculpture in itself.”

Having grown up in Llano, Binky Morgan immediately recognized this potential when she first saw a picture of rock art. The photo she saw was of a circular cairn, wrapped with vines and flowers and set in a low stream. “That kind of reminded me of the Llano River,” Morgan told me. “I wanted to make something like that, but I didn’t think I could do it by myself. So I asked a few people, and before I knew it, we were planning a festival.”

That became the inaugural Llano Earth Art Festival in 2015, and Morgan said it drew a few thousand people. Afterward, she said, city officials were enthusiastic, if a little surprised. “They said, ‘We thought y’all were completely insane to have a rock stacking festival. But congratulations, you did a great job.’ ”

The event has since inspired similar gatherings like the European Land Art Festival, in southeastern Scotland, and the Land Sand Stone Art Festival, in East Yorkshire, England. But as the oldest of the rock stacking contests, Llano claims the world championship.

The festival has been growing steadily except for in 2021, when the pandemic forced Morgan to hold the event virtually. Rather than travel to Llano, artists sent videos of their work from every continent, including Antarctica. This year, the festival featured more than fifty artists—its most ever—including some from England, Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain.

Morgan, whose ancestors include two founders of Llano County—John Ferguson Morgan and Samuel William Tate—said it means a lot to be contributing to the local community. She said local shop owners have told her that LEAF is their best weekend of the year and that the hotels in town sold out for this year’s festival weekend. This may not be the typical Llano vibe, but Morgan said it works.

“Llano is a ranching community, and so most of the people around here wear cowboy boots and hats. And then on LEAF weekend, you see your dreadlocks and tie-dye,” Morgan said. “Everybody gets along.”

Competitors in the individual height contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival rock stacking championship.
Competitors in the individual height contest at the 2023 Llano Earth Art Festival rock stacking championship.Photograph by Patrick Michels

The countdown to the next contest began down by the river, on a broad, rocky sandbar, where six men and about as many boys and girls stood ready in a line. At the signal, they fanned out, sliding and kicking up rocks as they ran, each looking for the perfect place to make their creation stand. In the solo height contests, split into adults’ and children’s divisions, contestants had 25 minutes to build the tallest stack.

Beyond the thick shade of the festival grounds, the sun beat down. Adult contestants sweated through their T-shirts and bucket hats. A boy boasted about the glittering black rock he held in his hands: he said it was so hot, nobody else could hold on to it. 

The leading contenders in the adults’ competition included two from the balance contest, Ceto Desai and Anthony Jucha. Jucha told me that, after years of posting his earth art to social media, he also had recently become a barrister in Sydney. So while Austin has David Komie—“the attorney that rocks,” as his billboards declare—now Australia has Jucha, the attorney that stacks rocks. “Other barristers told me to take this stuff down because it doesn’t look right,” he said. “But other people like it. It makes you a more whole human being, you know?” 

A few feet away, sixteen-year-old Denton Machuga was working fast on his stack as the minutes ticked by. He had moved to Llano from Great Falls, Montana and had started rock stacking after seeing it at LEAF. He’d won this contest before, in 2019, and seemed particularly at home with these rocks, piling one onto the next with apparent ease. When the tower reached too high above his head, he lugged a larger stone alongside it to stand on, and by the final minutes he was on his toes, hands high above his head, to place his last rock.

Judges roamed the island with a ladder and a ruler. In the children’s competition, Kasper Jucha-Read emerged with the tallest stack, at 34.5 inches, for his second win of the day. And in the adult competition, it wasn’t even close: Machuga had won with a new record of 101 inches.

After Machuga’s, both Jucha’s and Desai’s stacks had been measured at ninety inches. Before the stacks could be remeasured more precisely, though, a gust of wind knocked the uppermost stones from Desai’s stack. Judges discussed the possibility of holding a five-minute stack-off, but Desai conceded. Nature had made the decision already.