Fortunately, the threat of disembowelment from monsters in the woods did little to dampen my love of hiking and camping. Unfortunately, that meant Nicholas and I had many more opportunities to demonstrate questionable judgement in the Great Outdoors. 

Indeed, whoever said two heads are better than one clearly didn’t know me and my little brother. Individually, we could make sensible — some might even say smart — decisions. Together was another matter entirely. We were the intellectual equivalents of beer and Cheerios: fine on our own, simply awful when combined.

The plans we hatched in our youth seldom went smoothly. A perfect example is the time we decided to embark on a two-day hike up the Nine Mile River near our home.

One bright summer morning, we filled a couple backpacks with cans of brown beans, sleeping bags and some bug spray and started our mini adventure. Our plan was simple enough: follow the river east, make camp when it got dark, and trek back the next day.

We logged a lot of miles the first day, sticking close to the water’s edge where the brush wasn’t as dense. However, following the meandering twists and turns of the river was adding considerable distance to our journey. Fed up with our winding inefficiency, we made the decision to cut through a large patch of thigh-high vegetation to avoid a particularly long, lazy bend in the river.

Botanically ignorant, we failed to realize that the greenery was in fact something called stinging nettle. The innocent-looking plants were actually covered in tiny barbs that come off when brushed against. Once hooked under your skin, they release histamine and other chemicals to produce their signature dear-god-my-flesh-is-on-fire sensation.

Wearing shorts didn’t help our predicament. By the time we emerged from the nettle patch, we were howling in pain and begging Mother Nature for mercy. Any time we might have saved cutting through the nettles was lost as we raced to the river, wading into the water to soothe our inflamed legs. 

Sadly, Nicholas and I are slow learners and decided to attempt another shortcut the next morning. With legs still raw from our earlier misadventure through the Patch o’ Pain, we dreaded the long return trip. However, we knew that there was a road not far to the north of the river that would provide a smoother, straighter — and nettle-free — route home. 

But to get there, we’d need to first climb out of the steep river valley. Great in theory. Soul-crushingly miserable in practice.

Between us and the top of the hill lay a wall of sharp brambles and dense thickets. It was only through a combination of Martin stubbornness, brute strength and a dull hatchet that we managed to hack and bully our way through. 

By the time we emerged up top, our bloodied arms and legs made the encounter with the stinging nettles look like a tickle fight. The road home was still a couple farmers’ fields away, so we pushed onward, wincing as the shin-high bean plants rubbed against the open wounds on our legs.

In the age of high-speed internet, fast food and same-day delivery, we’ve come to expect immediate gratification. Reality competition shows feed the fantasy of the overnight success. A webpage taking more than four seconds to load triggers white-hot rage. Ditto for sitting in a plane on the runway for an extra ten minutes. 

That expectation sometimes spills over to other aspects of your life. You want the perfect body, the corner office or the million YouTube subscribers. And you want it now. But as I learned on our hike along the Nine Mile River — and as I would learn again many years later while battling leukemia — there are few shortcuts in life. Far more often than not, success involves hard work, perseverance, patience, discipline and, yes, taking the long way home.

So keep putting one foot in front of the other. Take your time. Steer clear of those who peddle quick-fix solutions. Because like cutting through a patch of stinging nettles, shortcuts are rarely what they’re cracked up to be.

Next: Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions