What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

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

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

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

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience