What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Despite our abysmal track record with hikes, Nicholas and I somehow convinced Mom to let us attempt a way more ambitious trek the following summer. Starting in Tobermory, our plan was to hike as much of Ontario’s 900-kilometre Bruce Trail as possible over the course of three weeks. 

We had a map and an unearned sense of confidence but not much else. With eight kids to feed and clothe, my parents couldn’t necessarily afford a lot of great camping and backpacking supplies. But the complete absence of appropriate equipment failed to blunt our teenaged thirst for adventure. 

After all, these were the boys who pioneered the butter knife technique for changing dirty diapers. We were no strangers to improvisation and got to work creating suitable gear. 

For starters, we’d need much larger packs than the ones we used on our previous hike along the Nine Mile River.

Fortune smiled on us, and we found an old duffel bag in the shed. Because it only had one strap, I fashioned a second one out of a belt I stole from Dad’s closet. Meanwhile, a large sports bag from our closet served as our second pack. This one already had two handles that could function as straps, even though my arms barely fit through them. 

Satisfied with our cobbled-together solutions, we proceeded to further demonstrate our trekking inexperience by stuffing every imaginable item into those packs — from board games and Dan’s knee-cracking cast iron frying pan to virtually every article of clothing we owned.  

We hoisted the gargantuan packs onto our backs and nearly collapsed under their weight. 

Moronically undeterred, we hit the road.

Mom dropped us off at the trailhead in Tobermory and waved goodbye to her baby boys as we bravely ventured into the wilderness of the Niagara Escarpment. Ten minutes into our journey the handles of the sports bag were already digging painfully into my shoulders. Meanwhile, the poorly distributed weight made navigating the rugged terrain difficult, triggering flashbacks to the time I wore the clay helmet as a kid. 

Nicholas was having his own problems with the giant duffel bag, as basic physics quickly trumped our naïve gumption. Barely a kilometre into our epic adventure, the belt we used as a strap snapped off under the strain of twelve cans of Alphagetti pasta and a mountain of other unnecessary crap. 

The pack crashed to the ground with a thunderous thunk. Mom was long gone, we were less than an hour into our three-week journey, and we were already facing an equipment crisis. 

However, the shame of giving up so soon outweighed common sense. And so we once again channeled our inner MacGyver to innovate our way out of the predicament.

Eager to try anything, I rummaged through my bag and pulled out a massive roll of duct tape (I told you we’d packed everything). I then proceeded to tape the duffel bag to my brother’s back. Round and round I went in a blur of silvery adhesive. And before long, the pack from hell was a permanent fixture on Nicholas.

Back in action, we hit the trail once more, attracting plenty of strange looks from fellow hikers wondering why this teenage boy had a boulder taped to his back.

In the end, our three-week expedition lasted only three days. For some strange reason, Nicholas refused to sleep with the pack attached to him. So we ran out of duct tape in a hurry. Meanwhile, the explosive diarrhea we got after drinking tainted water directly from Georgian Bay meant we burned through our supply of toilet paper sooner than expected.

The trip was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. But it did teach us that band-aid solutions will only get you so far. We didn’t have quality packs, so we made do with the duffel bag. We needed a second strap, so we used Dad’s belt. And when those half-baked remedies failed in epic fashion, we bandaged the monstrous pack to Nicholas’s back with duct tape.

It’s a lesson I saw play out during my cancer treatment as well. When my white blood counts suddenly went haywire, sending me into the blast crisis phase, Dr. Lipton gave me two options. One, we could continue trying to use the oral chemo I was taking. But like the duct tape, it wouldn’t be a lasting solution, and the weight of my leukemia would eventually overwhelm the medication.

Or two, we could go all out and beat the crap out of the cancer with chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. It was certainly the scarier option of the two. And the more difficult. But ultimately, it was the right one. 

Because when it comes to obstacles in life, quick fixes will only get you so far. Yes, using a pail to catch water from your dripping ceiling will keep your carpet dry for a bit. But it’s only a matter of time before you need to repair the actual leak. Yes, that heating pad will ease your neck pain for a while. But eventually, you may need to see a physiotherapist about it. Yes, having an extra glass of wine at dinner might help you cope with your anxiety. But without rooting out the source of the problem, those feelings will continue to resurface.

And yes, duct tape is awesome. But even it has its limits.

What’s your packing strategy?

Our misadventure on the trail also taught me about the dangers of overstuffing your backpack. The same holds true for the schedules in our lives, as we wrestle with how to pack our to-do lists into our calendars. The way I see it, there are a few different approaches — none of which involve duct tape.

Approach #1. Squeeze it in — All too often, we look for ways to creatively cram neglected priorities into the nooks and crannies of our day. Not getting enough exercise? Take the stairs at work. Missing a friend? Meet her at the grocery store and chat while you shop. No time for breakfast? Eat on the road. 

Although this approach might work for a while, it doesn’t address the underlying issue of having too much stuff in your backpack in the first place.

Approach #2. Get a bigger backpack — This approach is all about expanding your capacity. Not enough hours in the day? Go to bed later. Need more energy? Load up on caffeine. Can’t afford that new laptop? Bump up the limit on your credit card. 

But like the first approach, it isn’t sustainable. It’s kind of like drinking lake water: it’ll slake your thirst for a few hours. But trust me, the diarrhea is on its way.

Approach #3. Reduce and replace — Alternatively, consider removing some of the stuff in your pack to find meaningful space for priorities. Cut back on TV to find more time for hobbies. Learn to say no to social events if you can’t remember the last time you put your feet up. Skip the new iPhone upgrade and spend that money on a weekend getaway instead.

Making room for priorities isn’t about squeezing additional items into an already crammed backpack. It’s about taking a good, hard look at what’s in there and figuring out what can be ditched to free up some much-needed space. Because eventually something’s gotta give. And believe me: when things finally snap, duct tape is not a long-term solution.

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

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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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