What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit
We returned home from our disastrous hike along the Bruce Trail feeling sheepish and defeated. But sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time an outdoor adventure forced us to tap out early. Because eight months later I’d be lying on a woodpile, as cold-induced convulsions wracked my body and a large branch jabbed me in the ribs.
It was late at night and I finally worked up the courage to remove my hands from the warmth of my armpits. I crawled out from beneath the pile of thin blankets and added a piece of wood to the fire. It needed it. The feeble flames struggled to stay lit under increasing bombardment from fat flakes of wet snow.
Looking around, I started to seriously question the wisdom of our March break camping trip. Two other shivering bodies encircled the pitiful fire: my brother Nicholas (of course) and our cousin Matt. At least they had sleeping bags. There weren’t enough for everyone, so I ended up bringing a bunch of threadbare blankets for my bedding.
Earlier that afternoon, we had set up camp in the woods next to a farmer’s field a few kilometres from home. The day started out unseasonably warm — we’re talking T-shirt weather — which inspired the decision to go on the impromptu adventure.
But this is March. In Canada. In the ’90s, before smartphones with weather apps. And as the day wore on, Mother Nature flipped us the bird and sent temperatures plummeting.
Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t the only one to blame for our current misfortune: our own carelessness also played a role. The shredded remains of our tent, flapping in the wind, were evidence of that.
Before the sun set, Nicholas had been gathering firewood and found a dead tree nearby. Grabbing the sizable trunk by one end, he started dragging it through the long grass back to camp. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the jagged branch jutting out on one side, which snagged our tent and sliced the entire side open.
With the tent no longer offering any sort of protection from the worsening elements, we decided that our best bet was to sleep as close to the fire as possible in an attempt to stay warm. We crowded around, and I chose the woodpile so I’d at least be off the wet ground.
By now we realized what a colossal mistake we had made. But the “I told you so” waiting at home made us dig in our heels and refuse to pack it in — especially after the whole duct tape fiasco. Instead, we lay there shivering in the woods as the snow piled higher.
It took far longer than it should have, but eventually the very real possibility of freezing to death won over our stubborn pride. Thankfully, Dad had loaned us his massive brick of a cellphone to use in case of emergencies, and we begrudgingly made the “please rescue us” call.
After a glorious sleep in a warm bed, we returned to the ruins of our campsite the next day to collect our belongings. My blankets and pillow were frozen stiff, and I shuddered to think what would have happened to us if we had stuck it out. Going forward, we decided that perhaps March breaks were best spent indoors playing video games and watching reruns of Darkwing Duck.
And if we did go camping, taking Nicholas off firewood duty was a must.
Knowing when to quit can be hard. Nobody likes the idea of giving up, especially when it’s something you’ve invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into. No surrender! Tough it out! These are common refrains in a hustle culture that trumpets success at any cost.
And don’t get me wrong: perseverance and commitment are wonderful qualities. But I also think it’s important to have enough self-awareness to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy resolve.
For example, during my cancer treatment, I was determined to do everything myself and had a hard time asking for help. I had no intention of giving up my independence and self-reliance. But the more the chemo took its toll on me, the more I realized I needed a helping hand. Accepting Mom’s offer to come down from Ottawa to help out meant swallowing my pride. But like calling Dad that snowy March night, putting aside my ego was the right decision for my health.
Ditto for taking a leave from work, recognizing that trying to stick it out at the office while going through chemo would wreck me.
For some things, the benefits of quitting are obvious. Few would argue with someone who wants to give up smoking. Other times though, it’s not as clear. Emotions, personal investment and societal pressures complicate letting go.
But whether it’s an abusive marriage, a soul-sucking job or an unworkable business idea that’s sending you spiralling into debt, there are times when giving up is exactly the right thing to do.
It boils down to understanding your motivations. Ask yourself why you’re clinging to something. And if it’s out of stubbornness, pride, hubris, fear or concern over what others will think if you give up, then it might be time to let go.
After all, leaving a frozen corpse on a pile of wood because you were too proud to go home is a sign of stupidity, not admirable stick-to-itiveness.