The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettle taught me about cutting corners

Whoever said two heads are better than one clearly didn’t know me and my brother Nicholas. 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.

As teenagers, the plans we hatched 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 in rural Southwestern Ontario.

One bright summer morning, we slung backpacks filled with cans of brown beans, sleeping bags and some bug spray over our shoulders and started our mini-adventure. Our plan was simple enough: follow the river east, make camp when it got dark, sleep under the stars 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 burning nettle. The innocent-looking plants were actually covered in tiny, barbed “hairs” whose tips come off when brushed against. Once hooked under your skin, they release histamine and other chemicals, which produces its signature dear-god-my-flesh-is-on-fire stinging sensation.

Wearing shorts didn’t help our situation. 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 nettle was lost as we waded into the river in an attempt to soothe our inflamed legs.

Unfortunately, Nicholas and I are slow learners and decided to attempt another shortcut the next morning. With legs still raw from our misguided misadventure through the Patch o’Pain, we dreaded the long, winding return trip. 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.

To get there though, 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 was 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 out of the valley.

By the time we emerged up top, our bloodied arms and legs made the burning nettle encounter look like a tickle fight. The road home was still a couple farmers’ fields away so we pushed onward, wincing as the morning dew from the ankle-high beans stung the open wounds on our legs.

Shortcuts? No such thing.

In the age of high-speed internet, fast food and same-day delivery, we’ve come to expect immediate gratification. Reality shows like The Voice and X Factor feed the fantasy of the overnight success. Meanwhile, a webpage taking more than four seconds to load or sitting in a plane on the runway for an extra 20 minutes is cause for murderous rage these days.

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, 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 and enjoy the journey. Steer clear of those who peddle quick-fix solutions. Because like cutting through a patch of stinging nettle, shortcuts are rarely what they’re cracked up to be.

More stories from the Overcoming Obstacles Handbook

Introduction

Lessons learned from leukemia

More life lessons

Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.