Let’s face it – for every spectacular sunrise there are at least a dozen drizzly dawns; each successful scaling of a summit is offset by climbs cut short by fatigue, bad weather, equipment failure, bad planning, bad luck, bad karma, or all of the above.
Kayakers who savor serene sojourns on pristine lakes must also get tossed about every so often by ocean storms, or cross powerboat-riddled channels, or paddle past the outfall of a sewage treatment plant.
You can gambol through a meadow of wildflowers or step on a hornets’ nest; pitch your tent on a plateau with a panoramic view or hunker down in an open shelter adjacent to a mosquito-infested bog; sing songs and swap stories around a campfire or shiver in sleet while trying to get the blankety-blank stove to light.
Those of us who spend any time frolicking outdoors learn that many times it’s all about enduring a considerable amount of discomfort in order to experience a short burst of pleasure – sort of like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.
Anyway, while out for a long paddle the other day, when the grim realization that in order to get home I would have to slog for hours through choppy seas in blazing sun began to sink my spirits, I consoled myself by concocting “which-is-worse?” scenarios.
“Yes, it’s bleeping hot,” I told myself, “but that’s better than freezing cold – right?”
I recalled one February outing in Long Island Sound when the air temperature dipped below zero and the wind gusted above 30. Ice instantly coated paddle blades at each rotation and I began losing all feeling in my fingers. A friend paddling next to me had to rub my hands between his in order to restore circulation.
Suddenly, the withering heat didn’t seem so bad.
On another occasion, after running on trails with a friend for some 30 miles on the first day of what was to have been a 75-mile journey, his knee swelled up to the size of a cantaloupe. I suggested he take a rock and smash it down on his hand.
“That way you’ll forget about the pain in your knee,” I explained.
It’s a wonder he didn’t smash a rock on my forehead.
But not all contrasts present such apparent choices; sometimes you must literally decide between a rock and a hard place, or the devil and the deep blue sea.
Following are a few situations that are kind of like Zen koans in that there are no right or wrong answers, only opportunities for reflection.
Which is worse:
– Having to crawl out your tent in the middle of a blizzard to answer nature’s call, or being parched with thirst?
– A tent neighbor who blasts “All My Exes Live in Texas” on his portable sound system, or one who cranks up “Ride of the Valkyries”?
– A growling Doberman or a yapping Shih Tzu?
– Collapsing from exhaustion or tossing around all night in your sleeping bag?
– Nothing to eat except pork rinds, or nothing to eat?
– Swimming in the proximity of sharks, or crocodiles?
– Hearing one shotgun blast, or a volley from an AR-15?
– Forgetting to pack water-purification tablets, or Imodium?
– Poison ivy, or chafing from wearing long pants on a summer hike?
– The rumble of thunder or the rumble of a pack of dirt bikes?
– Wandering around lost, or stumbling upon a campsite occupied by Mitch McConnell?
– Eerie silence or snapping twigs?
– A water bottle with a lid you can’t open, or one you can’t close?
– Not enough salt in your couscous, or way too much?
– A rip in the rain fly of your tent, or in the mosquito netting?
– Having the battery die in your headlamp, or realizing the only late-night reading material is a moldy edition of “Jonathan Living Seagull?”
– Losing one hiking boot, or both?
While it may be true that danger and discomfort lurk around every bend in the trail, there is some solace in the fact that overcoming adversity help build character.
As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, what does not kill me, makes me stronger.
At least that’s what I’ll be telling myself at the next uh-oh moment off the beaten path.