Giving Up is Not An Option: What Five Days in the Wilderness Taught Me


Humility, Tenacity and a Huge Roll of Duct Tape

This summer my husband, some friends and I went on a five-day backpacking trip Up North. The landscape there is so dramatic and wild, I always feel it necessitates a lot of proper nouns. So when we go north, we go Up North.

The hiking route we chose was stunning and challenging, but it wasn’t until Day 4 that the mental and physical crunch of what we were doing really hit me.

It was around lunchtime and the pass we were following up a mountainside became inaccessible due to high water, so we retraced our steps and found an alternative route. It looked steep and long, but would at least get us to the summit we had to reach in order to leave the valley. But after nearly two hours of climbing, what we found instead was a false summit dropping off onto a dangerously steep shale slope down to the bottom of the pass we were originally meant to take.

There was no option: the only way was down … and all the way up again. The thought of undoing all of our hard uphill work—only to re-do it again—was hard. Our swollen feet already resembled duct tape mosaics from four days of stymying the inevitable blisters, and we were running low on replacement tape.

As we stood, exhausted and trying to figure out how to descend this steep and rocky slope safely, I realised that if I was anywhere else, I would quit here. I’ve put in a good run, I would reason, and now I’m done.

But here, stopping wasn’t an option—not if we wanted to get out. We were miles from the nearest road and cell reception. We had come in on foot and the only way out was on foot. And so—against every instinct in my body, I continued putting one swollen, duct-taped foot in front of the other—digging deep and leaning hard into the side of the scree slope as we slid down through a cloud of dust, grabbing onto shrubs and willow branches along the way.

Once at the bottom, we quickly splashed our faces with cold glacial water and started again up the mountain. After a brief stop at the top, it was downhill again: 4.5 hours of bushwhacking, going over and under thick tangles of deadfall and being roped down waterfalls. The bush was thick, there were big grizzly footprints all over the place, and there was nowhere we could camp even if we wanted to.

There was nothing to be done but to keep on keeping on, my husband playing the harmonica to alert any grizzlies as to our presence.

One camping spot and 24 hours later, we reached the end in a haze of euphoria—kicking off our boots and collapsing on the roadside in the sun, so very glad that we had done it. Peeling off bits of duct-tape, I felt the scorched grass beneath my feet and had the unmistakeable feeling of being grounded in my body: strong and integrated and alive.

Later that night, full of barbequed ribs and laughter and re-told stories, I thought of how I had felt the previous afternoon at the false summit. That moment of knowing that in any other scenario I would have stopped there, declared: enough.

I felt deeply grateful to have had no choice but to go beyond what was merely “fun” or what I would have chosen. Deeply grateful for the experience of having no choice but to surrender to the land as it rose to meet us valley by valley, false summit by false summit. (The land definitely has a sense of humour.) This was a truly spiritual practice: one that felt formational and healthy, one that allowed humility and tenacity both to rise up within me as I gradually walked beyond my ability to control and into the gritty realm of surrender. On the other side of surrender, it felt like the land carried us forward; past breathtaking vistas and through the most gorgeous wildflowers—tenacious beauties that grow year after year after each devastatingly harsh winter.

I realised that, while we can—and definitely must in the wilderness—study the map, route-find, strategise, and plan up to a point, ultimately the road will surprise us, confound us, frustrate us and astound us. We can resist this, or instead, recognise it as an invitation to life: true, incarnational, abundant life. We can recognize it as the narrow door into creativity, into faith.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water was my reading companion for the trip, and in it she talks about how she is a servant of her creative work. Ultimately, she writes, she has to learn to surrender to the work; to listen to it and follow where it leads. This is costly, as it sometimes means letting go of much loved characters or ideas. If art is to be true, it is a non-negotiable. “It is a frightening thing,” she writes, “to have faith in that which [we] cannot completely know and control.”

In my privilege, I am far too accustomed to being able to call the shots. Far too able to decide how far to go, and when and how. I am terrible at surrendering control.

I wonder how often this keeps me on this side of the fence; safe, but only half alive. I wonder how often my unwillingness to go beyond the known and controllable into the wilds of faith, keeps me from experiencing blisters, yes, but also from the truest kind of joy.

I don’t want to miss out on the surprising, the confounding, the frustrating and the astounding.

At this moment, as in any moment, there are things that are not going according to my desired plan. I find myself trying to push and cajole and pull until things look as I would like them to. But I know this isn’t the way to what I truly long for. Deep down, I know the only way into that which is true, is to walk out beyond my ability to control into something I can’t yet see, something which I trust will rise up to meet me.

If these five days in the wilderness taught me anything, it’s that this can be costly. That it will be much harder than the route which I can control myself. (Exhausting though that is in its own way.) But I long to be a woman who stays the course, who keeps on keeping on through the blisters and the uncertainty with humility and tenacity—and a huge roll of replacement duct tape.