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quitting is believing in abundance

Managing miserable weather in the North Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail took a willingness to quit and a belief that there would be better days ahead.

A very wise person once told me, “Give it all away; you’ll make more.”

He said this at an agonizingly low moment in my life when I felt used up and defeated. I was beginning to wonder if, in the future, I should hold back and not give so much of myself away. Perhaps that would protect me from feeling this awful the next time things didn’t work out as planned.

In no uncertain terms, I was told that was a bad idea.

Oftentimes, things don’t go the way we want them to – the waves are too big, the rain is torrential, the views are non-existent, the snow is like styrofoam, or, in my case, life hands you a bunch of lemons. Managing our feelings at times like this, both on and off trail, is a matter of changing our perspective. While it’s usually fairly easy to do if we haven’t committed to something, once we’re in it, it can be a challenge to believe we’ll “make more.”

This kind of thinking is called a heuristic trap.

Heuristic Trap of Scarcity

Heuristics are simple rules that we use to solve complex problems. Also called ‘intuitive mental shortcuts’, we apply these rules quickly and subconsciously when the outcome is not guaranteed to be optimal or even rational. Like trial-and-error and rule-of-thumb, heuristics simplify thoughtful judgment by reducing the number of cues analyzed, and instead use memory and past experience to make more efficient decisions.

But oftentimes, we fall into a heuristic trap when our rules are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. One particularly dangerous trap is scarcity and competition for a limited resource or opportunity. For instance, “I’ve come this far up the mountain and I’ve paid so much money to get here/someone will get there before me, so I can’t turn around now even if I’m sick/the weather is bad/it’s getting dark. This is my only chance!

That particular heuristic trap is also known as “Summit Fever.” It’s as though the summit itself – or whatever goal we’ve set for ourselves – has cast a spell and put us in a daze. Once we begin thinking this way, it’s nearly impossible to stop.

This is why hikers often keep moving even after they realize they’re lost. I fell into this trap on the PCT as I began ascending when I should have been descending. It was as if inertia took over my legs and they kept walking on their own. Only a fast-moving river of snowmelt stopped me. It’s funny, I was about a mile and a half off trail, but I was too afraid or ashamed to take the time to decipher how lost I was. I was possessed by this subconscious, yet irrational, belief that if I kept moving, things would eventually work themselves out and all I could focus on was “getting there.”

Had I been deep in the woods, this could have had serious consequences because without reference points, people tend to walk in circles. This phenomenon is common enough that in Wilderness Safety courses, hikers learn a simple acronym to use should they get lost: STOP. It spells out Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. In my case, I only needed to reorient myself and backtrack, but it could have meant an unplanned night out in the wilderness, a search for water and shelter or a need to call for help.

This is the last of the bridge in 2019 over Kennedy Creek in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Swollen, ice cold and full of glacier till, the crossing is exceedingly dangerous, but I was able to carefully step across where the boards still touched. As of 2021, the bridge is no more.

Regret Asymmetry

Economists use an interesting term, “regret asymmetry,” the idea that important decisions we make are influenced by past experience, even when the results of those past decisions were out of our control. This translates into a tendency to choose safer options so as not to risk having even more regrets. The upside is we protect ourselves. The downside is ‘known misery’ can sometimes feel safer than ‘unknown possibility.’

A lost hiker, or one close to a summit, might keep barreling forward because the current condition – as bad as it is – has become familiar. So far, they think, I’m surviving, and they lose sight of the fact that things could get worse if they keep going.

Obviously the outdoors poses more risk, mostly because we’re far from help. But this principal can be applied to everyday life, to jobs or relationships or ruts we’re deeply invested in. Our unhappiness has a comforting quality to it because it’s known. The alternative could be worse!

And this is where philosophy makes its grand entrance. If the heuristic trap of scarcity poses danger – or unhappiness, then the mental state of “making more” – or an abundance mentality – suggests opportunity.

The option to quit

Perhaps the hardest day on the PCT was in Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington’s North Cascades. It had been raining for days, the mist was down and snow still clung precariously on exposed slopes. Just getting out of the sleeping bag and packing up took a Herculean effort. The trail was passable and I knew that moving would keep me warm, but in the back of my mind, I ran through my list of bail options should I need to get off trail.

At Kennedy Creek, I saw another hiker carefully working his way across a fast moving and swollen river, light brown and opaque with glacial silt. Although the bridge was cracked in half, he managed to step across. I followed carefully grateful not to have step into the rushing water. This was followed by steep switchbacks through snow fingers and mountain paintbrush to a pass 3,000 above.

As I crossed over, two men began working their way across a snow field, carefully stepping into icy footprints and avoiding looking down the angled fall line. I copied their moves, keeping three points down at all times and suddenly, I was on the other side, wet and cold but full of wonder at this incredible view.

All smiles on the other side of Fire Creek Pass after a short but wicked and exposed snow slope.

The same person who told me I’d make more, also told me to get my feet on the Pacific Crest Trail. He could see what I couldn’t that there was possibility for good things beyond the awful place I was in at that time. It took a leap of faith to leave my grieving for another day and start walking that magnificent trail, to believe in abundance and “making more.”

I was supremely lucky, able to walk the PCT end-to-end without obstacles like forest fires or health problems. Things worked out so spectacularly well that those five months of walking remain one of the most precious to me now. And that’s because things don’t always go that well. I had a plan in place if I needed to quit and stayed focused on the fact that I might have to use it, but ended up not having to.

The more wonderful things in life that we can be grateful for, the more likely we can believe that we will make more. An attitude of abundance rather than scarcity opens up a deeper appreciation for all that’s good and faith that more good awaits.

This is part one in a series about intentional quitting as a force for a more positive and fulfilling life. Read more: Quitting is Optimism, Quitting is Saying Yes, Quitting is Believing in Abundance, Quitting is Awareness.

7 Responses

  1. Very well said. Love reading your posts and how they relate to my life. You’re a strong women and I love your fortitude and conviction 👊
    Two instances come to mind both in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In early June of this year I left the Mt Washington observatory at mid day just after a storm blew through. On my way to Madison Hut I found my self slightly off trail and had to use the “STOP” method. Hiking solo for 5 hours in high wi d and sleet I made itto Madison Hut 🤞 … don’t need that experience again.
    The other hike was nearly 30 years ago with the scouts. We were on “Isolation” trail in the Wht Mnts of New Hampshire a couple weeks after some hurricane damage and ended up backtracking on the 2nd day because storms had blown in and we didn’t know how bad things could be ahead of us but we knew how bad things behind us were so we went back hopefully having chosen the easier path 🤔
    Thanks again and keep on hiking.

    1. wow! That hike to Madison hut sounds atrocious. Good choice to backtrack. I had a similar moment after blowdown when turning back and not able to see which way I came from.

      I have hiked in the Whites just one time and have tremendous respect for them. People who hike a lot in the Rockies can’t grasp how dangerous they are being so close to the ocean and exhibiting the venturi effect in actually speeding up the wind. Still, some of the most beautiful hiking in the world. Thanks for sharing your adventures and glad you’re safe! alison

  2. This is wonderful, Allison, and could apply to many of us, if not all of us, in different areas of our lives. So insightful! You write so well.

    1. thank you! “lessons of the trail” are coming out in force these days. I hope to pull it all together in a helpful way that translates to “real life” so your comment means a lot to me! ❤︎

  3. Wow. You pull together wisdom from many disciplines far removed from putting one foot in front of the other – not to mention pondering when and how you might decide not to. The possible (and helpful) applications of your epiphanies to everyday life really are as numerous as you say.

    1. thank you, John! The trail is the best teacher because it’s just you out there with all your thoughts, decisions to be made and situations to manage. I am most grounded when walking and so glad it resonates. Have a glorious new year filled with much abundance. ❤︎

      1. Always interesting where life points us, or where we point life. Here’s to a lot of happy pointing in 2023, Alison.

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