The Cactus Eaters

The Cactus Eaters

The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, a distance of 2,650 grueling, sun-scorched, bear-infested miles. When Dan White and his girlfriend announced their intention to hike it, Dan’s parents—among others—thought they were nuts. How could two people who’d never even shared an apartment together survive six months in the desert with little more than a two-person tent and some trail mix? But when these addled adventurers, dubbed “the Lois and Clark Expedition” by their benevolent trail-guru, set out for the American wilderness, the hardships of the trail—and one delicious-looking cactus—test the limits of love and sanity.

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Praise for The Cactus Eaters

“It is a funny, frequently harrowing, and altogether mesmerizing memoir about just how wrong a backpacking expedition can go….The Cactus Eaters is far more than a Sierra Club-approved romp. It’s gorp for the soul, a fascinating and surprisingly moving testament to the call of the wild.”

—Steve Almond, Boston Globe

“Drawing on diaries he kept at the time, White polishes up these memories, serving them forth with brio and dash…[The Cactus Eaters] brings a fresh perspective to the timeworn adventure-travel genre.”

Kirkus Reviews

“In the well-written, laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating spirit of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, Dan White takes us along for a walk on the wild side of adventure and love. I could not put it down.”

—Eric Blehm, National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of The Last Season

“Dan White forges miles past travelogue to carve a poignant, uproarious, and deeply compelling love story between man, woman, and the land between. The Cactus Eaters is as impressive and enjoyable as the ground it covers.”

—Franz Wisner, New York Times Bestselling Author of Honeymoon with My Brother

Frequently Asked Questions

This has been updated slightly. I should tell you right now that this contains some spoilers so stop reading right here if you haven’t finished the book. Every once in a while, I go in here and change the wording when I notice something clunky, unfinished, inflammatory, etc.

What are you working on now?
Working title: the title, actually, keeps changing. It is now under contract Henry Holt and Company. When exactly will the book be in your hands? I can’t say for sure. Working mighty hard, though. I am illustrating the book — watercolors and pen and ink drawings and multi-media. If given the chance I will even design the cover. There is a little bit of overlap with the Cactus Eaters but this one involves a cast of hundreds — lots of interviews, lots of historical research and travel combined with memoir aspects.

Why name the book Cactus Eaters instead of Cactus Eater?
I  like the way it sounded.  It’s a big improvement over the original title, Magnets of Adversity, suggested to me by a former professor. The other proposed title was The Lois and Clark Expedition, but I thought that was too cutesy. Having said that, I’ve always thought of The Cactus Eaters as a placeholder title, and hoped that some other title would present itself at the last minute because it sounds just a little bit New Age-y, like a Carlos Castaneda taking-peyote-in-the-desert revelation memoir, but no other title presented itself so there you go.

What happened to “Allison” from the Cactus Eaters?
I am glad to report that she is doing well in every respect. I hope I’m not revealing too much by telling you this, but she’s been re-conquering the Pacific Crest Trail piece by piece. Recently she bagged a large chunk she hadn’t hiked before — in fact, she has now conquered every last millimeter of the California PCT, all 1,700-odd miles of it– and my prediction is she’ll bag the entire thing before too long. In fact, she probably hiked right past you if you happened to be on the trail last year. That’s all I can say about that right nowTo be honest, she’s doing much more long-distance backpacking than I’ve done in recent years and will ever to again for various reasons, though I’m really into camping right now.

Is The Cactus Eaters going to be made into a movie? 
Two screenwriters approached me and said they would love to adapt it into a movie, but I have not heard back from them in a while.

Has Wild and its phenomenal success caused people to find out about The Cactus Eaters?
I have no way of knowing if it does or does not. There is always this slow, steady trickle of readership of The Cactus Eaters, with people posting online review of it every single day, almost without fail, in one outlet or other according to my Google Alerts. But that has been going on from the very beginning. Is that because of word of mouth, and did the renewed interest in the trail sustain that? I have no way of knowing because, honestly, I don’t follow it very closely. My guess is that the very small but steady readership of the Cactus Eaters is self-sustaining, through book groups, chat boards, words of mouth etc. I, personally, have not lifted a finger to promote the book in quite a few years because I am overwhelmed by so many other responsibilities (one more book coming along, a third book roughed out and about half-finished, and a zillion other things.)

What else should I read about the PCT?
Well, you’ve all read Wild, right? So the next one on your list should now be Gail Storey’s wonderful book, I Promise Not To Suffer. I was hooked the whole way through. It’s funny, surprising, and sad, and it does something that few books can do: it gives you a vivid sense of what a good, healthy relationship actually looks like, what it requires from both partners, and how it works. I just sent Gail a note about all this but I want to make sure you know about it, too. Also, have you read Robyn Davidson’s Tracks? Not a PCT book, (it involves a slog across the Australian Outback), and she has a team of nasty camels instead of thru-hikers walking with her, but you’ll see that Davidson’s journey has a lot in common with Strayed’s and so many others.

If I go on to the Pacific Crest Trail and return home, will I have a nervous breakdown? Look — if you go on any adventure and then resume your normal life, there is bound to be some kind of letdown. Don’t let that factor dissuade you from hiking on a national scenic trail!! Chances are you’ll feel a little down in the dumps and antsy for a short while and then you’ll get over it as you discover new adventures. Besides, fearing a letdown is not a reason to avoid doing something enjoyable. That’s kind of like saying you won’t drink a milkshake because you will get a slight stomach ache and brain freeze afterward. In other words, it’s worth it.

What is your biggest single piece of advice for PCT hikers?
Use a rolling resupply bucket (my book goes into detail about that) and always remember to hike your own trail. Everyone’s out there for a different reason. If people are out there to bag miles, don’t make fun of them because that’s their goal. By the same token, if you’re taking it slowly, you don’t have to feel bad about the fact that you’re only going a few slow miles a day. There’s no ‘wrong’ way to hike the trail as long as you aren’t harming the trail or the environment or other people (or yourself, for that matter.) Take the longview. Think in terms of 15-20 mile days, not a 2,650-mile journey. Otherwise it’s too intimidating. Also, always help other hikers who need it. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t use water-based ink in your pens. You never know if you’ll want to draw from your journals 10 or more years from now so use pencil or a waterproof ink. I learned this lesson from painful experience. And one more thing.

Have you been surprised about the fact that people have had such  strong reactions about the book
Yes. I am confident that most people got what I was trying to do. Most people who know about the book feel very strongly about it in a positive way. There is no way you can please everybody. You are always going to alienate some people no matter what you do. As most of my good friends know, I was way too invested in every little online reaction when the book first came out. I haven’t read one single online review of the book for about two years now — and I feel so much happier and more centered because of that.

Have you undertaken any adventures since the trail?

Yes — a whole bunch. Here is one of the more recent ones in The New York Times — a great trip, but it will be a long while before I get on a bicycle again. I hate panniers. Here’s an account of my journey in Eastern Kentucky. I loved it out there, but this is the last time I’ve gone overnight backpacking. You’ll understand why.

Would The Cactus Eaters have taken place if you’d been carrying a reliable GPS?
Most of the incidents would still have taken place but I don’t think I would have gotten lost so much. The fact is, I took two recent trips — one to Maine, with a GPS and extensive studies of the terrain, and pre-programmed coordinates, and another to the Kentucky backwoods for the NY Times — no GPS at all, and only a foggy understanding of the terrain. I did great on the Maine trip, even though there was no map at all, and in some sections, no trail. The Kentucky trip was scary at times, but when it was over, some good people in Whitesburg, Kentucky, invited me to their house, and we stayed up most of the night drinking Bulleit Bourbon. So I bought a whole bunch of it and put it in my backpack and brought it home to California, only to realize that they stock the same bourbon at Trader Joe’s.

What was the timeline of your hike?
I finished my PCT journey in the fall of 1994. The trail scenes all took place in 1993 and 1994. The book spans a 14-year period of my life, starting in 1993 in California (when the opening scene takes place) and coming to a close in the winter of 2007 in Manhattan. The post-trail Santa Cruz ‘blue period’ unfolds in 95 and 96. The book ends in 2007. A lot of the narrative hinges around the 1990s– and that is very important for the book, mostly because there were no telecommunications devices at our disposal. It wasn’t just the fact that we were greenhorns. We also had no cell phones, no way of calling out, and there was certainly no means of ‘texting’ anyone about what was going on. In a sense, it was extremely primitive compared to hiking these days. That definitely ramped up the adventure.

What has changed on the trail since you hiked it?
It’s important to note that my experience was atypical, if not downright weird, for reasons that go beyond the year I did it, though that was certainly part of it. My trip was peculiar because we left too late and were not part of a large social group of hikers. This meant we ended up hooking up with fast-walking stragglers, who were bringing up the rear of the pack, and were probably quite a bit more eccentric and extreme than your everyday thru-hiker. As for the changes: There are more ‘trail angel’ networks and trail communities, and much better dissemination of updated trail information (up-to-the-moment trail conditions as well as recommended gear.) The upkeep and maintenance of the trail is much-improved. Trail advocates have gotten a lot more sophisticated and much better organized. The trail is a lot more visible, well publicized, and better managed these days. These days, it’s easy to go on the net and get consumer information about the best and worst hiking gear. When I did the trail, I pretty much had to test out all that crap myself. There are (from what I hear) many more women hiking the trail, including solo-hikers (I know two of them, and one of them has a PCT book in the works.)

Why wait for more than a ten-year period before writing the book?
I didn’t really wait.  it just worked out that way. I could not see my way around the trail, or see the shape of the narrative, or, to be honest, see anything the least bit funny about the hike (!), until I waited for a long time.

I am hoping to publish my own trail narrative. Any advice?

Do everything you can to get your work out there — blogging, newspaper columns, or anything else at your disposal. If you have an interesting story to tell, you’re sure to find an appreciative audience. Write from the joy of creation and try — at least early on in the process — to not drive yourself nuts wondering about how people are going to react. Write to help you understand what you think. Don’t rush the process, ever. Someone once said that art is not a potato-sack race. Also, don’t be afraid to take risks in terms of style, structure, content. Read constantly, while seeking inspiration from unexpected sources. Personally I love photography and sculpture exhibits because they awaken a playful kind of creativity I can’t find in literary sources.

Did you know you were going to write a book when you set off on the trail?
Yes and no. If I was serious about it in the beginning, I would have put specific dates on more of my journal entries (and not written the entries in such messy handwriting and all out of sequence, which made it annoyingly difficult for me when I dug up those scattered to some extent, rain-smeared journals more than 10 years after the fact.) I also would have done a better job of protecting my journals from the elements. About 25 percent of my journal entries were decimated by El Nino storms while sitting in a box in an outside shed in Pleasure Point, California. My landlord accidentally threw out lots of stuff from that shed, including my rolling resupply box. And, come to think of it, I would have gotten photo releases from everybody, too. That would have been a smart thing to do. Every once in a while, someone gripes about the lack of photos.
Read on, but only if you are planning to hike any major trail:

Are you thinking of a through-hike? Make sure to read up, make plans, get in shape and talk to as many PCT trail vets as you can. For starters, order the official guidebooks and at least skim them in advance, marking up the water stops, supply stops, etc. Get inspired. Hike yourself into the best physical shape you conceivably can before setting out. To fire yourself up, you’ve got a heap of top-notch books to choose from. I named a couple of them earlier in this posting, but I also liked Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (if you would like to read a beautiful, sweeping literary overview of pilgrimages on foot), Footsteps by Richard Holmes (in particular the section when he is tracing the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in Europe) and my all-time-favorite fictional account of a long walk, To The End of the Land by the amazing David Grossman, about a mother trying to evade tragedy by walking through Israel.

The various experiential trail books and weblogs will give you some sense of what to expect. But, quite frankly, many of the published accounts are better for the sake of pure inspiration and entertainment than for actual trail preparation, simply because the trail is so wide open. Any two people are bound to have vastly different experiences. I’ve heard a couple of people describe my book as a “guidebook,” and that’s asking for trouble. The memoirs aren’t supposed to be trail guidebooks. If you’re really trying to get the most up to date picture of what is going on right now, there are countless weblogs now available, as well as informational clearinghouses on lightpacking that you can find on the web.

Of course, you will get updated information from official as well as unofficial PCT sites maintained and updated by enthusiasts. I recommend both Jardine books because they were the ‘starting gun’ for the lightpacking movement — but there are countless lightpacking blogs and websites to choose from these days.

Choose your gear wisely. Don’t go for flashy brands. Find out what successful through-hikers have used in the past, especially when it comes to stoves and water filters, two devices that can make your life a living hell out there if they are difficult to use or poorly manufactured. (I love my old warhorse Katadyn — not kidding when I tell you that it can filter liquid mud into potable water, no problem!!! – but I’m not sure if they make my old-school ‘pocket filter’ anymore.) Find out about sewing your own lightweight packs from a kit if you’re handy with a needle and thread. Ask a recent through hiker to share his or her itinerary and list of contacts (good cheapo restaurants, local ‘trail angels’ and the like.)    In almost all cases, they will be more than happy to share their schedules. Do long prep hikes to determine your pace. Also, it would be a great idea to take an orienteering course taught by an experienced, savvy leader. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for your MPD (mileage per day.) Find a comfortable pace and learn to stick with it. And whatever you do, don’t make big batches of home-made granola. The nuts will spoil, and you will find yourself throwing that stuff away in the trash can or leaving it in the ‘freebie’ box at a trail stop. I hope that answers your question.

And, since we’re on the subject of reliable trail information …

Here is one of the most comprehensive Web clearinghouses I’ve found for PCT links, planning forums, PCT trail logs and the like.

Also, make sure to check out this inspiring site if you are either thinking of doing the trail or are interested in trail lore (or other trails.)

And here’s some stuff about the Continental Divide Trail:

I just finished “hiking” it vicariously; Lawton “Disco” Grinter sent me his inspiring videographic memoir of his CDT adventures.
And finally, here is the clip-and-save Thank You’s and Acknowledgments section for the Cactus Eaters

The “thank you” and “acknowledgment” section of my book was amended and updated two and a half years ago because it was overly long and woefully incomplete.  Thank you to everyone who helped out with my book, The Cactus Eaters. My wife, Amy Ettinger, worked hard in NYC (her employers, among other people, included the Metropolitan Museum of Art) so I had time to finish the project while holding down a 20-hour-a-week teaching load. She is the one who shlepped out to all those book readings and events, and dealt with the ups and downs of this from the beginning. Without   her, there would be no book at all, period, end of story.

Thanks to my advisor Patricia O’Toole, to Michael Scammell, Lesley Sharpe, and the students in the nonfiction workshop.

Thanks to all the folks who inspired the work. A big thank you in particular to “Allison,” and not just for being such an essential and good-humored part of the crazy journey, keeping a clear head and persevering on the trek itself (and choosing the PCT as the L&CE’s expedition of choice, after considering several other options, including the AT and the Camino de Santiago). Allison also read and reviewed a number of my emails in regard to several essential scenes, most notably the cactus-biting incident, which was, as it turns out, even more perverse and horrible than I even remembered. Allison’s feedback was incorporated into the section involving a tick attack (which was also worse than I remembered). In case you are wondering, Allison is doing very well. That’s really all I can say about that for now.

Thanks to Mark the Postman, too. You saved me, big time, when you convinced me to throw all that junk out of my pack and send it home. Without you, I would have collapsed from heat prostration for sure. Sorry I couldn’t figure out how to reach you and thank you  before the book came out. I was relieved to hear you liked the book.

A rough draft of this book was completed in 1996 (I am not kidding. In some sense, the Cactus Eaters actually predates a certain other, much-talked about book about a different trail), but it sucked, severely, so I threw it away completely. The book began to take shape again around 2003-4 or so, when I drafted up a few lengthy emails and started to ‘grow’ them into a manuscript. Without the help of the Cheese Wheel Book Group, consisting of Vito Victor, Elizabeth McKenzie, Richard Huffman, Richard Lange and John Chandler, that task would have been impossible.

My sister, Edie Achertman, and brother-in-law Doug Achterman, and my pal Dave Howard, all contributed feedback and advice. So did my mother-in-law, Sheila Ettinger. Thanks to my parents about being good sports about the “Grampa Gappy” stuff, etc, and to my brothers Phil White and the late David Gordon White, (1965-2009) whose own writings and songs were always a huge influence on me.

Finally, I taught quite a bit of undergraduate essay writing, fiction, nonfiction and poetry while working on this thing. That experience really helped with the writing process, so I’m grateful to all the students (and so far, I’ve had about 300 of them, if you can believe that …)

That’s all for now …. Thanks for checking in every once in a while. I like hearing about all the places where the book turns up (including a hostel in India, and, from what I hear, all across Australia.) If you come across a copy of the book in an extremely far flung location, let me know. Even better, send me a JPG photo.