Editorial reviews: The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail..

A couple of you asked for this round-up, so here it is. I give these to you straight-up, but warning: Spoiler Alert!

‘Cactus Eaters’: Rough trail, enjoyable book
Jory John, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Cactus Eaters
How I Lost My Mind – And Almost Found Myself – on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Dan White

“I was so tired of feeling weak. I wanted to start my life over by tracking bears through the Cascades and washing my face in a stream spilling off a thousand-year-old glacier,” Dan White writes in “The Cactus Eaters,” a compelling, often laugh-out-loud-funny account of his time spent traversing the Pacific Crest Trail, an extreme 2,650-mile trek.

Since its designation as a national scenic trail in 1968, the trail- spanning Mexico to Canada – has served as a monstrous challenge for even the most adept hiker. It is renowned for its cavalcade of unexpected difficulties – from lack of water to bad weather, terrain challenges, outdated maps, wildlife, fussy landowners and more – and it crosses three entire states, through high and low deserts, forests and snowy peaks. To White, the trail represents more than just bragging rights. It is an antidote to a life of fear, laziness and second guesses, a chance to replace his modern comforts with self-inflicted hardships, one step at a time. It promises a new identity for a man who is tired of his old one. Plus he can quit his day job.

With his adventurous girlfriend at his side, the 25-year-old is driven to the start of his adventure by his rightfully worried parents. Devoid of outdoor training, starting out late in the year – mid-June, instead of the recommended late April – and carrying far too much gear, the two leave much to be concerned about. To the folks they encounter, many of whom have knowledge of the trail’s potential hazards, they are, at best, a joke. At worst, they’re a walking tragedy.

When they finally set out into the Southern California desert, a comedy of hiking errors begins, building up to a near-death experience involving a panicked attempt to suck water out of a cactus. This is followed by much cactus-related pain.

White’s ability to convey dialogue and his way with internal monologue surpass even Bill Bryson’s comic touch. The book is packed with good jokes, often resulting from the lack of a cool head and a clear sense of what to do next. But the consistent action and White’s extensive sense of history strike a good balance, rooting the book firmly in the adventure category. White can also write gorgeously, like this description of the desert: “You didn’t even whisper when the sun came looking for you like a searchlight. In a way it was glorious, the relentless watching of the red ball as it sank, the feeling that I had outwitted the sun.”

Because it’s a story about hiking, the plot naturally follows the trail, and it’s never quite clear what’s around the next rock or cliff or lake – be it hunter, insect swarm, snow, bear or waterborne illness. The trail also serves as a metaphor for the disparate elements in White’s life: the unknown territory ahead, a new relationship and an undying unwillingness to deviate from his chosen path.

Throughout all of his encounters, White is hardest on himself, whether he’s feeling manic or cocky or making silly errors or pleading with God or arguing with his girlfriend. He holds himself accountable, repeatedly, to the point where the reader forgives him nearly as much as his girlfriend does. He’s an unlikely candidate for this kind of expedition, and he’s willing to present the bad Dan with the good. Is he selfish? Sometimes. But only those driven by obsession can succeed. He wants something real to be proud of, something full and lasting. His reasoning elicits your sympathy, even if you don’t agree with all of his decisions.

White has written a book filled with energy and enthusiasm for its subject. It wouldn’t be surprising if this became the Pacific Crest Trail voyager’s new must-read.

Jory John is on the staff of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing center in San Francisco


Summer reads:

Salon’s staff is recommending summer books that transport you to new places without making you go through airport security.

True confessions: From a trek through the American West to a life filled with music, these memoirs will whisk you away.

By Salon staff

“The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Dan White

The Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, is one of the longest and most scenic hiking trails in North America. It winds through California, Oregon and Washington, and passes through some of the most rugged terrain in the country. As Dan White’s travel memoir, “The Cactus Eaters,” makes clear, it’s not for the faint of heart or tender of foot: Hikers can go up to 200 miles without encountering signs of civilization, and because of the trail’s length and difficulty, only about 120 people complete it every year. More than half of those who begin the trip do not finish it.

“The Cactus Eaters” is White’s spirited and amusing account of his journey along the Pacific Crest — equal parts adventure story, history lesson and relationship log. For White, the ruggedness of the trail offered an escape hatch from the doldrums of adult life. Before embarking on the trip, he was dreadfully bored with his job as a reporter at a newspaper in Torrington, Conn., where the paper’s lax editorial standards allowed for, among other errors, the printing of two consecutive Wednesday issues in the same week. Upon hearing about the trail, he persuaded his girlfriend, Allison, to join him as he quit his job, abandoned his apartment and set out on what he called “an American safari.”

The trip, however, seemed troubled from the start. Setting out in Southern California, the two were clearly overpacked — their baggage included a John McPhee anthology and a kite. They were also frightfully inexperienced: Their previous hiking experiences had involved little more than day trips and an aborted attempt to walk the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. Most ominous, Allison succumbed to food poisoning on the journey’s first day and quickly began throwing up. In the weeks that followed, the couple’s fortunes improved. But they still managed to run out of water, get lost and have their water filter sexually assaulted by salamanders. They also spent an inordinate amount of time bickering about each other’s commitment. To his credit, White paints a remarkably unflattering portrait of himself, as a childish companion and boyfriend whose grand visions of the hike often threaten to tear the duo apart. It doesn’t help that he’s a frightfully poor decision maker, who, at one point, tried to extract water from a cactus (an attempt that ended with several dozen spikes embedded in White’s face).

Although the act of walking doesn’t often recommend itself as a topic of long-form nonfiction, “The Cactus Eaters” manages to be both eminently readable and fun. White breaks up his narrative with colorful tangents about the trail’s history, and describes the couple’s misadventures with witty, vivid prose. Although some of his epiphanies (about the spiritual nature of hiking, for example) seem a bit contrived, his breezy tone keeps his momentum from sagging, and the couple’s happier moments balance out their more dire predicaments. All in all, “The Cactus Eaters” is the perfect summer read for those of us who love being outdoors, but don’t mind, every once in a while, letting somebody else do the walking. — Thomas Rogers

Boston Globe

A writer answers the call of the wild
By Steve Almond | July 22, 2008

The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail, By Dan White, HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $14.95

Anyone who has ever daydreamed about embarking on a spiritually transformative odyssey into the wilderness, but hesitated owing to a lack of experience, or an excess of neuroses, should count “The Cactus Eaters” as a kind of prophetic text. It is a funny, frequently harrowing, and altogether mesmerizing memoir about just how wrong a backpacking expedition can go.

As the subtitle suggests, the book recounts the journey of Dan White and his long-suffering girlfriend Allison, who trudged from Mexico to Canada along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. The book opens with the pair waylaid in a remote patch of desert, a broken water filter all that stands between them and the buzzards. Herein lies the central source of suspense in this debut: Will White and his Girl Friday actually survive the trip? The answer is yes, though just barely.

Among the various degradations they endure: dehydration, giardia, vicious cactus thorns, and killer ticks. Oh yes, and bears. Several hundred miles in, White runs smack into a slumbering black bear — though he’s too frightened to recognize the situation initially. Instead, he convinces himself that it’s merely a sculpture. “Why would someone take the time to sculpt and sand down and set up this marble lump and plant it right in the middle of the PCT, where a hiker might run right into it,” he writes. “And what, exactly, was the sculptor trying to prove? Was the artwork an expression of guilt? I was getting myself all worked up and annoyed when the statue, suddenly, moved.”

This passage provides a flavor of White’s humor, which is, like the author himself, both goofy and indefatigable. Throughout his saga, he comes off like a suburban nebbish with an obsessive streak that far outstrips his competence. The PCT becomes both his white whale and his straight man.

But White is more than just a survivalist joke machine. He’s also a deeply self-reflective writer, who traces his psychological compulsion for hiking back to his childhood idol, the naturalist John Muir. It was Muir, he explains, who “sold me on the notion that a man could internalize the beauty and harmony he finds within nature and bring those qualities home with him. He might even use these qualities to mend the broken pieces of himself.”

White also writes, with great eloquence, about America’s pathological relationship toward wilderness, in particular our national penchant for commodifying the great outdoors. He conjures up figures such as James McCauley “perhaps the creepiest showman in the history of backwoods tourism” who amused gawkers in Yosemite more than a century ago by flinging objects off a 3,200-foot cliff.

More lovingly, he evokes the various hiking fanatics he meets on the trail, all of whom seem hellbent on escaping the artificial reality of civilized life. By the end of his own journey, White has joined their ranks. He’s a certified trail rat who’s lost his own bearings, not to mention his girl-friend.

And yet his descriptions of the natural beauty he encounters are so vivid, so rhapsodic, that it’s easy to see why he’s seduced. “The desert commented on its own dryness,” he writes at one point. “The wind rushed like water. A mirage washed up against a pile of rocks.” Further on, he describes “the watery flavor of a salmon berry,” baby mountain goats “floating up [a] cliff face” and lizards that appraise him “like insurance adjusters.”

“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’s essay collection, “(Not that You Asked)” is just out in paperback.


A trek up the West Coast from Mexico to Canada.
By Susan Salter Reynolds
The Los Angeles Times
May 18, 2008

The Cactus Eaters

How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself —

on the Pacific Crest Trail

Dan White

HarperPerennial: 374 pp., $14.95 paper

“The word Sierra conjures images of mountains, glaciers, rivers, and charming marmots. Scratch those pictures from your mind. Replace them with dust and dirt and sweat, canyon oak, piñon pine, and in the middle distance, blunt-topped crags the shape and color of an old dog’s teeth. . . . [F]or the most part the scenery is pale beige, the color of stucco, the color of gefilte fish.”

Dan White is not in the habit of romanticizing. He and his girlfriend, Allison, left their jobs in Connecticut to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The book opens not quite three weeks into the trip, and both travelers are a little the worse for wear. What with the ticks (“Walkers whip off their clothes to find forty or fifty of them at once, looking like M&M’s with legs”) and other perils, it’s a trail that “extracts a toll for a glimpse of its pretty places. . . . More than 50 percent of the people who walk the trail give up in despair, often within the first week.”

On the day the book opens, Dan and Allison have run out of water. “I have a degree in English with honors from Wesleyan,” White writes with mock incredulity. “You’re the smartest guy in the room,” he tells himself — but he’s run out of water, and he can’t find any. Still, there’s great joy in the couple’s escape from the rat race. He and his girlfriend worked for a newspaper that had “a hate/hate relationship with its readers. People in town never said they ‘subscribed’ to the paper. Instead they said they ‘took’ the newspaper, as if it were a pill or a suppository.”

Through the Angeles Forest, Tehachapi, the high passes on the John Muir Trail, the Range of Light, the Pacific Northwest, the Lois and Clark Expedition, as White calls it, picks up characters and bits of lost history.

The two explorers have strange dreams. They contemplate marriage and careers and compromises. “Every step toward Canada was a step toward manhood,” White writes, in that voice you will grow to love. “I feared that the trail, if I never finished it, would leave me stranded in a permanent kindergarten. . . . “

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.


Traversing broiling deserts, snowy mountain passes and dank rain forests on its crooked way from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Coast Trail is an epic challenge for die-hard backpackers. White and his girlfriend, Allison, set out, late in the season and bereft of experience, to tread all 2,650 miles of it, leaving behind lousy reporting jobs and hoping to find self-definition and a deepened relationship. (They call their trek the Lois and Clark Expedition.) Hilarious greenhorn misadventures ensue-including the author’s ill-advised chomp, while dizzy with dehydration, into a reputedly moisture-laden prickly-pear cactus-that tested their survival skills and commitment as a couple. The trail becomes less an itinerary than a world unto itself, full of squalor, discomfort and majestic scenery, and peopled by charismatic misfits and an austere cult of ultra-light speed-hikers, as the couple rely on arcane camping gear and bizarre gummy-bear-and-marshmallow diets. The wilderness authenticity the author seeks proves elusive; all journey and no destination, the story itself eventually trails off with the hero even more callow and confused than when he started. Still, White’s vivid prose and hangdog humor make readers want to keep up. (June)

Journalist White and his girlfriend Allison tackle the Pacific Crest Trail, Mexico to Canada and all the many miles and weather developments in between. They both worked at a small newspaper in Connecticut. He was a book-smart nerd with a deep-seated need to rebel; she was professionally ambitious but with an appetite for adventure. They fell for each other and, in an act of sublime ignorance, decided to knock off the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in one summer-long act of youth and bravado. That was ten years ago, which has given White time to recover from their trail-trial-by-fire and to find some humor in the story. White and Allison encountered a typical gallery of blowhards, weirdos and good Samaritans on the trail. They desert-fried and snowfield-froze. They found scorpions in their boots and swarms of ticks everywhere. The food was scary (and so was the diarrhea). But they also saw peach-colored mornings and lavender evenings; they skinny-dipped and made love. Drawing on diaries he kept at the time, White polishes up these memories, serving them forth with brio and dash. But he also unsparingly portrays his selfish ways as he gradually descended into an edgy and anxious frame of mind. He was raw: a buffoon, quixotic when not churlish. Readers will laugh with the author as he delivers one-liners (“It changes you when you bite your first cactus”), but they will also steam at his solipsistic antics and become unnerved when they see him making critical decisions with decidedly impaired judgment. No wonder Allison broke up with him after the big hike. Brings a fresh perspective to the timeworn adventure-travel genre.”

“In the well-written, laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating spirit of Bill Bryson’s 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 couldn’t 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.” — Franz Wisner, NY Times bestselling author of Honeymoon with My Brother

“Think Into the Wild with a touch of Annie Hall, as told by Woody Allen, and you begin to get the picture of Dan White’s riveting account of a long, life-altering walk most of us will never take. White’s tale of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail’s grueling 2,600 miles, from Mexico to Canada, is by turns funny and achingly painful — physically and emotionally. As White and his long-suffering girlfriend encounter a cast of extraordinary characters — as well as bears, rattlesnakes and nasty bugs — you feel like you are with them every step of the way. A wonderful read — even if your longest hike is usually out to the driveway.” — Kenneth C. Davis, NY Times bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and the “Don’t Know Much About …” series.

… and this just in: Elle Magazine chose The Cactus Eaters as its top readers’ nonfiction pick of August 2008. (The other two books look great; I’ve added them to my must-reads for the month. For the record, those books are Doreen Orion’s Queen of The Road — just started it; hilarious so far, and John and Jean Silverwood’s Black Wave, which I have just ordered.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *