The Cactus Eaters by Dan White
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
So, here’s my dilemma: I hate it when readers allow their perception of the author, or their judgments about an author, influence their review of their writing; however, when reviewing a memoir, you have to make judgments about the author in order to review the content. As a result, this review is going to be mostly content-oriented, which will by necessity include some statements about how I perceive the author. You have been warned.
Let’s start drilling down into this thing from the top. First of all, we’ll look at the writing. Technically, the writing is… adequate. White is often quite descriptive of the landscape through which he passes, and gives a good sense of where he and his girlfriend are. It’s nothing outstanding, though. At times, he almost gets too monofocused on the minutiae of the surroundings and kind of misses the forest for the trees (sometimes quite literally). The author unfortunately gets quite crude at times, dropping profanities and talking about how much he wants to have sex with his girlfriend.
As a memoir of hiking the PCT, this book leaves much to be desired. I realize that California takes up the lion’s share of the trail, but White devotes almost no time to his hike in Oregon and Washington. Even the California portion is more about the ways in which he and Allison screw up—the cactus-eating incident that spawned the title is a prime example. Most of their struggles come about from their own stupidity—seriously, who dumps out their water in the desert?—and there’s little sense that they learn from their mistakes.
Now comes the part that I usually would avoid. As the author writes so much about his own actions and his state of mind during the hike, I feel that it would be remiss not to address that as a commentary on the book’s content and on the author’s choice of subject. And frankly, it boils down to the fact that I view the author as an asshole. He spends the entire book getting angry at his girlfriend for things that are not her fault, he has no compassion for her physical issues (she ends up with rheumatoid arthritis in her knee and he has no sympathy), and he basically uses the trail as an excuse to lose his mind. I mean that literally. He starts talking to trees and rocks, hiding from other people and abandoning any shreds of self-respect. And he revels in this! There’s no sense of regret for how he treated other people (he gives lip service to it, but it doesn’t come across as sincere), and he seems almost proud of his faults, as though they give him character.
In the end, this book doesn’t work as a hiking memoir because the focus isn’t on the hike, and it doesn’t work as a memoir of personal growth, because the author doesn’t grow. Near the end of the book, White has lunch with an ex-girlfriend and she says that he hasn’t changed at all, and she would never have known that he’d just got off a national scenic trail if he hadn’t told her. That’s a pretty accurate sum-up of the book.
Prospective hikers, take note: do not use this book as a guide to a long-distance hike. There are so many better books out there. The Cactus Eaters did nothing but make me disgusted with the author and had nothing new or unique to say about one of the most stunning trails in the country.