Taking the man off the trail…but not the trail out of the man. Dan White’s The Cactus Eaters

“It’s 9:00 AM in the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada, eighty-five degrees and rising. The water in our bottles is almost gone, but I don’t panic. I suck my tongue. I lick my hot teeth. Allison, my girlfriend, stirs in her sleeping bag.”

Pacific Crest Trail hiker and memoirist Dan White grounds his travelogue in earthy reality through direct language, short sentences, and the constant awareness of physical needs. Hunger, thirst, cold, heat, exhaustion, fear, and boredom accompany him and his girlfriend throughout the wilderness, allowing for a realistic, tough-minded exploration of nature’s effects on humankind.

White intersperses natural history and facts about the creatures he and Allison encounter on the trail throughout the narrative. For example, unlike grizzlies, black bears are not pigeon-toed, and can head towards potential prey in a straight line. And lizards’ brains weigh a fraction of a gram, yet the animals are able to locate water in dry desert environments.

We also see the larger story of the history of humanity’s relationship to that particular land area, as anecdotes of explorers, developers, and political figures intertwine with Dan and Allison’s individual journey. We read of how wilderness enthusiasts Rogers and Clarke envisioned and set aside the Pacific Crest Trail over decades in order to strengthen and improve Americans’ moral and physical stamina, of President Jefferson’s speculations concerning wildlife west of the Mississippi, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, of water conflicts in the Owens Valley.

The Cactus Eaters’ greatest strength as a narrative is this carefully crafted balance, where Dan connects his own story to greater outside realities without losing sight of the piece’s central focus on his own specific journey.

White also interjects plenty of self-deprecating humor into this book. He spends an entire early chapter deliberating whether to speed up the pair’s journey by discarding some of their water supply. “Something was getting on my nerves, a hollow slop sound coming from inside our backpacks. Slip, slap, slop, what the hell was it? Water, that’s what it was…suddenly a plan rose to the surface of my thoughts…and it was pure genius.”

Later on, thirsty and possibly lost within the Mojave Desert, White rethinks the wisdom of his plan. But not after biting into a cactus without fully removing the spines, in the incident giving the book its name. As a novice hiker, White often bumbles through the trail, losing equipment such as his waste shovel and getting lost. He invites readers to laugh along with him, to experience the confusion of many in our society who have more ‘book-learning’ than common sense as we have become increasingly isolated from nature and its gritty realities. This humor gives the book a fresh perspective, a new slant on the adventure/self discovery genre.

We meet a cast of eclectic characters on the Pacific Crest Trail right along with Dan and Allison. Including the Gingerbread Man, a wise, friendly vegan gentleman with a grudge against the USDA food pyramid, Doctor John, a serious, mathematically minded, but socially awkward and overly frank companion, elegant day hikers who lose their bouquet of organic cheeses to a tree-climbing black bear, and legendary ‘trail angel’ Milt Kenney, who earned a justified reputation for showing small-town hospitality to the occasional PCT hikers who ventured across his path. Shown with all their kindnesses, warts, and quirks, these folks become real people, part of the trail’s culture without losing their individuality. We observe the culture which develops around wilderness, where human interactions become less complicated and frequent as physical survival requires a greater proportion of time and energy.

Dan also describes the mental transformation he and Allison undergo while on the trail. They experience physical reality more directly without the filters of internal or external verbal narration we normally impose upon our lives due to the need to communicate with others. To paraphrase, he relates how they went from saying something akin to “May I please have some of that nice organic granola bar?” to more of a Pleistocene grunt, but could still understand each other’s meanings through gestures. This brings up some interesting questions about the role of words in terms of facilitating – or defining/limiting – human communication.  

The pair does choose to fill the long hours on the trail and retain some level of normal humanity through constant singing and storytelling. From revised rap lyrics (‘hikahs’ instead of ‘gangstas’) to Alison’s penny-dreadful amateur horror tales, they entertain themselves with language.

The long period of mutual isolation, complete with periods of total isolation when Dan and Allison drive each other crazy and ignore each other, also provides him with time and space to reflect on how the trail is changing him as a person. Dan wonders whether his journey is truly maturing him, making him less selfish and neurotic and more aware of life’s priorities, or whether the hiking is simply another form of escapism from his adult responsibilities in the modern world.

The question is never fully answered – and perhaps The Cactus Eaters suggests that how one chooses to respond to and engage with life experiences is more important than the nature of those experiences themselves when it comes to personal development.

How will Dan and Allison take what they have learned from the trail and translate it into their ordinary lives? Can some lessons transfer into such a different world? I found it poignant and interesting that White devotes the last third of his narrative, not to the hike itself, but to his psychological journey of attempting to find his place once again in normal society afterwards. This inclusion seems to suggest that the return from the wilderness, from the heroic journey, can become a difficult undertaking in itself. Sea captain Ernest Shackelton’s biography Endurance, which White references in this book, relates much about the man’s excellent seamanship, self-sacrificing leadership, and wisdom and courage in the face of physical danger. However, the last chapter mentioned that he was never as successful or functional back on land, with attempting to work and earn a living after his adventure ended.

Sadly, the couple’s differing expectations for life after the trail and capacity to adjust to the return home drove Alison and Dan apart. She returned stronger, more confident, and enthusiastic about restarting her professional writing career, while he, more romantic to an extent, found he had left much of his heart and soul back on the trail.

Eventually he returns for shorter solo journeys after working a variety of jobs and meandering his way through Santa Cruz, before finally marrying, developing his career, and relegating lengthy survivalist hikes to nostalgia.

In the book’s final pages, White relates how he has learned from his wilderness experience. He no longer expects the same degree of ease/comfort from life, welcoming and accepting logistical challenges and complaining less about inevitable ups and downs. Perhaps he has finally completed the last leg of his journey…taking his trail adventure and integrating its lessons into a balanced, workable life. The book ends with a beautiful, reflective observation of another young couple enjoying dinner on the trail at sunset.

“They look through me as if I were made of Saran Wrap…then it gets too cold for me to stay out here any longer, so I leave them be and retreat down the ridge alone.”

Better read as a personal memoir/adventure narrative than a how-to hiking manual, The Cactus Eaters provides much in the way of fascinating historical and natural information as well as a compelling story.

Dan White supports independent bookstores and encourages you to purchase The Cactus Eaters from one near you. Also, he is available online through his blog at www.cactuseaters.blogspot.com