Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Cactus Eaters by Dan White

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, hey, look, I'm reviewing another great book and, I think, even am doing so rather coherently. The bad news is that you have to worry about my coherence because now that it's not raining and crappy outside and I don't have to work until Tuesday, why of course, I'm dreadfully ill. I managed to hold out just long enough to slave away carrying junk around for my mother's yard sale (so now I'm sick and sore), but when the time came to simply enjoy the glories of a long weekend (something I've been forever prevented from doing by virtue of having those sorts of jobs where you're forced not only to work both days of the weekend but also the holiday itself) I found that my throat's all sore and my head feels like it's going to explode (and hey, I might even find the whole head exploding thing quite preferable to the current situation). But, to leave this all on an up note, I don't feel too bad to read, and A Great and Terrible Beauty is pretty great, so I've been busy devouring its awesomeness all day long. Now that I've finished updating you on my less than pleasant personal situation (Aren't you glad I decided to share? More importanly, aren't you thrilled that the coming review has not one single parenthese?), on with the book reviewing.

Sometimes ignorance is the catalyst you need to change your life.

The beginning of The Cactus Eaters finds Dan White wanting to grow up. To do so, he imagines that he will need to go through some hardship and emerge on the other side a real man. The hardship he voluntarily exposes himself to is the Pacific Crest Trail a grueling 2,650 mile hike from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada. The trail passes through waterless desert and over treacherous mountain passes, and a precious few actually complete its length each year. Despite its dangers, Dan and his girlfriend Allison quit their jobs, mail supplies to various towns along the trail, and begin their hike, after one false start, in Agua Dulce, California. What follows is a hilarious and informative memoir of Dan and Allison's epic hike.

Readers can't help but relate to Dan as he gapes at a well-meaning trail angel lightening his pack, struggles to keep up with fellow PCT hikers whose zeal to finish the trail makes them seem nearly insane, and passive-aggressively attempts to avoid hiking with a rather unpleasant "slow walker" without much success. White's tales of the unusual characters he and Allison meet on the trail flow seemlessly with descriptions of scenery, hardships of the trail, and informative digressions into the history of the area. White's reflections on what drove him to attempt the hike, how his experience on the trail changes him, and what it gave to him and took from him when all was said and done are compelling and never seem anything less than genuine.

Dan and Allison in all their normal personhood are great guides to the trail - not quite so insane-seeming as those who hike the trail repeatedly. Their random made-up rapping, ridiculous ghost stories, and occasional fighting not only pass the time on the trail for them but also spice up the reading for us. That, and the, at first, outsider view of the trail, its unusual hikers, and those trail angels who want to see the PCT hikers succeed help to give a glimpse of the trail that maybe you or I would see if we suddenly went off the deep end and decided it was high time to take a 2,650 mile hike.

White's memoir is at once laugh out loud funny and a little sad as he reflects on a time in his life that was not always great but did have a profound effect on him. White helps those who would never in a million years consider taking such a hike understand how, despite its many trials, one could become so attached to the experience of roughing it in the wilderness in what seems to be a different plane of existence that it would seem surprisingly hard to return to "real" life. All in all, a great and engaging travel memoir that flows so well that you won't want to put it down.


  1. Oh no, Megan! I hope you are feeling better soon. :-( Something is going around my office and I'm doing my best to avoid it.

    The Cactus Eaters sounds like an interesting book. Not one that would probably attract my attention initially, but your review certainly has.

    Growing up, my family often went camping for weeks at a time. I used to love being out in the wilderness, so far away from everything we come to value in a materialistic world. But,oh, how I hated sleeping on the hard rocky ground, freezing in my sleeping bag and having to find a place to use the restroom in the middle of the night. Too much information. LOL

  2. Hmm I probably never would have heard of this without your review. It sounds really good though :) (Although I've never been camping/hiking in my life!)

  3. I hope you're feeling much better now...

    This sounds like an interesting book, and like kbook said, I probably wouldn't have heard about it without your review. Thanks for that!


  4. Thanks for the great review. This reminds me of Bill Bryon's book A Walk in the Woods. I loved that book, and it sounds like I'll love this one as well!

  5. Hope you're feeling better, Megan!!!

    And thanks for the fabulous review! I really didn't need to adding anything to the old wish list, but I can't help but add this sounds great!