Thursday, June 22, 2017


Cactus Eaters - How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself - On the Pacific Crest Trail
By Dan White

I was looking for some travel books at my local library when I came across this book. The spine had many indentations on it, and how could I resist a title like Cactus Eaters? My husband and his family eat cactus, but in the form of nopales - sliced into thin strips, cooked and inserted into tacos as a filling. I pulled the book out from the shelf and gave it a good flip before slipping it into my canvas tote bag. 

Cactus Eaters is a memoir by Dan White about his experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with his then-girlfriend, Allison. This isn't just a hiking story. This is also a story of a struggling relationship between two people at pivotal points in their lives, from the perspective of a man whose life is changing and he is unsure of what he wants. Dan wonders whether their struggling relationship can survive outside of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Before reading this book, I never realized that the PCT hiking community was so small. People recognize each other from the signature books that hikers sign at various points along the trail. Cactus Eaters introduces us to the lightweight hikers who follow the teachings of Ray Jardine, the snobbery and competitiveness that one can encounter occasionally, as well as other intriguing individuals that one can meet on the trail. At some points I found his assessment of certain individuals a bit too judgmental, but for the most part, I enjoyed reading his portraits of different people they met along the trail. 

Dan speculates on the type of person who would be drawn to the Pacific Crest Trail. Many embark on the trail to work through some type of emotional pain. Having grown up somewhat sheltered and privileged, he feels like he is unproven, like a sword not yet used in battle. The full title of this book is Cactus Eaters - How I lost my Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail. *Almost* is right. During the last third of the book, Dan falls into a spiral of aimlessness and prioritizes himself and his PCT goal over Allison and their relationship. The memoir doesn't end with a neat, climactic moment of self-realization, but with his relationship with Allison unraveling into a distant friendship, and the two of them drifting off into their respective lives. As satisfying as it would have been to have a snappy Hollywood ending, I accepted the realism. 

Cactus Eaters breaks away from cliches ending in the protagonist/speaker "finding" himself. Contrary to expectations and hopes that he may have had going into the PCT, he fails to find himself, but instead, gets lost along the way and struggles to find direction after PCT. Eventually he moves on with his life, but those events occur far after the PCT experience. However, I was glad to know that he turned out okay. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and White's narrative style. Dan White intermingled his and Allison's experiences in the PCT with the historical background of the PCT and wandering thoughts.