I took a day off from hiking yesterday to read Dan White’s “The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Oddly enough, my summation before reading the first sentence (“A Walk in the Woods” with better scenery) still stands: It’s a mostly humorous account of hiking the spectacular scenery of the PCT, but instead of Bill Bryson’s grumpy, lumpy Katz, White has the leggy, sexy Allison — whose lovely fanny gets tighter as the miles add up and she continually saves White’s fanny from the consequences of his outdoor ineptitude.
Another similarity: Neither book finishes the trail in a single season, which might annoy the through-hiking purists. The purists might also be miffed by the book’s true purpose: the trail is really just a stage for a modern day melodrama about how young men and women learn to get along in the modern world. Their misadventures are plot devices for universal themes: White foolishly bites into a cactus in a vain quest for water, Allison spends an hour tweezing the spines from his tongue, and afterward he realizes what every man dreads: she doesn’t trust him anymore, and he needs her far more than she needs him.
Could happen anywhere.
What you also need to know before plunking down your $14.95 is that “Cactus Eaters” is an English major’s version of hiking the PCT with his fetching and able girlfriend, penned by a guy who has just completed an MFA in writing at Columbia. At times I could almost imagine one of White’s professors scrawling “give us more conflict here” in red ink the margins. The “inner life of the babe-smitten through-hiker” got a bit tiring at times, but hey, we’re all hikers around here, we’re used to being tired.
If anything, “Cactus Eaters” is hemmed in by White’s experience on the trail. He recounts familiar guy issues: commitment, masculinity, society’s expectations, etc. He does dumb things and survives. He has bear scares, meets remarkable people, lets a wonderful woman slip through his grasp. White does a fine job with this material, but it’s mostly conventional. Why not write a novel to juice up the story a bit? Or, better yet, use parallel narratives in which Allison tells her side of the story. Time and again I wondered a) what she saw in White and b) what kept her hiking for weeks on end with this engine of exasperation she had for a boyfriend.
But anyway: If you like this blog you should enjoy “The Cactus Eaters.” White’s knack for turn-of-phrase knocks mine in the dirt (he calls Santa Cruz a “gentrified catch basin for the unhinged.” Priceless.) His literary ambitions take him beyond “what I saw when I spent all summer hiking in the High Sierra” and while he’s not quite in Bryson’s league just yet, it’s only his first book. Ol’ Bill might want to be looking over his shoulder at the new hiker on his trail.
Previously: Meet Dan White, Cactus Eater.