In the late sixties I first read My Side of the Mountain and was forever hooked. Between that book and The Willie Mays Story (thanks Scholastic book service) my love for voracious reading was kindled. “Mountain” is every boy’s ideal adventure; running away, living in a tree with a pet peregrine falcon, how could it get any better? That remained the standard for a wild escapade until I checked out a library book about a young man who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone, the title of which escapes me. Here was an adventure, a solo journey into my beloved mountain forests, hiking with a gigantic, external-frame Kelty backpack and enormous leather boots. I longed for years to emulate this hike, thinking about it on shorter jaunts and knowing that I would never be able to set aside the time to actually accomplish it. I would have to enjoy it vicariously.
With my radar tuned this way, a browse through the local bookstore landed on Dan White’s recently published book The Cactus Eaters. White’s memoir brought Mountain immediately to mind as he chucks his newspaper job and goads his much more driven girlfriend into a grand lark, hiking the 2650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Never mind that they had not been more than weekend hikers nor had they shared any confined space in the past, this pair set out into the heat of the Southern California desert. Dan and Allison were going to face the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades and all of the challenges with 70 pounds of camping gear strapped to their backs. We’re not given Allison’s reasons for joining the expedition except boredome and wanderlust, but Dan is revelatory in hoping to reshape his image of himself and escape the tentacles of adult life.
The travails start early in the Mojave as the pair discovers that this journey might be harder than they anticipated. Scarce water is jettisoned on a whim as the barrenness of the environment plays with the hiker’s minds, exposing their raw personalities. Dan’s insecurities threaten to derail the journey at numerous junctions, his snarky observations of other hikers and the trail angels who come to his aid giving the narrative a darker edge. A part of Dan’s journey of self realization appears to be the criticism of others, evident in his gleeful attachment to the pejorative unbecoming description of hikers following Ray Jardine’s methods. As he describes his girlfriends transformation into a hardened, shapely, sun-bleached blond, he also seems to be so insecure that the reader is led to wonder why Allison doesn’t leave him at one of the supply stops…walking away humming a death metal hiking ode.
Unlike Bryson’s Appalachian trail memoir, The Cactus Eaters ends on a very sour note. Abandoning his girlfriend, Dan paints a picture of his spiral into near insanity after completing the trail in a second trip. His self absorption in the final pages threatens to ruin the entirety of the preceding pages as the ordinary guy of the first steps of the trek becomes little more than a simpering boy, sitting in his room in his boxers purportedly longing to be like the men he met on the trail who had cast off the bonds of polite society, yet lacking the courage to do so.
Cactus Eaters is a fine trail narrative, good for a summer read as we each consider our own little adventures. Except for White’s meltdown and his admittedly boorish treatment of his girlfriend, he is a writer we can look forward to reading in the future.