Friday, August 8, 2008

"The Cactus Eaters" by Dan White

Tom Managan mentioned "The Cactus Eaters" on his blog recently and I had to have it. I love trail memoirs but am often disappointed by them. Many seem to follow a boilerplate: naive hiker sets out, gets blisters, feels discouraged, pack is too heavy, things get better, bear, weird trail characters, rain, enlightening moment, endorphins, ice cream, hurray here's the end of the trail. One book that really rose above the genre is the late great Colin Fletcher's "The Thousand Mile Summer," published in 1964. Dan White's memoir doesn't equal Fletcher's, but it's quite good.

I think the secret to a successful memoir is simple: honesty. When writers dodge the dark nasty secrets at the pit of their souls the books don't work. A memoir should not serve to make the author look noble or superior. You have to strip all the bullshit away and tell the truth, even if it makes you look bad. And Dan White's book feels very true.

White set off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend. Both were unprepared and overburdened with stuff in every sense of the word. "Cactus Eaters" chronicles White's physical and mental journeys in a style that is never just for laughs, although it would have been easy to go that route (like Bill Bryson's "Walk in the Woods"). I enjoyed reading White's descriptions of hiking and camping, as well as trail and town characters, but my favorite part was following White's struggle with himself. The subtitle of the book is: "How I lost my mind and almost found myself on the Pacific Crest Trail," and it's a compelling trip.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone by revealing the ending, but I will say that the very last 2 pages of the book gave me the chills. White gives closure to his journey in a beautiful haunting way that brought to mind one of the final shots in Nicholas Roeg's 1971 movie "Walkabout," where a young woman daydreams about an incredible journey, knowing it's an experience she will never have again.

I highly recommend "Cactus Eaters" to backpackers, hikers, and folks who like a good outdoor memoir.

Dan White's website: