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The Cactus Eaters
It's 9:00 A.M. in the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada, eighty-five degrees and rising. The water in our bottles is almost gone, but I don't panic. I suck my tongue. I lick my hot teeth.
Allison, my girlfriend, stirs in her sleeping bag. She wakes up slowly, stretching her arms to the tent's nylon roof. From the way she smiles at me, you'd never know we're in crisis mode again. Yesterday, our unbreakable leakproof water bag broke and leaked all over my $385 Gregory Robson backpack. We've been rationing for fourteen hours now. I take a deep breath, try to stay calm, and smile back at her as best I can. Our love is still strong, in spite of the fact that Allison's hair is shagging into her eyes this morning, making her look like a yak, and in spite of the fact that we haven't had sex in God knows how long. I emerge from our tent on my hands and knees and shake my boots for scorpions. There are none this morning. My socks are brown and hard and smell like ham. I put them on anyway. Allison puts on hers. "Cowboy up," she says. She has splotches of dirt all over her body. I'm not looking so great, either. After 178.3 miles and 2 ½ weeks of this journey to the north, my shirt rots on my back. Pig bristles sprout from my chin.
We dust ourselves off and load our stuff into our backpacks. I walk out into the dry heat with Allison, my back pain, and the little bit of water we've saved. Five miles to go until we reach Yellow Jacket Spring. I am worried that the spring will not exist, or will have uranium or a dead cow in it. This morning I feel the strain of all we've seenand experienced: the heat blisters, the rashes, the dust devils, the coyotes who keep us up at night with their relentless whining. Still, things could be worse. At least we're making progress. This, after all, is our dream, to be here in a real wilderness. I remind myself that we're here by choice. We walk on. Beads of sweat draw paisley patterns through the dirt on my legs.
I watch Allison move through the landscape with confidence. Though she's dirty and tired, and in spite of what's happening to her hair, she is still lovely. She pouts in concentration as she studies the map and compass. Now she's passing me on the trail, edging around me, taking the recon position without consulting me. Is this an unspoken act of rebellion, I wonder? I walk behind her, and though I wish she'd spoken to me about this leadership change—I'm the designated leader for today—at least I've got a nice view of her calves and her trail-hardened bottom as she leans forward to climb the hill, her hands on her shoulder straps. Her solar-reflective Outdoor Research survival hat shades her face. I try to forget my thirst, but I just can't. Every time I swallow, it feels like there's a Nerf ball in my throat.
The word Sierra conjures images of mountains, glaciers, rivers, and charming marmots. Scratch those pictures from your mind. Replace them with dust and dirt and sweat, canyon oak, piñon pine, and in the middle distance, blunt-topped crags the shape and color of an old dog's teeth. Every once in a while there's a hint of darker colors: the slate-gray berries on a juniper bush, the black on the back of a turkey vulture below us in a canyon, but for the most part thescenery is pale beige, the color of stucco, the color of gefilte fish. The Pacific Crest Trail is renowned for its beauty, but this patch of trail is plug-ugly, and we haven't seen a human in five days. We walk downhill along an abandoned jeep road to search for the spring. Every once in a while the top of a piñon pine peeks from behind a stack of boulders. A mirage appears in a bend on the road. Pools of quicksilver fade as we approach. After fifteen minutes, the dirt road levels, then turns uphill on a punishing grade. I'm starting to wonder why we haven't found the water. It seems we've gone far enough. I'm starting to worry that the spring has dried up.
To distract myself, I remember how we boasted about the trail to everyone who would listen. Even Patrick, my swordfish-nosed barber, knows all about it. Allison and I ditched our jobs in Torrington, Connecticut, to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, a 3-to-10-feet-wide, 2,650-mile-long strip of dirt, mud, snow, ice, and gravel running from Mexico to Canada. The trail starts at the Mexico-California border town of Campo, buzzing with border patrol guards in helicopters. It climbs the Laguna, San Jacinto, and San Bernardino ranges, drops to the Joshua trees and hot sands of the western Mojave Desert, and rises close to the base of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states. The trail nears the thermal stench pots, fumaroles, boiling lakes, and gassy geysers of Lassen. Then it pushes through the Columbia River Gorge and into the North Cascades before coming to a stop in Manning Park, British Columbia. The trail spans California, Oregon, and Washington. On the PCT, you pass through state and federal lands, sovereignNative American territory and timber holdings. You see a thousand lakes, and travel through seven national parks. In the northern lands, mountain goats scale hundred-foot walls in seconds flat. Reach out your hand and you can grab a fistful of huckleberries right off the bush. In northern streams, river otters splash in the shallows.
The PCT is America's loveliest long-distance hiking path, but the trail exacts a toll for a glimpse of its pretty places. In some areas, you must find your way amid the firebreaks and game trails . . .The Cactus Eaters. Copyright ? by Dan White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Dan White forges miles past travelogue to carve a poignant, uproarious, and deeply compelling love story between man, woman, and the land between. The Cactus Eaters is as impressive and enjoyable as the ground it covers.”
“It is a funny, frequently harrowing, and altogether mesmerizing memoir about just how wrong a backpacking expedition can go….‘The Cactus Eaters’ is far more than a Sierra Club-approved romp. It’s gorp for the soul, a fascinating and surprisingly moving testament to the call of the wild.”
“In the well-written, laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating spirit of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, Dan White takes us along for a walk on the wild side of adventure and love. I could not put it down.”