The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind - and Almost Found Myself - on the Pacific Crest Trail

The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind - and Almost Found Myself - on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Dan White


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The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, a distance of 2,650 grueling, sun-scorched, bear-infested miles. When Dan White and his girlfriend announced their intention to hike it, Dan's parents—among others—thought they were nuts. How could two people who'd never even shared an apartment together survive six months in the desert with little more than a two-person tent and some trail mix? But when these addled adventurers, dubbed "the Lois and Clark Expedition" by their benevolent trail-guru, set out for the American wilderness, the hardships of the trail—and one delicious-looking cactus—test the limits of love and sanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061376931
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/20/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 597,262
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dan White is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Backpacker magazine. He received his MFA from Columbia University, and he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

The Cactus Eaters

Chapter One

Hot Teeth

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

Franz Wisner

“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.”

Steve Almond

“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.”

Eric Blehm

“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.”

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Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind-and Almost Found Myself-on the Pacific Crest Trail (P.S. Series) 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
quiltnrun More than 1 year ago
I'm addicted to reading adventure memoirs and this is a memorable read. The author's sense of humor, and candid appraisal of his girlfriend helped me see things from a guy's point of view--literally and figuratively. He wrote honestly about his mistakes and short-comings, and I grew to admire the committment he found not only to The Trail, but to himself.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
A great adventure trail is ruined by Dan's smug attitude. His lack of respect for his hiking partner, whom he continually bypasses when making decisions, diminishes the joy of reading his adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail. His partner is an angel for continuing as long as she did. She is truly to be appreciated especially considering his condescension toward her. Still, taking his attitude out of the equation, it really is a good read for life on the trail - the hardships, the joys, the peace.
gracia4000 More than 1 year ago
I read pretty much every adventure journey book I can get my hands on. Cactus Eaters is one of the very best I have read, comparable to A Walk In the Woods. I love White's humor, use of unusual language and terms, open and honest descriptions, and coverage of the psychological aftermath of a through-hike. So many of these adventure narratives miss the mark, at least for me, by trying for profound and beautiful prose, and end up boring me to death (no names--you know who you are!) but White cuts to the chase and still manages to write in an artful way. I look forward to his next book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'd say there were at least a dozen times during my reading of this book that I laughed out loud. Everything else about it was purely entertaining. It certainly gives you a great sense of just what it is that people are getting into when they do these long-distance backpacks. If someone ever writes a great book on the Continental Divide Trail, 'The Cactus Eaters' review of the PCT and 'A Walk in the Woods' story of the App. Trail will join it as the 'must reads' for these three classic American long hikes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book about traveling in the outdoors and all the things that entail it. While not really detailed in specific sites and sounds, the writer manages to portray the human interactions and emotions with great finesse. I laughed out loud and found it a most enjoyable read!
MitraLibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dan White had me hooked immediately with this well written mis-adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail but after reading it, not sure who the authors intended audience is. The majority of the book is a trail journal, funny, painful and embarrassing moments, most of which was caused by his own inexperience of trail life but the underlying story is of his own personal journey, into his own occasionally deranged mind.If you are looking for insight into hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this book is not for you, if on the other hand you want a glimpse into Dan White's mind you will enjoy this book.
co_coyote on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dan White is a pretty funny guy, but he tries a little too hard occasionally is this interesting story of his five month journey with his girlfriend, Allison, on the Pacific Crest Trail, a backpacking trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. Still, this is an easy and enjoyable book to read. It's almost a coming of age story of a backpacker, as Dan and Allison learn what works and what doesn't. The book doesn't turn out exactly as you would expect, and you wonder in the end if Dan's humor is a cover for something darker. But, one reason for hiking long distances is to come face to face with your deepest self. The trail clearly does that for Dan.
dcoward on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dan and Allison are underprepared, twenty-something hikers who decide to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is a 2,650 mile hike that bares some resemblance to the Appalachian Trail, but without the readily available water. Actually, this book reminded me of a younger, hipper verion of Bill Bryson's AT tale, A Walk in the Woods. The similarities include asides on the history of the Pacific Coast Trail, vivid descriptions of the trail's beauty and hardships, and even includes a bumbling, Katz-like character, although in this case the bumbler is not the author's friend, but the author himself. In fact, one of my biggest complaints in the book was the fact that the main character, Dan, is frequently unlikeable. I'm all for an author being brutally honest about their own flaws, but wow! Alison seems way more with-it, but you have to wonder why a woman like her doesn't kick Dan to the curb, and the book doesn't explore that at all, even though the book does take some huge detours from the trail midway through. Despite its flaws, this book should appeal to those who like reading about modern day adventurers.
yourotherleft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sometimes ignorance is the catalyst you need to change your life.The beginning of The Cactus Eaters finds Dan White wanting to grow up. To do so, he imagines that he will need to go through some hardship and emerge on the other side a real man. The hardship he voluntarily exposes himself to is the Pacific Crest Trail a grueling 2,650 mile hike from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada. The trail passes through waterless desert and over treacherous mountain passes, and a precious few actually complete its length each year. Despite its dangers, Dan and his girlfriend Allison quit their jobs, mail supplies to various towns along the trail, and begin their hike, after one false start, in Agua Dulce, California. What follows is a hilarious and informative memoir of Dan and Allison's epic hike. Readers can't help but relate to Dan as he gapes at a well-meaning trail angel lightening his pack, struggles to keep up with fellow PCT hikers whose zeal to finish the trail makes them seem nearly insane, and passive-aggressively attempts to avoid hiking with a rather unpleasant "slow walker" without much success. White's tales of the unusual characters he and Allison meet on the trail flow seemlessly with descriptions of scenery, hardships of the trail, and informative digressions into the history of the area. White's reflections on what drove him to attempt the hike, how his experience on the trail changes him, and what it gave to him and took from him when all was said and done are compelling and never seem anything less than genuine. Dan and Allison in all their normal personhood are great guides to the trail - not quite so insane-seeming as those who hike the trail repeatedly. Their random made-up rapping, ridiculous ghost stories, and occasional fighting not only pass the time on the trail for them but also spice up the reading for us. That, and the, at first, outsider view of the trail, its unusual hikers, and those trail angels who want to see the PCT hikers succeed help to give a glimpse of the trail that maybe you or I would see if we suddenly went off the deep end and decided it was high time to take a 2,650 mile hike. White's memoir is at once laugh out loud funny and a little sad as he reflects on a time in his life that was not always great but did have a profound effect on him. White helps those who would never in a million years consider taking such a hike understand how, despite its many trials, one could become so attached to the experience of roughing it in the wilderness in what seems to be a different plane of existence that it would seem surprisingly hard to return to "real" life. All in all, a great and engaging travel memoir that flows so well that you won't want to put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Easy read that kept me entertained.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought this would be a good adventure book but what a waste of money. Way too much profanity and I can't seem to wrap my head around how he claims to be Jewish, sometimes prays to God but belittles Christians at the "born-agains and "those religious people. Then we are subjected to his opinions about evolution. Don't waste yur money.
Bob_K More than 1 year ago
After reading a very good book about the Appalachian Trail (Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail), I thought I'd next read a book about the PCT. I began reading this book but quickly became discouraged when I discovered it was full of profanities and some rather open descriptions of sex with his girlfriend. A quick search of the eBook yieled something like 21 F-bombs and 60 or so other profanities. The storyline seemed to have promise, but it's tough to get by White's potty mouth. I hear it all day long at work and don't automatically prefer my books to contain the same vernacular. If that doesn't bother you then by all means enjoy the book. If you prefer your books to be free of that language, then you should move on to other books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I kept hoping it would get better but it doesn't. I hope one day Dan White discovers why people really hike because he clearly has no idea.
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CAdan More than 1 year ago
Let me start off by saying that Whites story of hiking the PCT was a fun and entertaining story. When I was reaching the end of the book I was expecting this amazing transformation for him..from boy to man. From avoiding confrontation to meeting it head on. Instead, I think he ended up worse then when he started this quest to "man up". The way he was totally unable to have a adult conversation with his girlfriend "Allison" about their future plans together made me sick. His complete avoidance to plan for the future made me just "skim" the last few chapters. Not to completely spoil the ending but.. he did not even have a acknowledgment for Allison in the end of the book. I was blown away at that since she had to put up with his bad choices and child like attitude on the trail. I normally don't review books and will most likely not in the future but, for some reason I was compelled.