The Cactus Eaters

While this year everyone read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I read a different memoir about the infamous 2,650 mile journey — Dan White’s 2008 book The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail (P.S.).


Disgruntled with their lives as small-town reporters, Dan White and his girlfriend, Alison, crave to do something adventurous and noteworthy — walk the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail in a single season. To prepare for this epic journey, they go on a 1-night overnight backpack trip near their home in Connecticut. Their anticipated start date is delayed a bit longer than expected, and finally they set out on the trail just south of Los Angeles in mid-June, the supposed last “through hikers” of the season. Armed with enough supplies to complete an around-the-world journey, those experienced with the trail doubt that Dan and Alison will even make it to the first supply town.

The author’s inexperience, yet determination to complete this marathon journey will make any reader feel like they too could embark on such an adventure. At times the writing is crass, other times humorous. Along the way, Dan and Alison almost die of thirst on several occasions, eat cactus out of desperation, contract a disgusting and debilitating illness, and get attacked by a swarm of ticks. They encounter other hikers who briefly become interesting characters in the story. Throughout reading this book, you might constantly ask yourself, “will they complete the journey? Will Dan and Alison get married once it’s through?” I asked myself these same questions, and for 2/3 of the book, I really enjoyed following their humble journey.

And now I am going to do something I rarely do in book reviews. If you haven’t already read The Cactus Eaters and think you might like to, don’t read beyond this paragraph. I will leave you with the recommendation that this would be a fabulous book club pick, because there is much to discuss. For that reason, I must blurt out what I thought about the ending. If you have read this book, and whether you agree or disagree with what I am about to say, I would still love it if you share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Although this book was Dan’s memoir, I felt a special connection to Alison. She was the real trooper in the book, and saved Dan’s a**, and possibly his life, more than a few times. So when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and couldn’t complete the remainder of the trail, I expected Dan to at least support her a little. But instead, he decided to complete the trail on his own. In his final missive from the trail he wrote, “don’t postpone adventure because you never know what will happen,” which I agree with in many circumstances, but not at the expense of those you supposedly care about.

It was almost as if in Part 2 of the book, the humble, goofy protagonist was consumed by a goal-obsessed narcissist who needed to complete the trail at any cost. At one point in my life, I too was goal-obsessed, but I have learned to accept that many times plans change, and that oftentimes there is more to be learned from the journey than from the outcome. So to put it bluntly, I was disappointed in the ending of this book.

I am a fan of many 19th century nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir because I believe they teach their readers not only an appreciation of the natural world in all its beauty, but the possibilities of a life much simpler, and the responsibilities to act justly upon one’s convictions. But I am seeing a trend among many contemporary nature writers that I’ve read, in which, rather than becoming a more altruistic person after encountering nature, the person becomes more self-centered. Perhaps it has to do with the age we live in, which is summed up in a quote that begins The Cactus Eaters:

“Many lives are so empty of interest that their subject must first perform some feat like sailing alone around the world or climbing a hazardous peak in order to elevate himself above mere existence, and then, having created a life, to write about it.” — William Gass, The Art of Self: Autobiography in the Age of Narcissism




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