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Book Review

A writer answers the call of the wild

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steve Almond
July 22, 2008

The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail, By Dan White, HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $14.95

Anyone who has ever daydreamed about embarking on a spiritually transformative odyssey into the wilderness, but hesitated owing to a lack of experience, or an excess of neuroses, should count "The Cactus Eaters" as a kind of prophetic text. It is a funny, frequently harrowing, and altogether mesmerizing memoir about just how wrong a backpacking expedition can go.

As the subtitle suggests, the book recounts the journey of Dan White and his long-suffering girlfriend Melissa, who trudged from Mexico to Canada along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. The book opens with the pair waylaid in a remote patch of desert, a broken water filter all that stands between them and the buzzards. Herein lies the central source of suspense in this debut: Will White and his Girl Friday actually survive the trip? The answer is yes, though just barely.

Among the various degradations they endure: dehydration, giardia, vicious cactus thorns, and killer ticks. Oh yes, and bears. Several hundred miles in, White runs smack into a slumbering black bear -- though he's too frightened to recognize the situation initially. Instead, he convinces himself that it's merely a sculpture. "Why would someone take the time to sculpt and sand down and set up this marble lump and plant it right in the middle of the PCT, where a hiker might run right into it," he writes. "And what, exactly, was the sculptor trying to prove? Was the artwork an expression of guilt? I was getting myself all worked up and annoyed when the statue, suddenly, moved."

This passage provides a flavor of White's humor, which is, like the author himself, both goofy and indefatigable. Throughout his saga, he comes off like a suburban nebbish with an obsessive streak that far outstrips his competence. The PCT becomes both his white whale and his straight man.

But White is more than just a survivalist joke machine. He's also a deeply self-reflective writer, who traces his psychological compulsion for hiking back to his childhood idol, the naturalist John Muir. It was Muir, he explains, who "sold me on the notion that a man could internalize the beauty and harmony he finds within nature and bring those qualities home with him. He might even use these qualities to mend the broken pieces of himself."

White also writes, with great eloquence, about America's pathological relationship toward wilderness, in particular our national penchant for commodifying the great outdoors. He conjures up figures such as James McCauley "perhaps the creepiest showman in the history of backwoods tourism" who amused gawkers in Yosemite more than a century ago by flinging objects off a 3,200-foot cliff.

More lovingly, he evokes the various hiking fanatics he meets on the trail, all of whom seem hellbent on escaping the artificial reality of civilized life. By the end of his own journey, White has joined their ranks. He's a certified trail rat who's lost his own bearings, not to mention his girl-friend.

And yet his descriptions of the natural beauty he encounters are so vivid, so rhapsodic, that it's easy to see why he's seduced. "The desert commented on its own dryness," he writes at one point. "The wind rushed like water. A mirage washed up against a pile of rocks." Further on, he describes "the watery flavor of a salmon berry," baby mountain goats "floating up [a] cliff face" and lizards that appraise him "like insurance adjusters."

"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.

Steve Almond's essay collection, "(Not that You Asked)" is just out in paperback.

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