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

One star. To make it through their physically and mentally demanding PCT thru-hike, author Dan White and his girlfriend Allison shared a soundtrack of songs. I too found myself with a mental soundtrack while reading The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail: “I can change, I can change!” “What if you remain a sandy little butthole?” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, in honor of Dan’s overbearing selfishness, total lack of decency to his trail companion, and utter refusal to display a modicum of common sense on the trail.

First, to hit the good points: White’s descriptions of trail life are intriguing. His account of the walk from Mexico to Canada is lucid and readable. He neither romanticizes nor overstates the total challenge of his thru-hike. Nor does he shy away from painting himself in a negative light as he makes repeated mistakes and ignores pretty much every bit of rational advice–in fact, I went so far as to wonder why on earth anyone would ever pen such an unflattering picture of themselves.

Unfortunately, the author is an utter and complete nimrod when it comes to how he treats other people, most especially Allison. He consistently values his satisfaction, goals, and judgment over hers, to the detriment of their hike and relationship. For example, in the Mojave Desert stretch, he unilaterally decides to lighten his pack of some of the water load, dumping quite a bit without telling her, and then concealing as long as he can before fessing up that they face a long, dry march towards questionable water sources. Overrun with thirst, he takes a bite out of a prickly pear cactus, and then whines while Allison tweezes thorns out of his tongue. He pushes her over and over to perform beyond her knee pain. Later, when both of them get sick, any concern for her well-being is merely an afterthought.

Even worse, when a real-world commitment requires Allison to be off the trail for a week, he whines and moans the whole time about how it’s going to cost them their goal of reaching Canada. The one non-text item reproduced in the book is an image of the churlish and petulant screed he scrawled about how the time off trail was interfering with his obsession with reaching the Canadian border that looked and sounded like it was written by a foul-mouthed thirteen year old with poor impulse control whining that he wasn’t getting his way. (Perhaps he wanted the reader to see the string of sad faces he drew on the right side of the text?)

Allison discovers that her knee pain is due to rheumatoid arthritis. Despite her begging, he can’t be bothered to even read a brief pamphlet about her condition, much less muster any kindness or sympathy–it’s all about how her arthritis interferes with his dream.

The only real description we get of Allison is that she’s blonde, a feminist, and he lusts after her more and more as she gets more tanned and toned from the rigors of trail life. We find out very little more about her; I posit that the author himself never bothered to find out any further detail about her.

All I can say is that Allison must be a saint to endure what she did… to paraphrase Silent Bob, there’s a million fine looking women in the world, but they don’t all tweeze cactus thorns out of your fool tongue when you’re stupid.

It’s not just Allison either. He treats the other hikers he encounters with derision, such as referring to them as unflattering names. In one extreme case, he forces them to make a 5 AM start to avoid hiking with someone that he doesn’t like because he thought the guy was boring and downcast when they met while eating dinner the night before. When he gets off the trail, he recounts a pathetic string of neurotic dead-ends that quashed any trace of sympathy I might have had for him.

The writing is good, and the story itself is interesting. What makes this book grossly obnoxious is the insipid behavior of the author. Dan White proves in The Cactus Eaters that an accomplishment like completing the Pacific Crest Trail is not enough to keep one from being a sandy little butthole.

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