The Pacific Crest trail (PCT) connects Mexico to Canada, linking desert and mountains. A couple of hundred long-distance walkers “through-walk” it every year, venturing off the 2,650-mile path only to collect supplies at nearby towns, and perhaps bathe.
Dan White and his girlfriend Allison, a couple of hapless Gen Y journalists, confront the trail and receive the moniker “the Lois and Clark Expedition” from a fellow hiker. The Cactus Eaters is Dan’s tale of the trials of the trail. Along the way, they endure a slew of physical and emotional torments: giardia, a tongue full of cactus spines, dehydration, a maternally protective bear, flatulence, excreta-obsessed hikers, ticks, rheumatoid arthritis, bad poetry, and their own plain stupidity.
Sharing billing rights with the physical adventure, the tale of Dan’s and Allison’s blistered, pedestrian relationship also travels the PCT. Before the six-month hike, they’d never even lived together. How will their love face the journey? (And – spoiler alert! Perhaps White’s dedication “For Amy” gives a little too much away?) Many times, this reader asked herself “Why the hell is she with him anyway?” Arguably, a good travel writer benefits from a little self-reflection. Dan White’s reflection is Narcissus-issue. Somehow, this trail stirs memories including teenage play-dough voodoo, life as a schoolboy nerd, and a near-psychoanalytic analysis of (horror!) young Dan meeting a cheeky goose. He even begrudges Alison’s leaving the trail for a week while her own book is published.
In his relentless micro-analysis of minor details, our narrator aims for Jerry Seinfeld. Alas, we end up with a backpacking George Costanza.
When White looks away from his own navel, he revels in gorgeous landscape. These passages can make the voyage worthwhile. In fact, this memoir shares a lot with the PCT. Trudge through a lot of desert; be rewarded by the occasional mountain stream.