I recently completed a writing class focused on creative non-fiction, specifically autobiography, or memoir (the course title used the former label, but “memoir” seems to be the label most often used for the genre). As part of the course we also read about half a dozen different memoirs with different focuses and styles. So it was a both familiar and a little disorienting to receive The Cactus Eaters, by Dan White, for my birthday. Yes, it’s a memoir. And apparently I placed it on my Amazon wishlist at some point. But I do not remember doing so.
|image0|*The Cactus Eaters* tells the story of Dan’s efforts to hike The Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend, Allison. The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, covering 2,650, and Dan and Allison are not exactly seasoned hikers when they set out.
Reading The Cactus Eaters, I remembered my own experiences in the Boy Scouts, when we would hike 12 to 15 miles in a day. Remembering the pain and exhaustion I felt about two thirds of the way through a day’s hike, and the sheer euphoria at seeing our campsite at the end of the day — nevermind that I was going to shit in a hole that night — gave me a shallow reference point. The obvious difference is that we were only doing this for a single day, not day after day, covering hundreds of miles.
The Cactus Eaters is an engaging and entertaining description of life on the trail — the travails, the excitement, the strange (interesting?) fellow hikers, and of course, how to eat (or not) a cactus. But it seems to me that at its core, it’s about more than hiking. As Dan describes some of his irrational behavior on the trail, he effectively uses the narrative and reflection to start peeling away the onion layers of custom and convention we take for granted in our everyday lives. Dan and Allison’s time on the trail becomes an experience in deconstructing their (his) “real” life, his identity, and the things that make him “Dan”. The story may start as a description of two people in love, sharing an experience of a lifetime, but in the end it’s about Dan, trying to discover who he is and what he wants. I think it’s interesting that this process of discovery is not one Dan seems to have entered consciously or with consent.
*The Cactus Eaters* is not a perfect memoir. There are times I would have liked to read more reflection on the past, and it wasn’t clear to me until the nearly the end when the story took place. It is, however, an enjoyable read that gave me some insight into the experience of long distance hiking, as well as the evolution of one man’s personal identity.