In 1993, when Dan White set out to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, he brought along his girlfriend, a $385 backpack, and zero long-distance hiking experience. A self-proclaimed “product of the low self-esteem movement,” White, who hailed from a posh seaside town in Southern California, quit his job as a reporter and decided to hike the scenic trail as a sort of “replacement bar mitzvah.” At twenty-six, White was looking to be transformed from “man-boy to man.”
Now, at the age of forty, he’s published an account of his experience. On the surface, Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind—and Almost Found Myself—On the Pacific Crest Trail is pure farce: White’s misadventures include a salamander attack on his state-of-the-art water filter, an encounter with a six-hundred-pound black bear (and some equally frightening gun-toting locals), and, in the scene referenced by the book’s title, taking a regrettable bite out of a cactus. But underneath the funny veneer, White’s ruminations about God, reflections on his ancestry, and repeated use of biblical metaphors infuse the tale with more gravitas than your average comedy of errors. His account also raises questions central to both the literal and the metaphorical act of writing (or rewriting) one’s life story. Just how much of our pasts come to the fore during trials and moments of vulnerability? And, to paraphrase White, can the act of creating one’s own Exodus really lead to a personal Eden?
There’s a trend now of people challenging themselves to bizarre feats just to get a book out of it.
I have no problem with that, but this book would have been very different if I’d done it that way. There would have been something self-conscious about the writing. In truth, I was a bumbling greenhorn in the wilderness, with no game plan about my literary career.
I did try to write about the trail immediately afterward; I ran home and banged it all out on my computer. But time is what you really need to write about yourself. It’s like trying to make sense of the Colossus of Rhodes from right up close: All you can see is the big toe of the statue. There’s no perspective.
You write, “Every step toward Canada was a step toward manhood. I feared that the trail, if I never finished it, would leave me stranded in a permanent kindergarten.” Where did the motivation for this sort of test come from?
I set out on the trail because I wanted to change who I was, mold myself into a different person. I felt soft in many ways—marshmallowy. I actually thought I might begin the book with the line, “I had a bar mitzvah but it didn’t take.” The trail felt like a completion ritual, a way of getting to the next level. I didn’t get that feeling of accelerated manhood from my own bar mitzvah. Setting up an almost unachievable goal, like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, was a replacement rite of passage. It became crucial for me to finish every step because I considered it a testing ground. I was scared that if I did it halfheartedly, I would only mature halfway. I wanted to test my resolve.
You draw a comparison between your father’s difficult childhood and your own relatively undemanding, charmed youth. How did your father relate to your decision to hike the trail?
In many ways my father was not prepared for the challenges he faced early in life. He was a first-generation American who grew up on the Lower East Side when it was still full of tenements, crowds, pushcarts, and horses in the streets, pulling wagons full of sundries and shmattes. His parents died of circumstances related to their poverty and he was orphaned by age nine, raised by Hebrew charities. He went on to serve in two wars—World War II and Korea. He had a spark of ambition that wouldn’t be extinguished, and he just kept making more of himself. He avoided taking the easy way out at all costs.
When my father heard about my plans to do the hike, he thought it was a hiccup on my professional path. He thought I was using the trail as a proxy for other kinds of career achievements or milestones: a law degree, a down payment on a house. Ultimately, he came to appreciate the idea of setting an almost impossible goal and then achieving it. He likes to remind me that our forefathers spent forty years wandering in the desert, so my choice to hike through a desert seemed strangely appropriate to him, as a Jewish man. The overlap between our stories is that we both succeeded by being tenacious, really driven.
So tenacity and drive are your survival mechanisms?
And humor, both in life and in writing. I think self-deprecating humor is a very Jewish trait. The idea is to set aside a bad memory and let it marinate for a while before finding the “funny” in it—even in the sections of this book where I talk about my awkward childhood or some of the selfish ways I behaved on the trail. That being said, there are still people who don’t get what I’m trying to do. Every once in a while I’ll encounter a reader who says, “Dan White, you’re a monster.” They can’t see the distance between the guy on that trail and the guy now, sitting hunched over the keyboard.
That’s the tricky thing about writing a memoir. You’re inviting people to comment on your life, on your character.
I wanted to tell the truth about who I was—but I didn’t want the reader to run away screaming because I sometimes appeared selfish, churlish, or goofy. That’s why I pushed the “voice” so hard in this book. I wanted to engage the reader, but I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. Elliot Aronson, an American psychologist, cowrote a book called Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me, in which he talks about the human impulse to cover your tracks and present yourself in a flattering light. I tried to create space for the reader to examine who I really was, warts and all.
On the hike, the more unpleasant parts of me were disengaged from other people, from the woman I loved. I was lost in the woods—both literally and spiritually. Writing the book gave me a chance to examine what I sacrificed in terms of love, and how I treated other human beings. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that writing about myself in a not entirely flattering way is a kind of atonement. I was very separate from the world during parts of the trail, very much in my own head.
There are numerous biblical references in the book, and you mention your religion early on. How conscious were you of writing this “wilderness epic” as a Jewish man?
I don’t think of this as a Jewish book per se, but I certainly think of myself as a Jewish writer. The Jewish experience colors the way I perceive reality in some ways—when I liken a part of the Sierra to the color of gefilte fish, for example. It’s a constant reference point, even when I forget it’s there.
I got pretty rhapsodic during the last third of the trail. Most of the intensely Jewish stuff that I thought about manifested itself during that solo portion of the hike. When I reached the North Cascades, near Glacier Peak, I was really frustrated. I had heard that the scenery on this section of the trail would be unmatched, but I arrived and there was thick fog. I had labored so hard, and now I was walking through clouds. I found myself praying that the clouds would lift. And sure enough, the fog and rain stopped. It was an overwhelming thing. I had been thinking so much about spirituality and God, that when the mountains suddenly revealed themselves, I felt there was a presence.
This must have contributed to the exultation you experience when you reach Monument 78, marking the end of the trail in British Columbia. You write, “For reasons that weren’t clear to me then, I burst into a loud Hebrew prayer, the Shema.” Are those reasons clear to you now?
It felt like a received experience. I had no plan to recite that prayer, it only occurred to me at the moment of completion. I was dancing around the monument, throwing spring water on it—consecrating it. And I was seized by a need to say that prayer. This was not a heralded moment; there were no witnesses, no one waiting at the end of the trail to take my picture. It was just the monument and me, and I needed to mark the occasion somehow. Saying the Shema was a reaffirmation of my faith, of my father’s faith, and all of our ancestors before us. At the time, I had no idea what the words meant. Sometimes we can make significant choices without being fully conscious of what we’re doing.
This quest was a great way to find out what was right and what was wrong with me. It solidified my sense of who I was in life. The trail, and its aftermath, helped me reengage with the world. And I have no doubt that it made me into a better person, too.