Thursday, January 28, 2010

Spammers beware

Lately I have been getting large, smelly piles of Spam in the "bulk file'' section of my Cactuseaters inbox every morning, so I need to institute a brand new policy. Spammers, please read this carefully.

1. From now on, all senders of Spam (messages starting with "dearest,'' people offering me millions of dollars from fake sweepstakes, etc) will be subject to seven years of bad karma.

2. Not only that, but their teeth will turn green, their hair will fall out in ragged clumps and they will have halitosis for the rest of their lives.

I don't wish to implement this new policy but the Spam has gotten out of hand.

So Spammers, please print out this message and put it somewhere close to your computer terminal and read it before you send.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Swap books and hang out with Stephen Elliott

Tomorrow in the Haight.

Read these too...updated yet again

R. Crumb's Genesis will make your eyes bug out. I've heard people describe it as irreverent, while other people say its literal-mindedness is a form of reverence. You'll have to decide for yourself. It's best taken one small bit at a time. I don't advise plowing through the whole thing at once. I loved At Swim, Two Birds by Flann O'Brien, nee Bryan O'Nolan. What a riot. To read this book is to find yourself caught up in an elaborate prank. Sometimes you're in on the prank. Other times, the joke's on you. This novel feels very contemporary, so it's a shocker to look at the publication date. I also enjoyed Flannery, by Brad Gooch. Flannery O'Connor once said, "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.'' She was wrong for once. The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts provides great insight into the fallout from new technologies "at the expense of the printed word.'' And the weird thing is, it was published back in 1994!! Joe Queenan is best known for his hilariously nasty essays and reviews, but he's turned out an excellent memoir, Closing Time, which has much more pathos than his usual work, but with moments of guilty hilarity sprinkled in.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cactus Eaters FAQ

Here is a compendium of frequently asked questions. I removed some out-of-date information and made a couple of additions.

This has been updated slightly. I should tell you right now that this contains some spoilers so stop reading right here if you haven't finished the book.

What is your biggest single piece of advice for PCT hikers?
Use a rolling resupply bucket (my book goes into detail about that) and always remember to hike your own trail. Everyone's out there for a different reason. If people are out there to bag miles, don't make fun of them because that's their goal. By the same token, if you're taking it slowly, you don't have to feel bad about the fact that you're only going a few slow miles a day. There's no 'wrong' way to hike the trail as long as you aren't harming the trail or the environment or other people (or yourself, for that matter.) Take the longview. Think in terms of 15-20 mile days, not a 2,650-mile journey. Otherwise it's too intimidating. Also, always help other hikers who need it. Oh, and one more thing. Don't use water-based ink in your pens. You never know if you'll want to draw from your journals 10 or more years from now so use pencil or a waterproof ink. I learned this lesson from painful experience. And one more thing.

What are you working on now? 
My second book. It's nonfiction. That one should be out in a couple of years. It is now under contract with HarperPerennial.

Why name the book Cactus Eaters instead of Cactus Eater? 
I  like the way it sounded.  It's a big improvement over the original title, Magnets of Adversity, suggested to me by a former professor. The other proposed title was The Lois and Clark Expedition, but I thought that was too cutesy.

What happened to Allison" from the Cactus Eaters?
I am glad to report that she is doing well in every respect. I hope I'm not revealing too much by telling you this, but she's been re-conquering the Pacific Crest Trail piece by piece. Recently she bagged a large chunk she hadn't hiked before -- in fact, she has now conquered every last millimeter of the California PCT, all 1,700-odd miles of it-- and my prediction is she'll bag the entire thing before too long. In fact, she probably hiked right past you if you happened to be on the trail last year. That's all I can say about that right now. To be honest, she's doing much more long-distance backpacking than I've done in recent years.

If I go on to the Pacific Crest Trail and return home, will I have a nervous breakdown? Look -- if you go on any adventure and then resume your normal life, there is bound to be some kind of letdown. Don't let that factor dissuade you from hiking on a national scenic trail!! Chances are you'll feel a little down in the dumps and antsy for a short while and then you'll get over it as you discover new adventures. Besides, fearing a letdown is not a reason to avoid doing something enjoyable. That's kind of like saying you won't drink a milkshake because you will get a slight stomach ache and brain freeze afterward. In other words, it's worth it.

Have you undertaken any adventures since the trail?
Yes -- a whole bunch. Here is one of the more recent ones in The New York Times -- a great trip, but it will be a long while before I get on a bicycle again. I hate panniers. Here's an account of my journey in Eastern Kentucky. I loved it out there, but this is the last time I've gone overnight backpacking. You'll understand why.

Would The Cactus Eaters have taken place if you'd been carrying a reliable GPS?
Most of the incidents would still have taken place but I don't think I would have gotten lost so much. The fact is, I took two recent trips -- one to Maine, with a GPS and extensive studies of the terrain, and    pre-programmed coordinates, and another to the Kentucky backwoods for the NY Times -- no GPS at all, and only a foggy understanding of the terrain. I did great on the Maine trip, even though there was no map at all, and in some sections, no trail. The Kentucky trip was scary at times, but when it was over, some good people in Whitesburg, Kentucky, invited me to their house, and we stayed up most of the night drinking Bulleit Bourbon. So I bought a whole bunch of it and put it in my backpack and brought it home to California, only to realize that they stock the same bourbon at Trader Joe's.

What was the timeline of your hike? 
I finished my PCT journey in the fall of 1994. The trail scenes all took place in 1993 and 1994. The book spans a 14-year period of my life, starting in 1993 in California (when the opening scene takes place) and coming to a close in the winter of 2007 in Manhattan. The post-trail Santa Cruz 'blue period' unfolds in 95 and 96. The book ends in 2007. A lot of the narrative hinges around the 1990s-- and that is very important for the book, mostly because there were no telecommunications devices at our disposal. It wasn't just the fact that we were greenhorns. We also had no cell phones, no way of calling out, and there was certainly no means of 'texting' anyone about what was going on. In a sense, it was extremely primitive compared to hiking these days. That definitely ramped up the adventure.

What has changed on the trail since you hiked it?
It's important to note that my experience was atypical, if not downright weird, for reasons that go beyond the year I did it, though that was certainly part of it. My trip was peculiar because we left too late and were not part of a large social group of hikers. This meant we ended up hooking up with fast-walking stragglers, who were bringing up the rear of the pack, and were probably quite a bit more eccentric and extreme than your everyday thru-hiker. As for the changes: There are more 'trail angel' networks and trail communities, and much better dissemination of updated trail information (up-to-the-moment trail conditions as well as recommended gear.) The upkeep and maintenance of the trail is much-improved. Trail advocates have gotten a lot more sophisticated and much better organized. The trail is a lot more visible, well publicized, and better managed these days. These days, it's easy to go on the net and get consumer information about the best and worst hiking gear. When I did the trail, I pretty much had to test out all that crap myself. There are (from what I hear) many more women hiking the trail, including solo-hikers (I know two of them, and one of them has a PCT book in the works.)

Why wait for more than a ten-year period before writing the book?
I didn't really wait.  it just worked out that way. I could not see my way around the trail, or see the shape of the narrative, or, to be honest, see anything the least bit funny about the hike (!), until I waited for a long time.

I am hoping to publish my own trail narrative. Any advice?
Do everything you can to get your work out there -- blogging, newspaper columns, or anything else at your disposal. If you have an interesting story to tell, you're sure to find an appreciative audience. Write from the joy of creation and try -- at least early on in the process -- to not drive yourself nuts wondering about how people are going to react. Write to help you understand what you think. Don't rush the process, ever. Someone once said that art is not a potato-sack race. Also, don't be afraid to take risks in terms of style, structure, content. Read constantly, while seeking inspiration from unexpected sources. Personally I love photography and sculpture exhibits because they awaken a playful kind of creativity I can't find in literary sources.

Did you know you were going to write a book when you set off on the trail?
Yes and no. If I was serious about it in the beginning, I would have put specific dates on more of my journal entries (and not written the entries in such messy handwriting and all out of sequence, which made it annoyingly difficult for me when I dug up those scattered to some extent, rain-smeared journals more than 10 years after the fact.) I also would have done a better job of protecting my journals from the elements. About 25 percent of my journal entries were decimated by El Nino storms while sitting in a box in an outside shed in Pleasure Point, California. My landlord accidentally threw out lots of stuff from that shed, including my rolling resupply box. And, come to think of it, I would have gotten photo releases from everybody, too. That would have been a smart thing to do. Every once in a while, someone gripes about the lack of photos.

Read on, but only if you are planning to hike any major trail:
Are you thinking of a through-hike? Make sure to read up, make plans, get in shape and talk to as many PCT trail vets as you can. For starters, order the official guidebooks and at least skim them in advance, marking up the water stops, supply stops, etc. Get inspired. Hike yourself into the best physical shape you conceivably can before setting out. To fire yourself up, you've got a heap of top-notch books to choose from. Tracks by Robyn Davidson is one of my favorites. I also liked Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (if you would like to read a beautiful, sweeping literary overview of pilgrimages on foot), Footsteps by Richard Holmes (in particular the section when he is tracing the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in Europe) and my all-time-favorite fictional account of a long walk, To The End of the Land by the amazing David Grossman, about a mother trying to evade tragedy by walking through Israel. Lately, the book I keep hearing about -- in a positive way -- is Gail Storey's I Promise Not To Suffer. I can't wait to read that one!

The various experiential trail books and weblogs will give you some sense of what to expect. But, quite frankly, many of the published accounts are better for the sake of pure inspiration and entertainment than for actual trail preparation, simply because the trail is so wide open. Any two people are bound to have vastly different experiences. I've heard a couple of people describe my book as a "guidebook,'' and that's asking for trouble. The memoirs aren't supposed to be trail guidebooks. If you're really trying to get the most up to date picture of what is going on right now, there are countless weblogs now available, as well as informational clearinghouses on lightpacking that you can find on the web.

Of course, you will get updated information from official as well as unofficial PCT sites maintained and updated by enthusiasts. I recommend both Jardine books because they were the 'starting gun' for the lightpacking movement --- but there are countless lightpacking blogs and websites to choose from these days.

Choose your gear wisely. Don't go for flashy brands. Find out what successful through-hikers have used in the past, especially when it comes to stoves and water filters, two devices that can make your life a living hell out there if they are difficult to use or poorly manufactured. (I love my old warhorse Katadyn -- not kidding when I tell you that it can filter liquid mud into potable water, no problem!!! - but I'm not sure if they make my old-school 'pocket filter' anymore.) Find out about sewing your own lightweight packs from a kit if you're handy with a needle and thread. Ask a recent through hiker to share his or her itinerary and list of contacts (good cheapo restaurants, local 'trail angels' and the like.) In almost all cases, they will be more than happy to share their schedules. Do long prep hikes to determine your pace. Also, it would be a great idea to take an orienteering course taught by an experienced, savvy leader. Don't set unrealistic expectations for your MPD (mileage per day.) Find a comfortable pace and learn to stick with it. And whatever you do, don't make big batches of home-made granola. The nuts will spoil, and you will find yourself throwing that stuff away in the trash can or leaving it in the 'freebie' box at a trail stop. I hope that answers your question.

And, since we're on the subject of reliable trail information ...

And here's some stuff about the Continental Divide Trail:

I just finished "hiking" it vicariously; Lawton "Disco" Grinter sent me his inspiring videographic memoir of his CDT adventures.

And finally, here is the clip-and-save Thank You's and Acknowledgments section for the Cactus Eaters

The "thank you" and "acknowledgment" section of my book was amended and updated two and a half years ago because it was overly long and woefully incomplete.  Thank you to everyone who helped out with my book, The Cactus Eaters. My wife, Amy Ettinger, worked hard in NYC (her employers, among other people, included the Metropolitan Museum of Art) so I had time to finish the project while holding down a 20-hour-a-week teaching load. She is the one who shlepped out to all those book readings and events, and dealt with the ups and downs of this from the beginning. Without her, there would be no book at all, period, end of story.

Thanks to my advisor Patricia O'Toole, to Michael Scammell, Lesley Sharpe, and the students in the nonfiction workshop.

Thanks to all the folks who inspired the work. A big thank you in particular to "Allison," and not just for being such an essential and good-humored part of the crazy journey, keeping a clear head and persevering on the trek itself (and choosing the PCT as the L&CE's expedition of choice, after considering several other options, including the AT and the Camino de Santiago). Allison also read and reviewed a number of my emails in regard to several essential scenes, most notably the cactus-biting incident, which was, as it turns out, even more perverse and horrible than I even remembered. Allison's feedback was incorporated into the section involving a tick attack (which was also worse than I remembered). In case you are wondering, Allison is doing very well. That's really all I can say about that for now.

Thanks to Mark the Postman, too. You saved me, big time, when you convinced me to throw all that junk out of my pack and send it home. Without you, I would have collapsed from heat prostration for sure. Sorry I couldn't figure out how to reach you and thank you before the book came out. I was relieved to hear you liked the book.

A rough draft of this book was completed in 1996 (I am not kidding. In some sense, the Cactus Eaters actually predates a certain other, much-talked about book about a different trail), but it sucked, severely, so I threw it away completely. The book began to take shape again around 2003-4 or so, when I drafted up a few lengthy emails and started to 'grow' them into a manuscript. Without the help of the Cheese Wheel Book Group, consisting of Vito Victor, Elizabeth McKenzie, Richard Huffman, Richard Lange and John Chandler, that task would have been impossible.

My sister, Edie Achertman, and brother-in-law Doug Achterman, and my pal Dave Howard, all contributed feedback and advice. So did my mother-in-law, Sheila Ettinger. Thanks to my parents about being good sports about the "Grampa Gappy" stuff, etc, and to my brothers Phil White and the late David Gordon White, (1965-2009) whose own writings and songs were always a huge influence on me.

Finally, I taught quite a bit of undergraduate essay writing, fiction, nonfiction and poetry while working on this thing. That experience really helped with the writing process, so I'm grateful to all the students (and so far, I've had about 300 of them, if you can believe that ...)

That's all for now .... Thanks for checking in every once in a while. I like hearing about all the places where the book turns up (including a hostel in India, and, from what I hear, all across Australia.) If you come across a copy of the book in an extremely far flung location, let me know. Even better, send me a JPG photo.



Friday, January 22, 2010

Disclaimer: 3D won't make you vomit

I'm in trouble (again) because someone read my recent Cactuseaters post and was scared to let her mom see "Avatar'' because she thinks the 3D sensation will make her mom seasick and nauseous. For the record, I did not feel dizzy or vomitous during the movie. It's worth mentioning, because I once saw a movie, "The Blair Witch Project,'' during which five people in the audience fled the theater to throw up. Seriously. I think it was the herky-jerky hand-held camera style that did it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Scolding people accidentally during "Avatar''

Good movie. But 3D can lead to social problems. You can get so caught up in the screen, and what's going on in the movie, that you lose sight of the people sitting next to you, standing in front of you, or scooting between the aisles, trying to get to the restroom. Yesterday at the Kabuki, someone butted in front of me during an intense scene, and I yelled out, "Oh, give me a break. Get out of the way,'' without realizing that I did this until after the fact. Also, I almost spilled my drink on someone. (Sorry.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My first 3D movie ever

Today is my big day. I'm going to the Kabuki Sundance Theater to see you-know-what in 3D. But I don't know what to expect. The last time I saw anything in 3D, it was a short feature at Disneyland, starring Michael Jackson, a bunch of dancing people in space outfits and a poorly rendered "meteor" that looked like more like a giant levitating baked potato. So these are my questions and concerns. Where are you supposed to sit for the best results at a 3D movie? Are you supposed to find the 'dead center,' like the old Grateful Dead shows? Will the glasses give me a headache? I already have glasses. Am I supposed to put the 3D glasses over the glasses?

Do I have to give the glasses back when it's all over?

Does the theater provide air-sickness bags?

Signing the Cactus Eaters on Kindle --"This bespells doom.''

The other day, someone asked me what I would do if asked to sign a copy of The Cactus Eaters on Kindle. I was stumped. How do you sign a Kindle? With a Sharpie? Can you hack into a Kindle and place an electronic 'signature' on a book file? Or burn the author's initials into the Kindle using a cordless Craftsman soldering iron? But as it turns out, it can be done. Check out this article in the New York Times, and find out how David Sedaris dealt with this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Read these books now

Not that these people need any of my help. But you need to read Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness. In fact, you really need to read it twice. I love the way each character casts a shadow; Munro finds brilliant ways to add depth and backstory to characters that normally turn up 'flat' (crazy intruder, nasty husbands, etc.) When you're done, clear your palate with Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. , by far the best debut story collection you will find this year. Lavinia Greenlaw's The Importance of Music To Girls is a lyrical memoir about the power of music. She messes with the formula along with chronology. Don't expect another variation on Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. Marie Brenner's Apples and Oranges uses an unusual lens -- the joys and hardships of the apple-growing industry -- to examine her relationship with her brother. Francine Prose's Blue Angel is a highly entertaining academic horror story. It's satirical, and yet it contains some sound writing and workshopping advice.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Coping with PTB: (Post Trail Blues), and readjusting to your life after a big hike

I've received so many emails about this that I will try to answer this question (with your input) in a few weeks. Stay tuned! And if you are a long-distance hiker with post-hike life readjustment experience, feel free to send in. I'll incorporate your responses into my blog post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews: not gone after all?

I was relieved to see that Kirkus may not be gone after all, (and I'm not just saying that because they liked my book. ) We're losing book review outlets every month, with constrictions and layoffs in the newspaper and publishing industry.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cactus conspiracy

One of you asked about the wildest email I have ever received in relation to my first book.

Well, here is one standout. A few months ago, someone (here on the West Coast) said he could prove that I did not hike any of the Pacific Crest Trail, and that he was going to show up to one of my readings one day and confront me with his dossier of "evidence."

"I can't wait to see your face,'' he wrote.

According to his conspiracy theory, I basically sat around on a couch all summer long and somehow convinced my loyal hiking companion, "Lois'', to hike the trail for me and ghost-write the book for me too.

After voicing his theory to me, he then invited me to go hiking with him!!!

I will share more from the mail bag very soon.

And if anyone can prove this conspiracy theory is true, I will gladly pay that person $50,000 in gold Sacagawea coins to be delivered -- by me -- in a Peterbilt 18 wheeler.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Daniel White to conquer the John Muir Trail

Be nice to Mr. Daniel White if you see him out on the JMT in a few months. Mr. White, a group leader in a computational engineering group, is setting out to do the trail very soon.

"My mother bought your book for me as a joke. But I really enjoyed it,'' he explained. "I'm a hiker myself, been hiking the Sierra Nevada for 20 years. I plan to do the whole JMT on my 50th birthday, coming up shortly.''

Good luck to you, Daniel White. Enjoy the Rae Lakes area. Watch out for Bear Creek. Also, watch your footing up on Glen Pass. There are a couple of sketchy sections.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Cactus Eaters photographs (make your own special edition.)

Here are a few classic shots, straight from the vault. Now, before you email me saying "Why don't you have any pictures of (insert names here.)" I want to tell you that this is a work in progress. I still have to fish through a few more waterlogged boxes of PCT slides.

You can use these photos to make your own illustrated special edition. All you need is 1. three copies of the book, 2. an Exacto knife, 3. a color printer and 4. Elmer's glue. Good luck with this project, and if you go through with it, make sure to send me pictures of the completed book.

Spiky Joshua Trees beckon travelers in the Mojave desert.

Desert scene in early morning

Actual Golden Oak/cactus-bite diary entry

The expeditioners fighting suncups under Forester Pass.

Peaceful, alluring meadow under Mount Whatever.

Here are two of my photos of the late, great "Mayor'' Milt Kenney, who helped up to 60 Pacific Crest Trail hikers per season when they passed through Castella, California.

Cascades in northern Oregon.

Cascades, adrift in clouds and fog.

This picture corresponds (exactly) to page 320, paragraph two. I will post more photos when I have a spare moment.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wow -- did you feel that earthquake?

My Haight-Ashbury apartment turned to Jello for a couple of seconds. And the windows rattled like crazy. (no damage that I can see. It must have been a pretty small one.)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"We don't sell dank." -- the signs of Haight Ashbury

My eccentric neighborhood has some of the most unusual signs I've seen in a long while. Here is my latest sampling. The words are unchanged but the italics are all mine.

This is from two signs hanging up at the Daljeet's Boutique.

"No photos. No brats. No cellphones. no restroom so don't ask. No loitering. This is not the place to eat your pizza, tie your shoes, smoke whatever you smoke or hang out.''

Wow! Thanks, Daljeets, for making us all feel so cozy and welcome. And here's another one, from the Cannabis Company: "We don't see weed, bud, herb, dank, ganja, trees, or marijuana, and not even reefer. We don't know where you can get some. Thanks for reading, and welcome to the Cannabis Company.''

Well, that just about covers it, although they didn't mention green bud or fat nuggs. And here's one more sign, at Murio's Trophy Room. I'm wondering if an over-vigilant bartender put it up there:

"If you look under 125, be prepared to show I.D.''

Monday, January 04, 2010

Cactus Eaters Pacific Crest Trail photos -- coming soon

I've received so many emails about this that I will have to post them very soon. Please keep in mind that I haven't scanned a whole lot of photos with actual people in them with a couple of exceptions. But the photos are nice-looking, and they might convince you to hike the trail. Check back here within the next week or so.

When I have access to a reliable scanner that handles slides, I will scan and post more shots.