Tuesday, December 23, 2008

SF cactus chomper strikes again (shocking photos below.)

Here are two extreme close-up shots of the mutilated, bitten cactus that I talked about two blog entries ago. (as you can see, one of the photos includes a hand-drawn plea directed at the culprit.) I've been staking out the apartment area, looking for suspects. Nothing so far. Look closely at the second photo: I think you can see incisor marks.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Darting Hummingbird Over a Waterfall''

Lately, I'm getting a lot of questions about my name, especially over the past few weeks. For the record, I am not related to that other Dan White. (I repeat -- absolutely no relation whatsoever.) A couple of people have asked if I am thinking of changing my name, in light of the publicity surrounding the new movie (nope - it's probably too late for that.) However, if I change my mind at some point and decide to alter my name, it's good to know that I have many options. Over the years, I have met, or learned about, many Bay Area or Central Coast residents who decided to give up their legal names and change them to something else. Here are a few of the actual names.

By the way, I swear that I'm not inventing or embellishing any of them. In fact, all of these are the actual, legal names of past and present Santa Cruz County residents. Imagine having some of these on your drivers' license -- especially when the cops pull you over!!!

*Rose Z
*Moonbeam Moonbeam.
*Darting Hummingbird Over A Waterfall
*Shalom Dreampeace Compost
*B. Modern
* Lord Earthworm II (later legally changed to Lord Nigel Featherston.)
* Chip (No Last Name)
*Climbing Sun.
* Moonwater
* Barbara Riverwoman
* Rainbow
* Sundancer Sweetpea
and, my personal favorite:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Recommended winter reading for outdoor writing fans...

Here are some good books to read by the fire during the holidays.

Poet. Trapper. It's hard to imagine two less lucrative careers. But John Haines was a poet and a trapper for 25 years in the Alaskan outback, in the wild country east of Fairbanks, Alaska. He struggled to survive. At times, he froze his kishkas off, but he lived to tell a beautifully crafted story called The Stars, The Snow, The Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaskan Wilderness. This book is told from the perspective of an outdoorsman who actually knows what he's doing out there. (cough, cough..) Here's a man who can skin a carcass, build a proper fire and make out the tracks of moose, wolf and marten in the snow. Better yet, he can describe all these things with sensory description that makes you feel like you're out there with him in the backcountry. Warning: some of the bone-crunching passages might make you squeamish. When you read about the trapping methods, you might find yourself eating wheat gluten and soy burgers for a couple of weeks.

I also enjoyed Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. That touchy-feely sounding title threw me off, but the book is as far from New Age as you can get. Mountains of the Mind is all about the allure of high peaks and "the pursuit of fear.''

Robyn Davidson's Tracks is one of my favorite long-distance hiking narratives. Instead of just shlepping out across the Australian Outback, she ups the ante by dragging four recalcitrant camels with her. The descriptions of searing Outback heat will make you forget about this latest spell of freezing-cold weather.

Also, this year's Best American Essays is terrific. Vulture enthusiasts (I'm one of them) will connect with Lee Zacharias's "Buzzards'' (page 260.) If you have even a passing interest in long-distance running, you will be fascinated and thoroughly freaked out by Sam Shaw's "Run Like Fire Once More.'' (page 204.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Some freak is eating my neighbor's cactus!

Some insensitive and apparently dehydrated person is stealing and possibly devouring my neighbor's outdoor cactus dispay, chunk by chunk, bit by bit, piece by piece. It is painful to watch. Every day, on my way up to my apartment, I examine the cactus, only to find that another hunk of it has been removed. To stop the cactus slaughter, my neighbor has put up a sign telling the thief to stop because he is trying to propogate his own cactus garden right here in San Francisco. Wait until you see the shocking photographs that I will soon upload on this blog. You can see the missing chunks of cactus -- and if you look carefully, you might even be able to see the teeth marks on it. I hope the cactus thief realizes that you can't get a whole lot of water out of a cactus. (Kit Carson figured out how to do it, but he was a skilled survivalist). As I once discovered, you would need to eat an entire acre of these things just to get one quart of water. Also, biting a cactus can be very bad for your health. In fact, one of the people at my most recent reading told me that practical joke product manufacturers make itching powder out of cactus spines. Who knew?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Proselytizing for the Pacific Crest Trail at the SF Library

(try saying that five times fast.) Thank you to the spirited group at yesterday's reading at the SF Library Mission Bay branch. The audience included a seasoned through-hiker named Matt, who completed the trail in one fell swoop, and quite a bit more recently than I did. In fact, he often averaged 26 miles a day. Last night, Matt, who lives right here in SF, actually convinced a fellow audience member to hike the PCT -- or, at the very least, the Oregon/Washington section of it. The convert, who is about 60, was already on the fence --- in fact, he's been dreaming of doing a chunk of the trail for a very long time --- but it is pretty clear that Matt pushed him over the edge on Wednesday. I think he's actually going to do it. How cool is that? This discussion was quite a bit more technical than my usual talk. I asked Matt why someone doesn't build a sturdy bridge over Bear Creek, one of the bigger hazards in the High Sierra, (at least as far as I'm concerned. It damned near drowned the Lois and Clark Expedition.) Matt explained that Bear Creek was probably worse than usual when I hiked it because it was late summer and quite warm, which meant that snowmelt was excessive and creeks were swollen. I should have known better. But then again, I did some pretty dumb things in the desert, too.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

This Wednesday: Cactus reading at San Francisco Library's Mission Bay Branch (with directions)

(Hi everyone. This reading happened back in 2008, in case you're just checking this right now. I would like to read at this library again, but I'll wait until the next thing comes out.)

I'm very excited about this reading. It's from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. this coming Wednesday (December 10) in my adopted hometown of San Francisco.

Location: Mission Bay Branch, San Francisco Public Library.
Address: 960 4th St. (at Berry)

Here’s the link for directions to the branch (it’s right on the T-Line and near the Caltrain stop):

If you've never seen it before, this will also be a good chance for you to tour the brand new, $4 million library facility, five years in the making. It's the first SF branch library to open up in four decades. (I happen to live near the very oldest one, close to Golden Gate Park.) The library is part of a complex that also includes affordable housing, retail and an adult day health center. I've heard it even has views of Mission Creek.

To mark this occasion, I might even bring my trusty, trail-scarred backpack --- Big Mofo --- if I can figure out how to cram this mouse-bitten, trail-dust-coated thing into the trunk of my car (and muster the strength to drag it into the library building.)

A candid conversation with San Jose State University students

Thank you to all the students at the Visiting Authors Seminar for your very thought-provoking questions about nonfiction, Woody Allen, West Coast wildlife, NWA's "Straight Outta Compton,'' "Juno'' and many other issues. Feel free to send any other questions into the blog or to my email address. (One of the students actually brought in that classic NWA album some weeks back because the other students had read my references to it but hadn't heard the record.) I completely forgot to answer your question about my favorite California wildlife. I'd say that it is a tie between the black bear and the marmot. As far as creatures that I despise with all my heart, it's a dead heat between horse flies, skeeters, ticks and giardia.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A big time in Sebastopol

I had a very big time up in Sebastopol, California today. I spoke before a crowd of Rotarians, including a fellow whose son through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail southbound and ate canola oil mixed with granola to keep his weight up. That may be the most impressively hard-core trail food story I've ever heard. (Apparently, canola oil has the most calories per volume of anything you can eat on the trail. Who knew? I guess the trick is choking it down. Peanut butter still works best for me.) At the end of my presentation, the Rotarians gave me an air-tight stainless steel sports bottle with a set of caribiners to make sure that I don't screw up and run out of water in the desert again. Thank you; I will use it in good health. Aside from meeting the Rotarians, I had a chance to explore this beautiful Sonoma County town, browse the aisles of Copperfield's book store, and eat an enormous amount of sweets at the Village Bakery. I couldn't decide between the pecan sticky bun and the lemon cake so I ate both, which was a bad move. Now I'm ready to keel over from eating all that sugar. But what a way to go.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sebastopol, San Jose and San Francisco: more Cactus events

I will have quite a busy Cactus schedule for the next week and a half or so. In between freelance travel writinig and grading essays, I am preparing for events in Sebastopol, San Francisco and San Jose. Also, stay tuned for more urban hiking adventures and explorations, soon to appear in various publications. (I will be writing stories about some good places to visit close to home -- and when the weather warms up, I will be returning briefly to the Northeast for more travel writing.)

Here are the events so far, with a new event added to the list:

Rotary Club of Sebastopol
Speaking from 100 to 130 p.m. (and signing.
Friday, December 5

San Jose
Visiting Authors Seminar (classroom visit)
3-415 p.m., San Jose State University
Tuesday, December 9

San Francisco Public Library
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Event Time: 6:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Location: Mission Bay Branch
Address: 960 4th St. (at Berry)

Here’s the link for directions to the branch (it’s right on the T-Line and near the Caltrain stop):

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rotarians Rock ....

This message goes out to all Rotarians (of the Sebastopol area.) I am looking forward to meeting you in early December. I will read from the book, bring a few trail artifacts that I've never shown anyone before, and answer any questions that you might have. Feel free to shoot me any advance questions via email. Also -- thanks for resending me the directions to the meeting place.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My upcoming reading at the San Francisco public library

Click here for an "Upcoming'' online blurb for that event. It's on Wednesday, December 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the SF Public Library's Mission Bay branch. (The event, of course, is free.)Here’s the link for directions to the branch (it’s right on the T-Line and near the Caltrain stop):

Also -- here's a windswept photo of the John Muir Trail (near Muir Pass) in honor of three readers who have written in, proclaiming their intentions to conquer the JMT next summer. Have a great time out there, but bring bug spray or mosquito netting when you go. (The skeeters will ambush you, especially at log crossings when you have to use your arms to balance yourself and can't swat them away from your face and legs. Insects are smarter than you think!)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

There is another book called "The Cactus Eaters''

I have just gotten a hold of other "The Cactus Eaters'' book, published 61 years ago. There are quite a few eerie similarities. For example, both books have two protagonists. In both books, the two of them leave their jobs and set off to a wild area in search of grand adventures. In the case of that first book, the explorers are two frustrated coffee growers (instead of frustrated journalists) who set off to explore the remote Goajira peninsula of northern Colombia and meet the Goajira people (instead of exploring the western states and meeting mile-bagging backpackers). The author is Julian Weston. Apparently, the book is recommended by the "Society for the History of Discoveries.'' Out of print and rare, the book includes monochrome photos and maps. I now have a copy, and am about a quarter finished with reading it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A great marathon in Sacramento (in spite of road-rage incidents)

Well, I finished the marathon. In fact, I ran the entire thing non-stop, and finished a lot more quickly than I expected. The route, along the American River, from Folsom to Sacramento, was quite beautiful. I've run two other marathons but have never seen deer charge across the route, or Canada geese flying overhead while honking their heads off. If you've never seen this part of California, you really ought to check it out. In fact, this marathon was so enjoyable that at one point, I even thought to myself, "What a great time. I don't want this to end.'' The only bummer was the road-rage incidents that started coming up about ten miles into the course. Often, when there's a marathon, the organizers arrange to close off the course. For this reason, veteran runners get into the habit of spreading out and using the entire road. In this case, the marathon course was open to other use during the race,. Bicyclists love this pathway, and justifiably so; it's a smooth, scenic ride all the way from Folsom to Sacramento. The vast majority of the riders were just out there having a good time. Most were incredibly supportive and kind. But things got sketchy when a few rogue elephants on wheels decided to take out their aggression on the runners. After seeing another runner get screamed at for straying too far towards the right lane, I obeyed the rules and stuck very closely to the left shoulder of the road. The trouble is, aggro bicyclists started buzzing into the left side of the road, too. One of them shouted "WAKE UP!!!'' at me and some other runners -- right while we were hitting the wall at mile 24 or so, making it rather hard to "wake up.'' I also overheard two bicyclists screaming obscenities at other runners -- some who had strayed into the wrong lane, others who were running squarely on the left side of the road. I didn't feel like having an altercation in the middle of a marathon, so at one point I moved off the paved area and stuck to the dirt path to the left of the route --- only to get scolded by a man pushing a baby stroller and telling me to stick to the "bike path.'' This was quite confusing -- considering that the bike path was the appointed, official route of an inaugural marathon! I would guess (very strongly) that there is a rather intense, pre-existing 'use conflict' situation on that bike path that precedes the marathon. Anyhow, I managed to finish the race and had a great time anyhow. I just hope that runners and bicyclists can share roads in the future. There is enough division in this world without recreational sports enthusiasts bagging on each other.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Marathon: I've reached a compromise

I've decided to run this thing after all --- but I will definitely walk part of it, or waddle, crawl or stagger if that is what I need to do. From everything I hear, the route is quite scenic and flat along the American River, and part of the course actually goes downhill. (yippee!!) I'm resting up and carb-loading today.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sacramento marathon: thinking of chickening out anyhow

The big event is only two days away. The other day I was driving toward work and started playing with the odometer. And I realized, "Wow. 26.2 miles is a really, really, really long way to run.'' There is still a small chance that I might turtle. More later.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cactus events updated

On Saturday I will run the Run the River Marathon up in Folsom (and will run non-stop to Sacramento if I can, following the American River all the way.) The other day, my father asked me, "Why on earth are you running a third marathon?'' "Because I blogged about it,'' I explained. "Oh,'' he said, and that was the end of that. If you happen to be running this thing, and if you have a nice, slow pace, then look for me in the line-up. I'll be wearing a blue hat with a Nike swoosh.

This coming Monday, I will be going on the radio in the Atlanta area. I will be speaking with Ann Lombardi of "Travel Talk Escapes'' at 3 p.m. eastern standard time. The radio station is 1120 AM.

Other upcoming events:

Sonoma County, CA
Dec. 5
private event (Rotarians)

San Francisco Public Library
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Event Time: 6:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Location: Mission Bay Branch
Address: 960 4th St. (at Berry)

Here’s the link for directions to the branch (it’s right on the T-Line and near the Caltrain stop):

Also, I will lead a nature walk/writing class in the Santa Cruz area in early spring. Give me a heads-up if you want to be part of the list.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Squid-jiggin' in Seattle

During my whirlwind trip to Seattle, I explored neighborhoods I'd never seen before and met all kinds of interesting people. But I packed so much into three days that I missed out on a few things. One of them is the mysterious lost art of "Squid Jigging.''
"Squid jigging'' means catching live squid using a baited line while standing out on a pier on Puget Sound (or elsewhere) in the middle of the night. Chances are that you've never heard of this unusual sport, but as you will see, it even has its own hair-raising theme song, complete with a line about "poor Uncle Billy'' getting spattered with "squid-juice.''
I found out about squid jigging while visiting the friendly people at the Hostel Seattle in Ballard -- which must be one of the few lodging places in the world where squid-jigging is an optional activity for guests.
Hostel owner Lee Kendell explained how the whole thing worked.
“This is a squid jig,’’ he said, holding up a sparkly lure covered with barbs. In fact, it looked a little bit like my old nemesis, the prickly pear. “In the middle of the night, when the squid run in schools, you drop it in with a line and you go like this.’’
He lifted the line up and down to show me how it worked. “When the school of squid come by to attack, they catch on the barbs.’’
I did not have a chance to practice any squid jigging -- in part because I was overscheduled, and in part because I'm a little squeamish (even regular fishing freaks me out a little bit.) But if you're ever in Seattle, you can try it out yourself, so long as you buy yourself a fishing license for the day.

Friday, November 07, 2008

It's less than a week away! Running my third marathon (don't let me chicken out.)

I hope to see at least some of you at the Run The River Marathon and Ultramarathon along the American River next weekend. I'm mentioning this in my blog only because I want to be held accountable if I chicken out and don't do this. The last time I ran one of these road races, I had no clear goal in mind, except to beat Puffy's time in the New York Marathon. These days, I would be happy just to beat Simon Pegg's time in Run Fatboy Run. When I hit the wall at the mid-point, I will think of Bob Holtel, who completed the Pacific Crest Trail by running the equivalent of a marathon on it almost every freaking day. That should put this thing in perspective.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I keep trying to wean myself from blogging about weird goings on in and around Golden Gate Park -- but I found it hard to resist this one. I was walking through the Haight on Halloween and saw some guy asking people to smoke his thumb. Indeed, when I looked closely, I could see a plume of smoke rising up from beneath his thumb. One person actually stopped and smoked it, and then the guy started smoking his own thumb. Apparently he'd wedged a tiny, still-burning roach in there somewhere. Eventually it burned down and singed the inside of his finger. "Ow,'' he said, and then the demonstration was over.

Friday, October 31, 2008

American Journeys: A Quirky Seattle That Won't Blend In (Vladimir Lenin, Hattie's Hat, and the Fremont Rocket Ship.)

Read about my latest adventure in the New York Times Escapes section.

I had a big time up in Seattle earlier this fall. I especially loved the neighborhoods of Ballard and Fremont. Ballard has a maritime theme, and Fremont looks like a psychedelic fever dream. (although I am not saying that from direct experience.)Click here for a Ballard/Fremont mini slide show.

By the way, I mentioned a seven-ton statue of Mr. Vladimir Lenin that was erected some years back right in the middle of Fremont. While in Seattle, I heard that the statue is on sale for approximately $250 K. Try to imagine how this might look in your front lawn. It's a lot more original than pink flamingos.
This is not the first time I've seen a controversial piece of public art or signage go up for sale. A few years back, while at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I wrote about an attempt to auction off the city's kooky, oversized "WELCOME TO RIVER STREET'' sign, known to Santa Cruzans as "Signzilla.'' However, no one bit, and the sign is still there.

Stay tuned for more 'urban hiking' adventures. I've got another one coming up this winter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New list of Cactus events -- with Career Day info...

Here is a partial list of the latest events.
I will fill in the blanks when more dates are confirmed.

I will be reading and signing along with Kate Evans, author of the brand-new fiction book, For The May Queen, on Wednesday, November 12 at San Jose State University. Kate and I will read from 12 to 12:40 p.m.. We will be there in support of SJSU's Poets and Writers' Coalition.

The event will be part of SJSU's Career Day. There will also be a great selection of work by other SJSU-affiliated writers and faculty members.

other upcoming events:

San Francisco Public Library
Mission Branch

San Francisco, Ca
Reading and signing
December 10 (NEW DATE!)
630 to 730 p.m

Sonoma County, CA
Dec. 5
private event (Rotarians)

Also, I will lead a nature walk/writing class in the Santa Cruz area in early spring. So far, two of the slots have already been taken. Give me a heads-up if you want to be part of the list.

Friday, October 24, 2008

These outdoor photos are not workplace friendly (they might make you quit your job and hike the Pacific Crest Trail.)

It could happen. The following nature photos are eerily similar to the ones I saw in a slideshow that influenced me to leave my stable employment in New England and hike the trail from Mexico to Canada. In fact, those very similar photographs led me to quit my job during a previous national recession/depression-by-any-other-name.

Yes -- it could happen to you too.

And don't worry. After walking the trail, I did find other meaningful work.


Joshua trees in the Antelope Valley.

Desert scene in the early morning.

Frolicking in suncups under Forester Pass.

Peaceful, alluring meadow under Mount Whatever.

Cascades in northern Oregon.

Cascades, adrift in clouds and fog.

Pasayten Wilderness assorted fungus

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The California Academy of Sciences museum: Worth the Hype?

Monarch the Grizzly Bear: dead and in person at the Academy of Sciences

The crowd was already a quarter mile long at 8:45 a.m. It was a total mob scene; after all, this was the first "free Wednesday'' at a museum that normally costs almost two and a half sawbucks to get in. The people in the line were getting restive at about 9:15. Someone in front of me was trying to stay calm by practicing Tai Chi. People in back of me were glowering because they resented me for having a better place in line, while people in front of me were looking at me as if they feared I would try to steal their spot. A nervous-looking woman kept making calls from her cell phone: "Get here fast! Meet me at the Goethe-Schilling statue!"

But the actual museum -- when we finally got in -- was astonishing. We walked through a steaming tropical rainforest with blue morpho butterflies flapping all over the place and dark creatures slithering in the shallows below us. There were water chestnuts, bamboo palms, and live, dog-faced fruit bats hiding out in a slimy cave. So many butterflies were landing on visitors that a female staff member stood by the elevator and asked people to check their clothes. "Make sure that our butterflies haven't planted themselves on you anywhere,'' she said.

There is a place where gullible people can put their fingers on two pressure points and experience a mildly unpleasant electric shock (in honor of the electric eel, which floats in a tank nearby.) There is also a spot where museum-goers can gleefully spam their elected representatives with emails about Co2 emissions reductions (I sent a few emails myself...), and a creepy albino alligator with pink eyes. The place also has many features that will please younger visitors, including exhibits with creatures whose names sound vaguely like dirty words (Kirk's Dik Dik, and "Prince Berhhard's titi monkey,'' just for starters.)

The exhibits do not gloss over the many ways in which we have trashed and thrashed our delicate ecosystems here in the Golden State. It was hard not to feel outraged when I saw the mounted, stuffed form of "Monarch the Grizzly,'' one of the very last California grizzlies (the last of them was gunned down in 1922.) Monarch was one of the lucky ones, in the sense that the bear at least died of old age -- but the beast lived most of its life in capitivity, right here in Golden Gate Park...)

So the answer to the above question is a resounding yes. It is absolutely worth the hype, and I will be back next month to check out the planetarium.

Monday, October 13, 2008

World's youngest pot dealer?

As you already know, I always see a lot of strange goings-on in Golden Gate Park when I'm in training. I mentioned the young couple I saw last month, trying to light up an enormous spliff with a magnifying glass. Well, it happened again during a recent training loop through the park. It seemed like every person in all of the park's eastern side was trying to sell me something exotic -- "sticky green bud", ''skunk," "pre-rolled fatties,'' etc. These offers surprised me, because these are the kinds of products that you normally don't try to sell to someone who is running right past you at six miles per hour in marathon-training gear, and is obviously in the middle of a big, sweaty workout. Anyhow, I made my way up to the famous Hippie Hill, and there, at the very top, sat a little boy, about 25 feet from two people whom I assumed were his parents. He was probably five years old or so -- no older than six -- and had a peaceful demeanor. I said, "Hey, kid, how ya doing?'' and waved hello.

"Fat nuggs?'' he replied.

(I swear I'm not making this up, although, in retrospect, I have a very strong suspicion that he was just imitating what the people around him were saying, and was not actually a pot dealer!...)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Stink-off: Quantifying and comparing foul odors

This article attempts to quantify the human smell, and compare it to the smells of other smelly creatures -- namely stink bugs and skunks. A selection from this piece appears on page 238 of The Cactus Eaters, but some of you asked to see the article in full.

WHO SMELLS THE WORST? A skunk, a stinkbug, or a Pacific Crest Trail Through Hiker

SKUNK (yes, I drew this field sketch. What can I say? Skunks are hard to draw.)


POTENCY Noxious spray can render dogs temporarily blind

There's a compelling reason why Pepé Le Pew is condemned to a life of celibacy. The chemicals in a skunk's spray are so potent that one of them-3-methyl-1-butane-thiol-is on the EPA's hazardous substances list. A natural-born sharpshooter, the skunk can nail predators-or you-from an anal gland with surprising accuracy from 10 feet away. Similar to tear gas, skunk spray is one of the most effective defense systems in the animal kingdom; only the great horned owl is savage enough to prey on the stinky polecat once it unleashes its pungent potion. Bobcats, coyotes, and pumas hunt this nocturnal animal only if other prey is scarce. Even in death, the skunk's vile, sewerlike odor doesn't let up. Its gas sac often leaks fumes postmortem, creating-for the unwitting taxidermist-the mother of all occupational hazards.



POTENCY Bitter ooze can leave humans nauseous

This diminutive insect recently made the Discovery Channel's short list of the foulest-smelling animals on the planet, beating out such also-rans as the beaver. Like the skunk, this shield-shaped insect defends itself by excreting a noxious liquid from slits under its body that repels snakes, birds, and other insects. If a predator somehow gets past the sharp, acidic smell and eats a stink bug, it immediately spits it out because the nasty liquid tastes as foul as it smells. If a spider finds a stink bug in its web, it will cut it free instead of eating it. No wonder. Chemically speaking, the stink bug's spew contains tridecane, a compound found in gases and some cigarettes. What's worse, the stink bug is everywhere-more than 300 species are found in the front and backcountry across the United States .



POTENCY Ripe odor can clear a coffee shop

He climbs in the front seat beside you. Politeness stops you from turning away and pinching your nose. Yet you momentarily consider using that tree-shaped air freshener as a gas mask. What possessed you to give this thru-hiker a ride? After 3 weeks in the chaparral foothills of California , he now smells like the rhino enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. His suffocating reek comes not from sweat itself but from the bacteria that feed on the amino acids, fats, and oils found in human perspiration. The bacteria emit a putrid blend of chemical compounds including ammonia and methylbutanoic acid that cling to the clothes and body-and multiply with each passing day. Opening the car windows will only help so much, but at least it spreads the misery. Depending on wind conditions, someone could pick up this hiker's aroma from 100 feet away.


A shower and a load of laundry will quickly freshen up the thru-hiker. And a stink bug's nasty odor lasts a mere 60 seconds-nothing compared to the multiple days a skunk's stench could cling to your clothes if you don't wash them with bleach (the surest cure we've found). Smelliest goes to the skunk.

Outdoor tortures, part II: deafening, snoring tentmates

Have you ever tried to sleep in a tent with someone who snores just like a foghorn? Have you ever wondered how one unconscious human could make such a racket? A while back, I wrote a magazine piece in which I tried to quantify -- and compare -- the loudness of snoring backpackers to the hideous noises made by cicadas and loud, shrieking barred owls, using scientific methods. The results appear below ...

Showdown: Who’s the Loudest? Backpacker versus cicada versus barred owl.

Latin name: Magicicada Septendecim
Sound and fury: Can drown out the roar of a revving power mower
There's a very special place in hell for the male periodical cicada. Its screeching "song" may be irresistible to potential mates, but it's pure torture for humans. This nectar-sucking bug owes its distinction as one of the noisiest insects to its tymbals, ribbed vibrating membranes that stretch along its abdominal cavities. These hollow chambers act like built-in megaphones, amplifying a metallic screech that can be heard 440 yards away. Populations lie dormant for more than a dozen years before bursting into the wild with a collective scream that registers in excess of 100 decibels, roughly the volume of a Green Day concert. Now imagine if you stumbled into camp only to find what scientists discovered in 1969: 1.5 million singing cicadas in a single acre. No wonder entomologists wear earplugs while studying the bug.

Latin name: Strix Varia
Sound and fury: can do a dead-on impression of a shrieking monkey
It sounds like the beginning of a bad horror movie in the tree above your campsite. A crazy woman cackles; a dog barks frantically; and an owl belts out a surprisingly loud and penetrating "who cooks for you." But the head-rattling cries are not sound effects; they're part of the barred owl's headache-inducing vocal repertoire used to mark territory, signal aggression, and attract mates. Amazingly, the owl makes all this racket without any vocal cords. Its voice box produces low-frequency sound waves that carry over great distances in forested terrain, fooling you into thinking the bird can cackle in your ear. The volume intensifies when the barred owl rallies other birds to song. Frightened by its laugh, wild turkeys will break into a chorus of demented gobbling. Reach for the Excedrin. It's going to be a long night.

Latin name: Unconscious Obnoxicus
Sound and fury: Can damage his own hearing.
You wiggle down into your bag and are about to say "good night" when a series of loud snorts halts your reverie. You brace yourself for the inevitable: a long, rising, relationship-threatening snore. For the rest of the night, his labored breaths cause his palate, throat, and uvula to vibrate, producing a wet rattling noise that makes you bury your head under your makeshift pillow. Unfortunately, the wine you two enjoyed at dinner relaxed the soft tissue in the back of his throat. The result: a deeper, more amplified snore. Add his allergies, which demand that he breathe more forcefully, and suddenly the tent is equipped with surround sound. You try nudging him, then kicking him. It's no use; he snores in every position. Spongy earplugs only help so much. After all, the world's loudest snores measure 93 decibels, rivaling the rumble of a bulldozer.

Sure, the cicada is deafening, but it only raises the roof every 15 years or so. The snoring tentmate? You can always push for a trip to the doctor. But a nocturnal noisemaker that sounds like a mockingbird on acid? We bow before the resounding victor.

(this was originally published in Backpacker.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hike Pine Mountain, Channel Daniel Boone (my adventures in wild Eastern Kentucky.)

Read all about my latest backpacking adventure in the New York Times.

I loved touring the Pine Mountain Trail and Whitesburg, one of the friendlist small cities I've ever seen. I call it the Santa Cruz of the Southeast. I had a great time talking to documentary film makers and broadcasters at the legendary Appalshop, and listening to its excellent old-time/bluegrass/Americana station -- WMMT --- as I explored the backroads from Glomar to Hazard. I also hiked to a waterfall, hung out at the general store where parts of "Coal Miner's Daughter'' were filmed, and talked to ecologists who are trying to fight off the deadly woolly adelgid, an aphid-like creature that is slaughtering the state's historic hemlocks.

To mark my emergence from the Pine Mountain backwoods, I bought two bottles of top-shelf bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky, and wrapped them very carefully in brown bags and newspapers to survive the long trip home. They made it to San Francisco all right --- but as it turns out, they sell both brands right here at the Bevmo on Geary!!

In other news, I want to thank the staff of the beautiful Livermore Public Library and the great crowd that turned out for my latest Cactus reading -- in spite of the fact that the Obama/McCain debates were going on at the exact same time. (Don't worry. The people in the audience said they were going to watch the whole thing later on Tivo.) Also, thanks to Tori at Firehouse Bistro and Books for her help setting this up. I also enjoyed talking to everyone at my reading in The Castro, including my youngest reader -- or at least the youngest one that I know about.

I will be doing more readings and events in the winter and spring, with two firmed-up dates in San Francisco and Sebastopol, and one in Santa Cruz.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello in the park (for free.)

We backpackers love cheap thrills. Free ones are even better. That's why I saw so many backpacker types at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Golden Gate Park's legendary free music festival. It's hard to pinpoint the greatest moment: Ralph Stanley serenading the crowd with "O Death,''; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss trading vocals on "The Battle of Evermore,'' with that eerie mandolin riff echoing just behind them; Elvis Costello doing his barnstorming version of "Friend of the Devil'' -- my third-favorite Dead tune -- and a rave-up of Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,'' with Jim Lauderdale harmonizing. The legendary Emmylou Harris motored right past me and waved to the crowd as event staff rushed her from one stage to the next. It was an unforgettable day in the park.

Also this weekend, I took part in the Bridge to Bridge 12 K run, on what must be the loveliest urban footrace course on the planet: the Embarcardero, Fort Mason, the Golden Gate Bridge and up into the Presidio. It was not free, but it raised money for a great cause -- the Special Olympics. I ran at a desert tortoise's pace, but who cares? These days, it's all about the experience, not the stopwatch.

also, in other (unrelated) news: I will be speaking at the Livermore Public Library this coming Tuesday (October 7) at 7 p.m.
The event is part of their Authors, Arts and More series

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fixin' To Do Something Dumber'n Hell

This week's San Francisco Bay Guardian compared me -- or at least my younger self -- to Llewelyn Moss, the none-too-bright protagonist of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men. In the movie version, directed by the Coen Brothers, Llewelyn Moss is played by Josh Brolin, who also plays a major role in the upcoming biopic of real life SF hero Harvey Milk, who lived in the Castro, where I am speaking Thursday evening at Books Inc on Market Street. And the real-life evil psycho played by Josh Brolin in that very movie just so happens to have the name "Dan White.'' (who, I should add, was in no way related to me!!!!) A creepy coincidence, to say the least ...

The SF Bay Guardian review isn't online but here is the cut-and-paste version.

"I'm fixin' to go do somethin' dumber 'n hell, but I'm goin' anyways." These were not the words of Dan White. Still, the words of No Country for Old Men's Llewelyn Moss could easily apply to the decision White made when he thought it would be a good idea to make 2,650-mile trek along the Pacific Coast Trail with his girlfriend. The couple were completely unprepared for the monster awaiting them, and encountered myriad hilarious, taxing, and occasionally life-threatening predicaments that White candidly chronicles in his buoyant The Cactus Eaters (Harper Perennial). While the decision may have been "dumber 'n hell," he got a brilliant book out of it, which is more than Moss got for his quest.

The New York Times, The Castro, and other Cactus news

I have a few updates for this week:

Look for my article about wild Kentucky in the Escapes section of the New York Times this Friday. (I also have some cautionary words about trying to make your way through the steeply slanted Kentucky backwoods with no GPS!)

In other news, the second printing of the book is in stores this week. It is slightly different from the first version. For one thing, my Mother In Law is in this one. She did not appear anywhere in the previous version. Mea culpa.

And finally, I am very excited about doing a Cactus reading in San Francisco for the first time ever.

the event will take place at: Books Inc In The Castro
San Francisco, CA
(2275 Market Street)
7:30 pm, October 2 (Thursday)

Also, I wanted to thank everyone who showed up last night to the Steinbeck Center for my reading last night -- many SJSU undergrads, family, the new Steinbeck fellows Cora Stryker, Jasmin Darznik and Cristine Gonzalez, and a few of my students, too. It was a great time.

Monday, September 29, 2008

San Jose State reading this Tuesday, September 30

I will bring Xeroxed waterlogged diaries from the trail, etchings, an early, abandoned cover of the book, a scary self-portrait photo and other artifacts to my reading at San Jose State University, where I am teaching creative nonfiction and essay writing this year. I will speak this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on the fifth floor of the beautiful, high-tech Martin Luther King Jr. library.

There will be cheese and wine. Here is a map of the campus, with parking and the library. I will sign books if you like, and this time I will bring along the full assortment of creature and flora stamps (ticks, cow skull, prickly pear, yucca, horny salamander, etc.)The event is sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts here at SJSU.

Later in the week, I will read in my newly adopted hometown of San Francisco:

Books Inc In The Castro
San Francisco, CA
(2275 Market Street)
7:30 pm, October 2 (Thursday)
Books Inc. in the Castro
Reading and signing

King of the trail angels

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. Milt, who appears in The Cactus Eaters, would buy hungry hikers huge breakfasts and enormous Barn Buster hamburgers in Dunsmuir, near Castella. Sometimes, he would even drive them up to Mount Shasta to take a look around. Trail angels are one of the great joys of any long-distance trail. They open up their cars -- and in some cases, their homes -- to long-distance backpackers.You can still hike the .9-mile -- and rather steep! -- spur trail that is named after him. Milt is gone now, although there are plenty of new 'angels' who are trying to keep his legacy alive. I've reprinted these photos at the request of Winohiker. (notice that cool, vintage PCT T-shirt that Milt is wearing. By the way, the mysterious finger that you see is pointing directly at the spot where Castella, CA. appears on the map.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beef Monster Taco

Back when I was a hardcore backpacker, I spent up to 10 days in the woods. Most of the time, when I arrived at a supply town, I would take a pay shower at a campground, load up my food, and slip back into the forest. In those days, motel rooms were a rare treat. I wasn't discerning at all. A motel had to fulfill four basic qualifications: 1. It needed to cost twenty-eight bucks a night or less, 2. It needed not to be a working brothel, 3. It had to be across the street from a place where you could get a two-dollar breakfast, and 4. it had to have running -- and, if possible, warm --- water. My younger self did not care if the curtains smelled like Salem Lights, or if there were mystery splotches on the comforters and on the ceiling, or if there were shirtless burly dudes hanging out in the parking lot all night, slurping Boones Farm Strawberry straight from the bottle. I didn't even mind if the doors to my room would not close unless you propped a bunch of couches against them. As far as I was concerned, a motel was a motel. Right?

But not anymore. These days I've grown a little soft. For example, I just got back from a whirlwind visit to Seattle. The trip itself was fantastic, but I had some concerns with my accomodations on Aurora Avenue. A certain online cheap reservations service (I can't tell you the name, but I can tell you that it rhymes with Shmavelocity) stuck me in a chain motel room that was exactly seven feet from a Jack In the Box drive through window. I was so close, I could have leaned out and ordered myself a shake at three a.m. All night long, I had to put my hands over my ears because of all the people driving up and bellowing orders: "I WANT A BEEF MONSTER TACO, A STEAKMELT, CHOCOLATE OVERLOAD, TWO PITA SNACKS, TEN ORDERS OF CHEESY MACARONI BITES and A SOURDOUGH ULTIMATE CHEESEBURGER.'' And then the perky woman in the drive-through counter couldn't quite hear them, so she would shout back at them, and then they would shout their order even more loudly until my motel room began to quake. I put several pillows over my head, and even put on the kind of industrial strength earplugs that jackhammer operators use on the streets of Manhattan. In spite of my best effforts, the hungry, shouting customers and the perky-voiced attendant just got louder and louder. Next time, I'm going to stay in a nicer, more quiet place. (Or maybe I'll just pitch my tent in the middle of a Jack In the Box and see if anyone notices.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ursus Americanus

Here is my field sketch of a juvenile American black bear in repose. I have had mostly positive experiences (so far) with California's robust black bear population. Although they seem very peaceable, like overstuffed labrador retrievers, they are truly wild and should not be trifled with. (they can hook-climb a tall tree in a matter of seconds, and can run much faster than any human in the short distance.) Don't ever try to sneak up on one of them, as I once did in a moment of sheer youthful idiocy. And whatever you do, don't feed them or bring camp food, or smelly deoderants or toothpaste, into your tent with you. I've heard of many cases in which bears have ripped down tents -- and in one case, sat right on top of a sleeping backpacker -- to get to the vittles.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pikas: squeaking beasts of the wilderness

This is my field sketch of a pika, a creature familiar to alpine backpackers. If you've walked above tree line, you've probably heard their strange "ook-ook'' vocalizations. Pikas have different squeaks for different occasions (distress squeaks, angry squeaks, etc.) They even have their own Facebook-like system for letting other pikas know if they are dating, interested or available. According to Allan Schoenherr's book, "A Natural History of California,'' pikas will make certain vocalizations to lure other pikas into mating with them -- but they will also make "wailing calls'' to signal the end of a courtship.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hiking and writing in Santa Cruz

This just in. I will be teaching a writing class and leading a nature walk in an event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz this spring. Bookshop has decided to set this nature walk and discussion in a cool and misty redwood forest instead of a forbidding desert. There are 30 spaces for this, so shoot me an email if you are interested, and I will forward it to the event organizer. It is tentatively scheduled for May. Don't worry; I will take a head count before and after the nature walk. (It won't be like Open Water, where the scuba-diving couple gets left in the ocean.)I will have more specific informmation in the coming months.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Meals Ready to Explode

I'm on the fence about these newfangled eat-them-straight-out-of-the-pouch backpacking foods. I'm talking about those pre-cooked slabs of salty lemon-and-pepper tuna, mushy lentils, squishy soups and gloopy curries that smell like fungus. Sure, they're convenient, and they are -stable. Eat them now, or eat them in 350 years, and you will notice no difference in mouthfeel, taste or quality. They also preclude the need to carry a stove into the woods. But the new MRE's have a couple of slight drawbacks. For one, the "food" looks and smells vomitous. For another, the contents of these pouches are so pressurized that they sometimes explode in my backpack. During my trip to the Southeastern backwoods, a pouch of pumpkin curry self-detonated all over my mess kit, tool pouch, Maglight and sleeping bag. I was able to remove the larger pumpkin chunks, but even now, my backpack has an unbearable stench that attracts varmints, from possums to mice and all the way down the food chain. From now on, I'm going back to Power Bars, protein powders and meat stick.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Getting Stoned with Mr. Science

I love to take day-hikes and backpacking trips when I can, but lately most of my hiking takes place through the streets of my new hometown. I almost always see crazy things during my strolls through Golden Gate Park, where I often head to the bison enclosure and back again. This weekend, I was on the eastern edge of the park when I saw a young man and young woman, both with robes and dreadlocks and standing very close to each other. They were leaning forward but not quite touching. When I got closer, I saw that the woman had an enormous spliff in her hand, and the man was trying to light it. Neither one of them had matches. Instead, he was trying to fire up the joint by holding a thick magnifying glass to the sun and focusing the beam of yellow light onto the rolling paper.
"It's starting to burn,'' she said, her hands shaking in anticipation.
"Stand still!'' he commanded.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hitchhiking: the thrill of the open road

I am not one to advocate hitchhiking -- it's one of those 'try at your own risk' kinds of things, and in some cases it can be very dangerous --- but I will admit that I've hitchhiked many dozens of times, with no bad experiences at all. Sometimes, unless you've planned a pick-up, or are hiking a loop, it is almost impossible to avoid hitching.
I've hitched in California, Oregon, Washington, Kentucky (to no avail) and in Mexico. In fact, the biggest challenge I've faced is the fact that people were usually too scared to give me a ride because I used to have a very large, curly, red scungy beard and smelled really bad.
In my experience, it's easier to get a ride ...
1. if you are hitch-hiking with your girlfriend and not all by yourself. (People might think you are psycho if you are hitch-hiking by yourself. And if you're trying to hitch-hike in a large group of guys, forget it.)
2. ... if you shave off your frightening beard
3. ...If you cover your body odor with powerful masking lotions that smell like Ivory soap.
4. .. if you target large, wheezing Vans or buses with "steal your face'' stickers all over the windshield and license plates with winking references to either Grateful Dead or Phish lyrics. The drivers are usually hitchhike-friendly. On the downside, the drivers get pulled over by the cops with alarming frequency.
5... if you choose a hitchhiking area where many religious fundamentalists happen to live. Say what you will about religious fundamentalists, but they are the most likely to take pity on you when you are standing by the side of the road. As I mentioned somewhere in Cactus, without religious fundamentalists, many of us backpackers would rot on the roadside in patchouli-scented piles.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Trail of Eternal Peril

I am resolutely anti-vandalism but I do think that this bit of improvised graffiti, on the Southern California P.C.T., is pretty hilarious. (I don't know if the sign is still there -- this was a while back!)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Reading date change at Steinbeck Center ...

I just wanted to point out that my reading at the Steinbeck Center at San Jose State has been changed to Tuesday, September 30, 730 p.m. (see list of events below.) It will be on the fifth floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Snacks and wine will be served.

Walking with mountain lions: four backcountry survival tips

The other day, I went on a twilight run through mountain lion territory. It was scary! Every time I heard something stalking around in the bushes, I thought a puma was going to leap out and bite me in half. It always turned out to be a quail, a woodrat or a sparrow, but still. From now on, I will remember these words of wisdom every time I'm walking through cougar territory:

1. Always hike in a group. The mountain lion will only eat your slow-moving, chubby friends and leave you alone.
2. If you see a mountain lion, stand on your tip-toes and stretch your arms high in the air to make yourself look larger. That way, the mountain lion will think there’s more to eat.
3. If you see a mountain lion, make as much noise as possible! That way, every cougar in the forest will know where you are.
5. And last, but not least: If a mountain lion attacks you, fight back! It will look funny on YouTube.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I just had a great conversation on KFOG about The Cactus Eaters and living in the backcountry. Many thanks to the listeners who called in or emailed questions during the broadcast.

Friday, August 22, 2008

French cactus eaters

Thanks to Mr. Victor White for contributing this theme-appropriate photo, taken during a recent visit to Paris.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Upcoming Cactus readings (with one date change...)

I will be reading -- and going on the radio -- very soon in San Francisco, the East Bay, in San Jose and other locations. Here is what I have lined up so far for the near future. Please note the changed date (same time) for the San Jose State reading below.

Saint Mary's College of California, Creative Writing Reading SeriesMoraga, CA
Soda Activity Center
7:30 p.m., September 24 (Wednesday)

San Jose State University
San Jose, CA
new date:
7:30 p.m., September 30, Tuesday
Reading at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies
Fifth floor, Martin Luther King Jr. Library
Reception to follow.

Books Inc In The Castro
San Francisco, CA
(2275 Market Street)
7:30 pm, October 2 (Thursday)
Books Inc. in the Castro
Reading and signing

Livermore Public Library
Livermore, Ca
2 p.m., October 5 (Sunday.)
Reading and signing

Monday, August 18, 2008

The day I climbed Mount Whatever

More advice for travel writers ...

Summer is coming to a close, which means one thing: you are probably contemplating one last serious backpacking or day hiking trip before the cold weather and September obligations come slamming down. You will probably bring a digital camera out into the woods with you and take thousands of pictures of mountains, lakes, streams, people and woodland creatures.
But if you decide to take pictures, do me one favor. Label your photos!
I am speaking from sad personal experience. During my wilderness sojourns, I took approximately 3,000 pictures -- and I did not label a single one of them!! Now, I am at a total loss about the pictures. I have forgotten the identities of almost all the people in the photos. I cannot tell any of the crags, lakelets, streams and sylvan landscapes apart. Now, when people look through my photos and slides, I am not very helpful at all. "Oh, that was the day I climbed Mount Whatever with What's-his-Face, in Whatever-the-hell state it was.''
By the way, if you can help identify the mountains and waterway in this picture, shoot me a message. It would be a big help.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Smut give-away in Noe Valley (updated.)

Run, don't walk, to the corner of Castro and Clipper today. There (unless some mean person has removed it) you will notice a large box of free books that someone has left on the sidewalk right next to the bus stop near the coin-op laundromat. The box is filled to the brim with such books as "The Ninety Days of Genevieve,'' "The Romance of Lust,'' and "My Darling Dominatrix.'' I even overheard someone with a very dramatic voice, loudly reading such passages as "whimpering in tight-lipped grunts,'' "straining sinews,'' and "both girls awaited tensely, knowing that a spanking was imminent.''

Whoever left this box removed all of the covers, which was a very cruel thing to do. However, the person left a helpful sign on the top of the box, lest there be any confusion. "SMUT!'' it says.

(Addendum: I drove past the intersection yesterday, and noticed that someone has taken the entire box. The opportunity has passed.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A bear in Silicon Valley?

This is old news for many of you at this point, but I was surprised to read, in Tom Stienstra's column, that two Bay Area hikers saw a black bear this week at Rancho San Antonio near Cupertino. It's a beautiful open space area where you always see vitamin-D deprived programmers going on long runs with "Got Code?'' T-shirts.
By the way, there is a slight connection between my book and Rancho San Antonio, once the home of the unfortunate Elisha Stephens, a pioneer and homesteader who appears in The Cactus Eaters(Stephens helped open up what became known as "Donner Pass,'' got zero credit, and died a bee-keeping, bitter grump in Kern County. Apparently he's in an unmarked grave.) Rancho San Antonio is my big escape every time I feel like going to points south and warming up but don't have the time to get to my beloved Santa Cruz. I've seen rattlesnakes, deer, hundreds of quail and a limping bobcat --- but alas, never a bear. Is Ursus Americanus taking over Silicon Valley? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Brave New Traveler Interview: "Dan White Eats Cactus And Loses His Mind.''

This just in, an interview with the writer Alexis Wolff, in Brave New Traveler magazine. And yes, the bearded scarecrow holding the knife in front of Mount Shasta is me. (That photo is living proof that you need to eat quite a lot of calories on the trail or you will look like a walking skeleton after a while. You can burn 6,000 calories a day out there. When I started out on the trail, I weighed around 200 pounds. When it was all over, I weighed about 160!!)

P.S. --- see entry below for reading/signing appearance list, updated today with a new SF appearance.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Outstanding in my field of dirt

I used to be known as the "Pigpen of the Trail'' or "Dirty Dan.'' This nickname came from the simple fact that dirt, dust, gnats and trail grime clung to me, my gear and my clothes. In many photos from that period of my life, it looked as if someone used my T-shirts to scrub the dirt off a bison or a water buffalo. However, I am not taking my title, or my trail name, for granted. If you can provide visual evidence (i.e. an emailed jpeg photo) that you or any of your hiking friends are bigger dirt magnets than I was, feel free to send them here --- but let me know if I have your permission to put them on the blog. (If this happens, I will also have to change my trail name into something else.)Meanwhile, here is some visual evidence:

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Crawlspace Letters: the mystery continues

A while back, I wrote about a cache of very old and mysterious letters and photographs that I found in a crawlspace in my apartment (I live in the Haight, in a house that pre-dates and somehow survived the San Francisco earthquake.) I took another look in the crawlspace this weekend, and found dozens of items that are even older and stranger than the first batch. I found a 70-year-old letter from Camp Curry, Yosemite, begging the recipient for cash and urging a response about an undescribed "serious matter.'' I also found a vaguely menacing letter, urging the recipient to march in a parade scheduled for Labor Day, 1926. "Remember,'' the letter reads. "You will be conspicuous by your absence!'' I also found a King of Hearts playing card from the turn of the century, an identification card dated Dec. 31, 1937, an advance advertisement for Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and a catalog filled with photos of old corsets, yokes and other kinky-looking things from the early 1920s. Obviously, this apartment has had quite a life before I moved in last year!

I'm hoping to find an SF cultural historian who can help me make sense of all these artifacts. When that happens, I'll file an update right here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Freeze-dried matzo ball soup --- yum!

As of Aug. 2 (Saturday) you will be able to download a podcast of my talk with Evan Kleiman about trail food on KCRW. This week's program also talks about cupcake fetishes, food allergies, natural wines, chicken curry and more.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ghosts of the Utah desert

I had quite a profound and spooky experience exploring a remote canyon in the Utah outback some months back. If you're interested in reading about this place, here is my story, which appeared in Backpacker Magazine. By the way, I am glad to say that this place is extremely well-guarded and patrolled. It is also quite difficult to reach. I hope that people visit this place and tread lightly here for many generations to come. (As a disclaimer, I should add that this place is pretty subtle. Don't expect anything too dramatic. For me, it was mostly about the peace, the solitude, the atmosphere and the wildlife --- I saw a black bear, many wild turkey, snakes and lizards galore.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Advice for travel writers

I have some advice for people who are out exploring the world, backpacking around the globe, trekking through Nepal, hitchhiking around Thailand and keeping diaries of their experiences: do me a favor and spend a few extra bucks for a good-quality pen with archival smear-resistant ink ---- and a decent weather-resistant journal with durable pages.

Here's why I'm telling you this: When I did a lot of exploring in my youth, I bought thousands of Bic pens with red water-based ink, and dozens of fifty-cent journals with pages made of one-ply toilet paper. This seemed like a sound decision because, hey, I was saving money.

Years later, I needed those journals for a writing project --- but when I opened them, I saw that water had leaked into the journals.

Every once in a while, I would find passages like this: "If there is only one thing that I always want to remember about this travel experience, it's (ENORMOUS HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAGE ) Furthermore, I will never forget meeting (UNREADABLE INK BLOB ) who changed my life when he told me about (HOLE IN THE PAGE .) Furthermore, (BLOB )gave me a few words of advice that I will always try to live by: (UNREADABLE RORSCHACH SMEAR.) I will always be greatful for (RIP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAPER. )''

Monday, July 28, 2008

Among the Giant Slugs

(photo from slugweb.com)

APTOS, California: It's hard to believe that the Forest of Nisene Marks was once a stumpy wasteland, with loggers doing their darnedest to hack down every redwood they could find. In the turn of the century, this place was a disaster. Now, the forest offers some of the best hiking you can find anywhere on the Central Coast. You can hike all day on the edge of ravines, splash through streams and ogle banana slugs, which look like slices of overripe mango.

Second-growth redwoods grow so tall here, you can barely see the tops without straining your neck and back (like I did!) It's easy to forget the place's unfortunate history until you stumble across a stump with ferns and moss growing out of it, a broken-down cabin, or a set of railroad ties fading into the woods.

Sometimes you forget you're near Santa Cruz until you see or hear the signs: fat-tire unicyclists on an illegal trail ride deep in the park's interior, someone lost in the sounds of his own bongos, a musician blowing out a melody on the digeridu while sitting cross-legged on a folding chair, and a couple having exhibitionist sex in a Range Rover with the windows down on the fire road, paying zero attention to the small army of moms pushing babystrollers right past them. There are few people here, even on a nice day. Get there early in the morning and watch the steam rising off the redwoods.

Chronicle bestseller list, plus upcoming radio show about food

"Cactus'' made the SF Chronicle bestseller list this week in the Bay Area paperbacks category.
Also --- I will be talking about dehydrated matzo balls and other unusual backpacking foods on KCRW's "Good Food'' program at 11 a.m. (western standard time) August 2. I will post the podcast link when it's up. If you have any unusual backpacking-food suggestions, shoot me an email; at some point I'd like to do a follow-up post about this subject.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I'm not sure if I told you this before, but I kept two kinds of diaries during my wanderings --- a regular diary and a "Comic Book'' diary. This entry, from the "Comic Book'' version, gives you some sense of what was going through my head during the title sequence from "Cactus Eaters.'' Note the facial expression. Also, here are some scratchboard sketches inspired by various critters I saw in the American West. Alas, the grizzly sketch is a memento mori. They've been extinct in my native state since the 1920s. Nice going, California.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Range of Light

Now would be a great time to hike the John Muir Trail, which was completed 70 years ago and is still the most beautiful footpath in America (and possibly the planet.) It's also a genuine adventure; you bag a high-mountain pass almost every day. I guarantee that this path will turn you into a lifetime backpacker. If you can put up with a bit of leg burn, one or two scary creek crossings, and two or three thousand mosquitos nesting in your nostrils, this hike is for you. It also helps if you're handy with an ice axe. I grabbed this shot with the Behemoth Camera a number of years ago.

The Cactus Eaters in the Boston Globe

The author Steve Almond wrote this detailed review of the Cactus Eaters for The Boston Globe. In other news, I am adding several speaking dates in the Bay Area and points south; I will give more specific updates very soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Vultures are cool. They are a hiker's companion. Sometimes, they sweep down close enough so you can see their red faces, their necks and wrinkly baldness. Some people demonize them -- so much that the federal government has placed them under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act -- but I've always liked them. I like the way they fly -- always wobbling, making constant corrections, as if they think they are going to crash.They are squeamish, and startle easily. If you sneak up on one of them from behind, a vulure might projectile-vomit a foul bisque of semi-digested carrion all over you, and then, hours later, go back and re-eat the vomit. (Waste not, want not!) Equipped with stomachs that are 10,000 times more resistant to botulism than the common pigeon, they also carry enzymes that can neutralize anthrax and hog cholera. Say what you will about vultures. They keep our deserts tidy.

(by the way, that great photo is by Robert Bernstein. I found the photo at www.vulturesociety.homestead.com/photos.html)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Eden of the West

I hope you will indulge me in a few more of these color slides from the vault. You should have seen this Monster Camera-- an old-school Pentax K-1,000 with a 35-to-75 m.m. zoom. My good friend, John Murray, had to teach me how to operate this thing. It must have weighed five freaking pounds, and I attached it to my chest using a cross-your-heart contraption that looked like Betty Page bondagewear. Every time I walked down a steep switchback, that big fat camera would pound against the center of my chest like a heart defibrillator. These photos have lost a little something in the translation from slide to digital, but they should still give you some sense of the fogbound Cascades in late summer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pacific Northwest stream

I brought a huge, clunky SLR with me on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was kind of a pain, but some of the images are really nice. Here's one from the North Cascades.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Urban hiking and the ghosts of Haight Ashbury

Next week, if I can find a spare hour and a half, I will take that scary "ghost tour'' of the Haight, the one where you walk up and down very steep hills and get to meet the ectoplasmic presences of Hendrix, Joplin and so many others.

If I survive, I will provide a full report right here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Easiest Hike in the World?

Every week I get dozens of messages from readers who are out doing extremely adventurous things. Just the other day, I heard from someone who is about to camp 40 miles out in Alaska's deepest backcountry among the grizzlies and eagles, at a lake so remote, it isn't on any map. I hear from people who are in the middle of hiking national scenic trails, running some truly frightening endurance races and doing other crazy things. But every once in a while, it's good to know about "slackpacking'' options that give you access to views and libations with no effort at all. One such hike is out here in California, not far from Muir Woods. All you do is drive up Highway 1, turn right on the Panoramic Highway and park your car at the Pantoll Ranger Station (if you can. Parking there is kind of a pain.) Then you strap on your running shoes (who needs hiking boots for such a short walk?) and head toward the ocean. On a clear day, you will see some astounding views, and the redwoods are beautiful. It's almost all downhill (or flat), and you wind up in lovely -- if somewhat sharky -- Stinson Beach for fish and chips and perhaps a beer or two -- so long as you've brought a designated hiker-driver along with you. Then, when you are finished with your dining, shark-watching and libations, hop on the West Marin Stagecoach ((415) 526-3239), which will take you and your friends right back to Pantoll for dirt cheap. Calories expended? Zero. In fact, this may be the one hike in the world where you get fatter as you walk along. In other words, it's my kind of trail.

(by the way, this is NOT to be confused with the Tourist Club/Beer Woods hike that I wrote about a short while ago.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

You know it's time to replace your disgusting backpack

It's time for me to get real.

My filthy, animal-bitten, smelly backpack has got to go. I think it's beyond rehabilitation at this point. True, it's got a lot of sentimental value. The pack was with me for every step of the Pacific Crest Trail. It almost drowned me in Bear Creek. It weighed me down on a thousand switchbacks. And, most recently, I used the pack as a toboggan to help me escape from the Kentucky backwoods.

Now, sad to say, I'm probably going to get rid of the thing. And I'm not the only one who should think about doing this. Here are a few quick rules of thumb for those of you who simply can't let go of your backpack,even though its time has come...

1. You know it's time to replace your backpack when people you've never met start stuffing five-dollar bills into your hand.

2. You know it's time to replace your backpack when you go to the airport and get pulled out of the line by the "special security check team.'' And they're wearing HazMat suits.

3. You know it's time to replace your backpack when you walk down the streets of Haight Ashbury and no one tries to talk to you. Not even Greenpeace.

4, You know it's time to replace your backpack when the EPA puts it on the "National Priority Superfund'' list -- right between "Falcon Refinery'' and "Humboldt Smelter.''

I will add more to this list when I think of them.

If you have suggestions of your own for this list, please send them along ...

The Cactus Eaters in The San Francisco Chronicle and Elle Magazine

This morning I walked down to the food market in search of non-mealy organic nectarines. Glancing beneath a teetering pile of fruit, I saw a bunch of San Francisco Chronicles, thumbed through one of them, and saw this really good review of The Cactus Eaters in the book section. Also, Elle Magazine named The Cactus Eaters its top readers' pick of the month for August, which means that I get to go on and compete with the top readers' picks for every other month of the year. I'm very happy about the readers' pick, although I kind of get the feeling that the judges would not grant me any decision-making authority if we all went on a long-distance desert survival hike together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Speaking in San Francisco on Tuesday, July 15, at 12:30...)

At half-past noon, I will speak at Stacey's Bookstore on 581 Market Street in San Francisco. I will read a brief but scary "cliffhanger'' section that takes place in the arid hinterlands of Southern California. After this reading, which is a joint event with Vincent Carrella, author of "Serpent Box,'' you should linger in this great neighborhood, which is close to a lot of great museums and coffee, (and serviceable bagels.)
By the way, thanks to Book Passage for a terrific reading. Before speaking there, we hiked part way up Mount Tam, where I saw a lot of fat, healthy redwoods, ferns, frogs, streams, and some of the largest, scariest dragonflies I've ever seen. (They looked like oversized knitting needles with wings.) About halfway up, I saw an incredible view of the whole SF Bay. When I have a free day, I'll head back up there and do a long trail run up to the summit and back.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

This Saturday: Book Passage two-fer in Corte Madera

This Saturday (July 12) I will speak at Book Passage, at 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard in Corte Madera, California, at 4 p.m. Don't leave the premises afterwards, because Zoe Ferraris, author of the acclaimed "Finding Nouf,'' will be speaking there, on the very same day, at 7 p.m.!!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Who knew that you could freeze-dry gristle? (updated post)

I'm going to be on a food program very soon, talking about a subject that is dear to my heart -- namely the bowel-crimping, stomach-churning, monodiglyceride-filled foodstuffs that I choked upon while dwelling in the backcountry. I'm talking about "Big Bill's Beans N Rice" and the "Sweet And Sour Supper Surprise In A Bag.'' Anyhow, this frank conversation about foul, and not so foul, outdoor meals will air on KCRW, So.Cal's mighty NPR affiliate, on Saturday, August 2, from 11 to noon, Pacific time. The show is called "Good Food'' with Evan Kleiman, a restauranteur, (she owns the Angeli Caffe on Melrose, down in L.A.) interviewer, and one of the founders of the Slow Food movement. I'll give a heads-up when it's about to come out and then post it right here. Also, to help you cope with your Fourth of July camping adventures, I've added a couple of items that I inadvertently deleted from my list of backcountry camping don'ts, listed below, three blog entries down...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I just blew my golden opportunity to swear on the radio

I was just on the Jay Thomas show on Sirius -- and it was my golden opportunity to swear up a storm for 15 minutes straight. But the best I could manage was to say one little "Damn'' on the air. Gosh darn it!!!

Things you should NEVER do in the backcountry, redux

Backcountry "Don'ts'' (the unexpurgated version!)

NEVER bring a fondue maker into the woods with you. The bread crumbs, fruit wedges, gas and molten cheese will form a white magma that will spew all over you, leaving fourth-degree burns all over your entire body.

NEVER cook a meal while sitting inside your tent, even when it’s raining outside. (Trust me. Your tent will explode.)

NEVER forget that “freeze-dried’’ and “chili’’ is a very bad combination. (Trust me. You will explode.)

NEVER try to reason with anyone riding an All-Terrain Vehicle --- especially if he or she is drunk and holding a 12-gauge Mossberg hunting rifle and wearing a knit cap that says "I Like Big Jugs.''

NEVER try to make your girlfriend, or boyfriend, hike faster by calling out a military cadence in a fake Southern accent. ("Sound off, sound off, one, two, three, foe!")

NEVER attempt to brush your teeth in total darkness. Preparation H does not fight gum recession. And it tastes fishy.

NEVER bring artisan-quality cheddar cheese into the Mojave Desert with you in mid-June. A horrid white pus will extrude from the cheese, and you will vomit.

NEVER set up your tent in the middle of a mule trail in the North Cascades. Brighty, Big Snort and Old Thunder will trample you to death in your sleep.

NEVER underestimate the amount of toilet paper you will use in the backcountry. Sticks and stones won't break your bones but they will leave nicks and abrasions on your derriere.)

NEVER camp at a suspiciously beautiful, yet strangely empty, lakeside campsite. It is probably empty for very good reasons (think “flood plain,’’ “poisoned water’’ and “spaniel-sized mosquitoes.’’)

NEVER eat the freeze-dried stroganoff. It has been mummified and sealed away for good reason.

NEVER cut the handles off the toothbrush “to save pack weight.’’ Toothbrushes weigh less than an ounce – and if you try to brush your teeth with the head of a toothbrush, it will fall down your throat and lodge in your trachea, and you will die.

Please feel free to send in your own suggested "don'ts." Eventually I will update this list.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Total chaos (but it worked out at the last minute)

Yesterday, I somehow made it into Anaheim in time for the First Time Author's Panel at the ALA, in spite of a cancelled flight (mechanical failure), a delayed rescheduled flight (horrible air quality), and two missing pilots (they finally rounded up a couple of them somewhere.) On top of everything else, I got a ride from someone whose GPS system went haywire, so we ended up circling the convention center again and again and again and again. As if this weren't enough, someone sent all my luggage to LAX by mistake, which meant that I was the only one at the convention who was dressed like a total slob. In spite of it all, I arrived at the panel in time to deliver my presentation, and it went very well. Next stop is Palos Verdes.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Upcoming Cactus-related events

I am about to head down to Southern California for more readings (and I'm bringing a newly purchased "wicked salamander'' rubber stamp just for the occasion.)

Here is the list.

June 29, 2008
ALA Convention

1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
"First Author, First Book" panel discussion.Anaheim Convention Center, Room 203 A
Authors include Kaya McLaren (Church of the Dog, Penguin), Scott Douglas (Quiet, Please, Perseus Books), Mark Sarvas (Harry, Revised, Bloomsbury USA), Janelle Brown (All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Spiegel & Grau), and Anya Ulinich (Petropolis, Penguin). Then I will sign and stamp books at the HarperPerennial booth from 4 to 5. At the convention, you will have many book-stamping options: rainbow-colored ticks, Opuntia cactus, yucca, range cow skull, coiled rattlesnake and, at long last, salamander.

June 30th, 2008
2-2:30 p.m., book reading and signing.
ALA Convention,
Anaheim Convention Center. This will be part of "LIVE! @ "Your Library Reading Stage'' at the center (just look for the signs).

July 1, 2008
2 p.m.
Malaga Cove Library
Palos Verdes Estates, CA.(PV is my hometown. This was my childhood haunt and it's one of the most beautiful libraries I've ever seen.)
July 02, 2008
7:30 PM
Discussion and Signing
3700 Torrance Blvd
Torrance, CA 90503
(a sort of homecoming. I was born in this town at Little Company of Mary Hospital.)

Then I will be back in the Bay Area for a while:

July 12, 2008
51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Corte Madera, CA 94925

July 15, 2008
581 Market ST
San Francisco, CA 94105
*Joint Event with Vincent Carrella, author of "Serpent Box.''

There will be more events a bit later on in the summer (and more in the early fall, too.)

Mrs. Dalloway's and Anaheim

Thank you to Mrs. Dalloway's for a thoroughly enjoyable evening in Berkeley yesterday. (Full house, beautiful store, and dozens of people I've never met before.) Better yet, it was welcoming and very comfortable, like reading in someone's living room. After the reading, I talked to a woman who had a situation that was scarily similar to my "cactus bite'' situation (so I'm not the only one!) The turnout was a pretty even split between non-hikers and hikers, although there were a couple of PCT through-hikers from '81, along with several people who are contemplating the trail. I gave them a list of recommended readings, including "The Pacific Crest Trail: A Hiker's Companion,'' by Karen Berger and Daniel R. Smith, which provides a solid, entertaining overview of the flora, fauna, landscape and history. In the coming weeks, I'm going to Anaheim, California, for the American Library Association conference at the convention center. Also, I'm going on a national speaking tour of sorts without leaving my house. I am doing phone-in radio spots in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and will provide more details when the time draws near. If you happen to live in Rochester, NY, a TV station is running a brief bit about "Cactus'' early next week, possibly with some scary photos dating from the trip. I'll keep you posted when I find out more about these things. No news about the crawlspace letters today. And keep sending in those hiking (and non-hiking) stories. Eventually I'd like to set up some kind of on-line anthology featuring your work.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who is the Mystery Woman?

The mystery deepens. Yesterday, I reported on the "Crawlspace Letters'' -- a letter from a lovesick GI in Germany, to a sweetheart that he addresses only as "honey.'' Well, today I was looking through the letter and saw a striking photograph of a woman wearing a mink stole and a furry hat shaped like a pith helmet. In her arms, she holds a bonneted child who looks to be about six months old. Who is the mystery woman and her baby? Is the woman the "honey'' in the letter? To be continued. And, just in case you are wondering, I am making absolutely none of this up.

Editorial reviews: The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind -- and Almost Found Myself --- on the Pacific Crest Trail..

A couple of you asked for this round-up, so here it is. I give these to you straight-up, but warning: Spoiler Alert!

'Cactus Eaters': Rough trail, enjoyable book
Jory John, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Cactus Eaters
How I Lost My Mind - And Almost Found Myself - on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Dan White

"I was so tired of feeling weak. I wanted to start my life over by tracking bears through the Cascades and washing my face in a stream spilling off a thousand-year-old glacier," Dan White writes in "The Cactus Eaters," a compelling, often laugh-out-loud-funny account of his time spent traversing the Pacific Crest Trail, an extreme 2,650-mile trek.

Since its designation as a national scenic trail in 1968, the trail- spanning Mexico to Canada - has served as a monstrous challenge for even the most adept hiker. It is renowned for its cavalcade of unexpected difficulties - from lack of water to bad weather, terrain challenges, outdated maps, wildlife, fussy landowners and more - and it crosses three entire states, through high and low deserts, forests and snowy peaks. To White, the trail represents more than just bragging rights. It is an antidote to a life of fear, laziness and second guesses, a chance to replace his modern comforts with self-inflicted hardships, one step at a time. It promises a new identity for a man who is tired of his old one. Plus he can quit his day job.

With his adventurous girlfriend at his side, the 25-year-old is driven to the start of his adventure by his rightfully worried parents. Devoid of outdoor training, starting out late in the year - mid-June, instead of the recommended late April - and carrying far too much gear, the two leave much to be concerned about. To the folks they encounter, many of whom have knowledge of the trail's potential hazards, they are, at best, a joke. At worst, they're a walking tragedy.

When they finally set out into the Southern California desert, a comedy of hiking errors begins, building up to a near-death experience involving a panicked attempt to suck water out of a cactus. This is followed by much cactus-related pain.

White's ability to convey dialogue and his way with internal monologue surpass even Bill Bryson's comic touch. The book is packed with good jokes, often resulting from the lack of a cool head and a clear sense of what to do next. But the consistent action and White's extensive sense of history strike a good balance, rooting the book firmly in the adventure category. White can also write gorgeously, like this description of the desert: "You didn't even whisper when the sun came looking for you like a searchlight. In a way it was glorious, the relentless watching of the red ball as it sank, the feeling that I had outwitted the sun."

Because it's a story about hiking, the plot naturally follows the trail, and it's never quite clear what's around the next rock or cliff or lake - be it hunter, insect swarm, snow, bear or waterborne illness. The trail also serves as a metaphor for the disparate elements in White's life: the unknown territory ahead, a new relationship and an undying unwillingness to deviate from his chosen path.

Throughout all of his encounters, White is hardest on himself, whether he's feeling manic or cocky or making silly errors or pleading with God or arguing with his girlfriend. He holds himself accountable, repeatedly, to the point where the reader forgives him nearly as much as his girlfriend does. He's an unlikely candidate for this kind of expedition, and he's willing to present the bad Dan with the good. Is he selfish? Sometimes. But only those driven by obsession can succeed. He wants something real to be proud of, something full and lasting. His reasoning elicits your sympathy, even if you don't agree with all of his decisions.

White has written a book filled with energy and enthusiasm for its subject. It wouldn't be surprising if this became the Pacific Crest Trail voyager's new must-read.

Jory John is on the staff of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing center in San Francisco


Summer reads

Salon's staff is recommending summer books that transport you to new places without making you go through airport security.

True confessions: From a trek through the American West to a life filled with music, these memoirs will whisk you away.

By Salon staff

"The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind -- and Almost Found Myself -- on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Dan White

The Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, is one of the longest and most scenic hiking trails in North America. It winds through California, Oregon and Washington, and passes through some of the most rugged terrain in the country. As Dan White's travel memoir, "The Cactus Eaters," makes clear, it's not for the faint of heart or tender of foot: Hikers can go up to 200 miles without encountering signs of civilization, and because of the trail's length and difficulty, only about 120 people complete it every year. More than half of those who begin the trip do not finish it.

"The Cactus Eaters" is White's spirited and amusing account of his journey along the Pacific Crest -- equal parts adventure story, history lesson and relationship log. For White, the ruggedness of the trail offered an escape hatch from the doldrums of adult life. Before embarking on the trip, he was dreadfully bored with his job as a reporter at a newspaper in Torrington, Conn., where the paper's lax editorial standards allowed for, among other errors, the printing of two consecutive Wednesday issues in the same week. Upon hearing about the trail, he persuaded his girlfriend, Allison, to join him as he quit his job, abandoned his apartment and set out on what he called "an American safari."

The trip, however, seemed troubled from the start. Setting out in Southern California, the two were clearly overpacked -- their baggage included a John McPhee anthology and a kite. They were also frightfully inexperienced: Their previous hiking experiences had involved little more than day trips and an aborted attempt to walk the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. Most ominous, Allison succumbed to food poisoning on the journey's first day and quickly began throwing up. In the weeks that followed, the couple's fortunes improved. But they still managed to run out of water, get lost and have their water filter sexually assaulted by salamanders. They also spent an inordinate amount of time bickering about each other's commitment. To his credit, White paints a remarkably unflattering portrait of himself, as a childish companion and boyfriend whose grand visions of the hike often threaten to tear the duo apart. It doesn't help that he's a frightfully poor decision maker, who, at one point, tried to extract water from a cactus (an attempt that ended with several dozen spikes embedded in White's face).

Although the act of walking doesn't often recommend itself as a topic of long-form nonfiction, "The Cactus Eaters" manages to be both eminently readable and fun. White breaks up his narrative with colorful tangents about the trail's history, and describes the couple's misadventures with witty, vivid prose. Although some of his epiphanies (about the spiritual nature of hiking, for example) seem a bit contrived, his breezy tone keeps his momentum from sagging, and the couple's happier moments balance out their more dire predicaments. All in all, "The Cactus Eaters" is the perfect summer read for those of us who love being outdoors, but don't mind, every once in a while, letting somebody else do the walking. -- Thomas Rogers

Boston Globe

A writer answers the call of the wild
By Steve Almond | July 22, 2008

The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail, By Dan White, HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $14.95

Anyone who has ever daydreamed about embarking on a spiritually transformative odyssey into the wilderness, but hesitated owing to a lack of experience, or an excess of neuroses, should count "The Cactus Eaters" as a kind of prophetic text. It is a funny, frequently harrowing, and altogether mesmerizing memoir about just how wrong a backpacking expedition can go.

As the subtitle suggests, the book recounts the journey of Dan White and his long-suffering girlfriend Allison, who trudged from Mexico to Canada along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. The book opens with the pair waylaid in a remote patch of desert, a broken water filter all that stands between them and the buzzards. Herein lies the central source of suspense in this debut: Will White and his Girl Friday actually survive the trip? The answer is yes, though just barely.

Among the various degradations they endure: dehydration, giardia, vicious cactus thorns, and killer ticks. Oh yes, and bears. Several hundred miles in, White runs smack into a slumbering black bear -- though he's too frightened to recognize the situation initially. Instead, he convinces himself that it's merely a sculpture. "Why would someone take the time to sculpt and sand down and set up this marble lump and plant it right in the middle of the PCT, where a hiker might run right into it," he writes. "And what, exactly, was the sculptor trying to prove? Was the artwork an expression of guilt? I was getting myself all worked up and annoyed when the statue, suddenly, moved."

This passage provides a flavor of White's humor, which is, like the author himself, both goofy and indefatigable. Throughout his saga, he comes off like a suburban nebbish with an obsessive streak that far outstrips his competence. The PCT becomes both his white whale and his straight man.

But White is more than just a survivalist joke machine. He's also a deeply self-reflective writer, who traces his psychological compulsion for hiking back to his childhood idol, the naturalist John Muir. It was Muir, he explains, who "sold me on the notion that a man could internalize the beauty and harmony he finds within nature and bring those qualities home with him. He might even use these qualities to mend the broken pieces of himself."

White also writes, with great eloquence, about America's pathological relationship toward wilderness, in particular our national penchant for commodifying the great outdoors. He conjures up figures such as James McCauley "perhaps the creepiest showman in the history of backwoods tourism" who amused gawkers in Yosemite more than a century ago by flinging objects off a 3,200-foot cliff.

More lovingly, he evokes the various hiking fanatics he meets on the trail, all of whom seem hellbent on escaping the artificial reality of civilized life. By the end of his own journey, White has joined their ranks. He's a certified trail rat who's lost his own bearings, not to mention his girl-friend.

And yet his descriptions of the natural beauty he encounters are so vivid, so rhapsodic, that it's easy to see why he's seduced. "The desert commented on its own dryness," he writes at one point. "The wind rushed like water. A mirage washed up against a pile of rocks." Further on, he describes "the watery flavor of a salmon berry," baby mountain goats "floating up [a] cliff face" and lizards that appraise him "like insurance adjusters."

"The Cactus Eaters" is far more than a Sierra Club-approved romp. It's gorp for the soul, a fascinating and surprisingly moving testament to the call of the wild.

Steve Almond's essay collection, "(Not that You Asked)" is just out in paperback.


A trek up the West Coast from Mexico to Canada.
By Susan Salter Reynolds
The Los Angeles Times
May 18, 2008

The Cactus Eaters

How I Lost My Mind -- and Almost Found Myself --

on the Pacific Crest Trail

Dan White

HarperPerennial: 374 pp., $14.95 paper

"The word Sierra conjures images of mountains, glaciers, rivers, and charming marmots. Scratch those pictures from your mind. Replace them with dust and dirt and sweat, canyon oak, piñon pine, and in the middle distance, blunt-topped crags the shape and color of an old dog's teeth. . . . [F]or the most part the scenery is pale beige, the color of stucco, the color of gefilte fish."

Dan White is not in the habit of romanticizing. He and his girlfriend, Allison, left their jobs in Connecticut to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The book opens not quite three weeks into the trip, and both travelers are a little the worse for wear. What with the ticks ("Walkers whip off their clothes to find forty or fifty of them at once, looking like M&M's with legs") and other perils, it's a trail that "extracts a toll for a glimpse of its pretty places. . . . More than 50 percent of the people who walk the trail give up in despair, often within the first week."

On the day the book opens, Dan and Allison have run out of water. "I have a degree in English with honors from Wesleyan," White writes with mock incredulity. "You're the smartest guy in the room," he tells himself -- but he's run out of water, and he can't find any. Still, there's great joy in the couple's escape from the rat race. He and his girlfriend worked for a newspaper that had "a hate/hate relationship with its readers. People in town never said they 'subscribed' to the paper. Instead they said they 'took' the newspaper, as if it were a pill or a suppository."

Through the Angeles Forest, Tehachapi, the high passes on the John Muir Trail, the Range of Light, the Pacific Northwest, the Lois and Clark Expedition, as White calls it, picks up characters and bits of lost history.

The two explorers have strange dreams. They contemplate marriage and careers and compromises. "Every step toward Canada was a step toward manhood," White writes, in that voice you will grow to love. "I feared that the trail, if I never finished it, would leave me stranded in a permanent kindergarten. . . . "

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.


Traversing broiling deserts, snowy mountain passes and dank rain forests on its crooked way from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Coast Trail is an epic challenge for die-hard backpackers. White and his girlfriend, Allison, set out, late in the season and bereft of experience, to tread all 2,650 miles of it, leaving behind lousy reporting jobs and hoping to find self-definition and a deepened relationship. (They call their trek the Lois and Clark Expedition.) Hilarious greenhorn misadventures ensue-including the author's ill-advised chomp, while dizzy with dehydration, into a reputedly moisture-laden prickly-pear cactus-that tested their survival skills and commitment as a couple. The trail becomes less an itinerary than a world unto itself, full of squalor, discomfort and majestic scenery, and peopled by charismatic misfits and an austere cult of ultra-light speed-hikers, as the couple rely on arcane camping gear and bizarre gummy-bear-and-marshmallow diets. The wilderness authenticity the author seeks proves elusive; all journey and no destination, the story itself eventually trails off with the hero even more callow and confused than when he started. Still, White's vivid prose and hangdog humor make readers want to keep up. (June)

Journalist White and his girlfriend Allison tackle the Pacific Crest Trail, Mexico to Canada and all the many miles and weather developments in between. They both worked at a small newspaper in Connecticut. He was a book-smart nerd with a deep-seated need to rebel; she was professionally ambitious but with an appetite for adventure. They fell for each other and, in an act of sublime ignorance, decided to knock off the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in one summer-long act of youth and bravado. That was ten years ago, which has given White time to recover from their trail-trial-by-fire and to find some humor in the story. White and Allison encountered a typical gallery of blowhards, weirdos and good Samaritans on the trail. They desert-fried and snowfield-froze. They found scorpions in their boots and swarms of ticks everywhere. The food was scary (and so was the diarrhea). But they also saw peach-colored mornings and lavender evenings; they skinny-dipped and made love. Drawing on diaries he kept at the time, White polishes up these memories, serving them forth with brio and dash. But he also unsparingly portrays his selfish ways as he gradually descended into an edgy and anxious frame of mind. He was raw: a buffoon, quixotic when not churlish. Readers will laugh with the author as he delivers one-liners ("It changes you when you bite your first cactus"), but they will also steam at his solipsistic antics and become unnerved when they see him making critical decisions with decidedly impaired judgment. No wonder Allison broke up with him after the big hike. Brings a fresh perspective to the timeworn adventure-travel genre.''

“In the well-written, laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating spirit of Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, Dan White takes us along for a walk on the wild side of adventure and love. I couldn’t put it down.” — Eric Blehm, National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of The Last Season

“Dan White forges miles past travelogue to carve a poignant, uproarious, and deeply compelling love story between man, woman, and the land between.” — Franz Wisner, NY Times bestselling author of Honeymoon with My Brother

“Think Into the Wild with a touch of Annie Hall, as told by Woody Allen, and you begin to get the picture of Dan White’s riveting account of a long, life-altering walk most of us will never take. White’s tale of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail’s grueling 2,600 miles, from Mexico to Canada, is by turns funny and achingly painful — physically and emotionally. As White and his long-suffering girlfriend encounter a cast of extraordinary characters — as well as bears, rattlesnakes and nasty bugs — you feel like you are with them every step of the way. A wonderful read — even if your longest hike is usually out to the driveway.” — Kenneth C. Davis, NY Times bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and the "Don't Know Much About ...'' series.

... and this just in: Elle Magazine chose The Cactus Eaters as its top readers' nonfiction pick of August 2008. (The other two books look great; I've added them to my must-reads for the month. For the record, those books are Doreen Orion's Queen of The Road -- just started it; hilarious so far, and John and Jean Silverwood's Black Wave, which I have just ordered.)