An Interview with Kurt Caswell 

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters 

Kurt Caswell is an itinerant. He was born in Alaska, but his family quickly moved with their young son to first to Michigan, then Oregon, and later Idaho. From there he backpacked through Europe, spent a year teaching in Hokkaido, Japan, another year teaching on the Navajo Reservation, then later spent time teaching in California and Wyoming. Always intending to make it back to the verdant Pacific Northwest, Caswell has instead made Lubbock (also my home town), known for its parched cotton fields and transcendental monotony, his nest for the last ten years. He still travels widely, often with grant money, to investigate Iceland, climb the four highest peaks in the UK, India, the Philippines, Japan again.

One of the first things Caswell and I ever did together was backpack in the Grand Canyon — awing red rocks, sawing Chuck Noris jokes, and reciting poems. Kurt is a man able to perform both high brow and low, personal and academic. He is, I must admit, the reason I traveled to Japan to teach (and met my wife), why I realized that to be a writer didn’t always mean being wrestled to your desk and thoughts.

I’ve read several dozen travel narratives in search of a writer model besides Kurt, and so far none top In the Sun’s House, Caswell’s frank, direct, and searching memoir of a year spent teaching on the Navajo Rez. The followup to that book, his third, is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, a book of travel essays in the vein of his first book, An Inside Passage, which won River Teeth’s Literary Nonfiction Book Contest in 2008. As Grey Owl’s subtitle suggests, the book is a series of travel essays, which span three decades. Kurt and I talked about the collection and travel, each with coffee, though he in windswept Lubbock, me in recently flooded and tornadoed Denton.

Clinton Crockett Peters: You have this line in the first essay, “A River in Hokkaido,” where you’re writing about hanging upside down from a whitewater canoe with a diving mask looking at salmon and you write, “how terrifyingly good we are at getting into places we really don’t belong.” For me, that line sends a shock through the essay and the book. It seems to point up the discourse about where is home and the problems of finding home in other places, cultures, times. It reminds me of the title essay of your first book, An Inside Passage, as well as your second book about living on the Navajo reservation. Is this an ongoing struggle for you, home?

Kurt Caswell: When An Inside Passage came out, yeah, I think I was struggling with this idea of home. Where was my home? What was home supposed to feel like? Would I know it when I found it? Was home supposed to be the place I grew up? Or was it something I had to choose or create myself? Those kinds of questions haunted me. I lived in many places growing up, and had always felt at home. I never asked the question about home. It was only when I got out on my own that I started to ask the question. Did I need to “settle down,” the thought of which was distasteful to me? Or could I just keep moving about and living in new places? I didn’t really know.

When I was living in Hokkaido, I thought a year was an immense span of time. I thought I’d get roaming about out of my system, then return “home” to the Pacific Northwest, and never leave. I’d just be content after that long time away, and I’d live happily ever after in my native land. But that never happened. I went to New Mexico instead. And then to Arizona. And on from there. I just kept moving along to the next place. And here it is all these years later, and I’ve still not returned to the Pacific Northwest to live, though I spend a lot of time there, to see family and whatnot. I’ve come to accept that home is a construct, and I’m most at home when I’m a bit displaced. Displacement can be a kind of home. It feels homey to me. I think this is one of the reasons living in Lubbock, Texas has worked out for me, for the most part, because I feel a bit displaced here. I resisted living here for a time, but now I just do. You know? And I don’t have to be here year-round, which feeds my migratory impulse. I go and return. Go and return.
As far as getting into places we don’t belong, I’ve come to rethink that too. I’m not sure we don’t belong in certain places, since that would implicate that someone or something has written a set of rules that we have to live by. And there isn’t this someone or something. But there are consequences for human beings putting their noses into places just to have a look around. We can destroy those places, even when we are well intended, or out of curiosity. This is why the international community has agreed that there are specific places in Antarctica, for example, that no one will ever go to. Let’s just leave them as they are. We step in, and we change things, and usually not for the better. Next up is Mars. I’d love to see a human colony on Mars. Fantastic! But, there are consequences too. We’ll change Mars just by being there.CCP: This book spans four continents and three decades; how did you go about stringing the essays together?

KC: Well, I wrote half of the essays not imagining a book. I was just writing. Then I began to see thematic threads running through a few essays I had written. Migration was one. A taste for the fantastic was another. Nomadic versus agricultural economies and cultures, synthesized by the Cain and Abel story. And then what we might call the pleasures of a wandering life. I noticed all these threads working in a few of my essays. And then when I hit on the passage from Herman Hesse, the passage that became the book’s epigraph—a friend named Ray Harrison sent it to me, a visionary and spiritual man—I was so excited by it, excited by the way I identified with it, that I knew I had a book that rose out of this idea. The passage begins “I am a nomad, not a farmer.” And it’s true. I can’t deny this. When I read those words, they resonate at the core of me.

I had always wanted to write a book of travel sketches too. I always knew I would. So I began mapping out other essays, new essays that I wanted to write, that I thought might fit together. I wrote five essays that didn’t make it into the book. A few I pulled out myself before I handed the manuscript over to Trinity University Press. One of those essays was over forty pages long. It was intended to be a journey through the mind, really, and through my reading. The idea that the mind is another landscape to travel through. I really loved the essay, but came to realize that it was just too much for a reader to take in. Maybe it was an indulgence on my part, instead of a story for a reader. In the end, the book is for the reader.

CCP: You meet two intriguing travelers on the road in Morocco, performance artists (“Talking Heads meets Vampire Weekend,” you write). Did you ever catch their Neil Diamond-infused performance art in Chicago?

KC: No—And I lied about wanting to see it. I don’t want to see it.

CCP: I must admit, when I first saw you’d written an essay on Venice, I performed a little eye roll. Smartly, you seem to have predicted this reaction with “Ah, Venice Again” and its opening. It turned into one of my favorite essays of the collection, principally, I think, for its playfulness. How did you decide on the fortitude to write about, perhaps, the world’s most idolized city?

KC: I’m pleased to hear about both the eye roll, and your eventual affinity for the essay. I like the essay too, because honestly, nothing much happens in it. And I think a lot of travel is like that. Sometimes you’re just trying to find a place to sleep and eat and do your laundry. And some of my favorite writing is like that too. Looking at the Venice essay now, I see the influence from some of the great Japanese writers of old: Kenko, Sei Shonagon, Basho, and some of the great Chinese poets, like Li Po. Maybe that’s the Byzantine influence, you know, east meets west in Venice with, for example, the Basilica of Saint Mark. Perhaps Venice itself has influenced the essay’s character. Regardless, I wanted to make an essay that was lovely to look at, but didn’t necessarily do anything. And then make it readable.

It’s very romantic to tell people you were in Venice or in some other place fabulous place. But in the end, those places are romantic because they are unfamiliar. But only unfamiliar to you. Not to the people who live there. The familiar is supposed to be dull, and the unfamiliar is supposed to be exotic and interesting. And Venice is exotic and interesting. How anyone could live a normal life there is beyond me. It’s such a fantasyland. An E ticket sort of place. And yet, it’s also the dullest place, precisely because real people don’t live there anymore, not really. It’s all tourists. So perhaps it’s unfamiliar to everyone. In writing the essay, I guess I wondered if walking around Venice was enough to hold an essay together, that and encounters with a few interesting people. The gondolier is a fabulous character, and I loved writing him. It was pure pleasure.

CCP: Do you consider yourself an eco-essayist, an environmental writer? What do those terms mean for you?

KC: I used to imagine myself as an environmental writer. I read and read and read the science and the great science writers like Bill McKibben and David Quammen. But you know, I came to realize that as a writer I’m in love with language, and with the essay form, and all its variability. I came to understand that I wanted to be writing the essay, as opposed to magazine features. I love science and environmental writing and research. I love the big ideas that come out of science, but working on the data to arrive at those ideas is, frankly, beyond me. So I read science and use science in my work, but I can’t really call myself an environmental writer. I’m certainly an environmentally conscious and aware person. I’m an environmentalist. But as a writer, I’m more a travel writer, an essay writer, perhaps more generally, a nonfiction writer. Still, I don’t think about these titles or labels really at all. I just write.

CCP: A line in “Buying a Rug” intrigued me: “If you travel innocently at first, even blindly, the traveling will change that, because it is only by traveling that you can awaken.” What does it mean to be experienced with traveling?

KC: Here I mean that stepping out into an unfamiliar place or an unfamiliar situation is a path to greater clarity. You can see better from out there. Or at least I can. Some people have little interest in going out there, and that’s fine. It is scary sometimes. And it can be dangerous too. But the reward of clarity is worth it, I think. And when you step out, you are not instantly struck by clarity. You struggle and want to give up and go home, because you feel uncomfortable. Or exposed. Naked. Clarity comes only after you’ve pushed through these uncomfortable feelings, these barriers. So a kind of awakening does come out of a former state of innocence. It’s the shift of the change from one state to another that is intoxicating.

The harder project, I think, is for an experienced traveler to travel. When I was younger, I just launched into stuff innocently. I didn’t know enough to wonder if I should go or not. I just went. Now I can trick myself into thinking that I already know what I might learn when I travel, and so talk myself into staying home. So this is a new kind of barrier to push through. And as I get older, it’s a barrier that seems more difficult to push through. It requires constant vigilance. The moment I step out the door, I feel better. I say: oh yeah. I forgot about all this.

CCP: In “Into the Hornstrandir,” you write, “The real journey, I think, is not in feats of derring-do, but in paying attention to a place, to the outward details… and to the inward details.” Why do you think so many of us forget this, get this backwards?

KC: I think the split here is between the travelers or adventurers who write, and the writers who travel. There are some very adventurous and “accomplished,” if I can even use that word, travelers, and they want to tell people about their trips, and maybe even find a way to fund their trips. But they’d really rather be out adventuring. Jumping off high places and throwing themselves into class five whitewater. I’ve done a little of that, but I’m really a writer at my center. Writers are interested in stories, and stories can arise from travel. So, travel. If you read on in the essay you are referencing, it points out that the greater adventure is writing, not traveling or adventuring, not “accomplishing” an amazing physical feat. Writing takes you inward.

Why do people forget this? I don’t know. Perhaps because we’re human and fallible? Flawed? It’s the writer’s job to remind people of what they already know, that inward search. And writers only get there by writing. Such knowing doesn’t come while traveling. It’s only afterward during a period of reflection through writing that you can come to this or that conclusion.
I think our culture too heralds the dramatic, the feats of derring-do. So we forget that what travel can do is enrich the depth of our experience. Just as writing can. You write yourself down into the deep places, and then write yourself back into the light.

When I heard Dean Potter died on a wingsuit jump, I thought, yeah, there’s a guy who has to jump. He’s an adventurer first, and a writer second, if at all. Writers mostly die in their studies, sharpening their pencils, not in dramatic fashion like Potter. It’s a real tragedy, his death, even as his death is also an expression of his life.

CCP: As you know, I’m quite fond of the title essay in Getting to Grey Owl. How did you get the idea to begin calculating the minutiae of your carbon footprint on a road trip? How did you ever get the idea that this might connect with Grey Owl, that Indian faker?

KC: The idea came to me one day when I realized that many of the writers I read are travelers, and they make these immense journeys into remote and distant lands. And these same writers care deeply about our planet, and about humanity, which is why they travel and explore, and then bring those stories to a reading public. I came to a kind of crisis in myself as I began to consider how inspiring these journeys are to me, the journeys of the writers I admire most, and then how costly they are too, especially in carbon. It was a natural move to begin wondering how I would justify the traveling I do. And how to reconcile the fact that I so badly want to do it. And probably will do it. And as a writer I thought I needed to address this issue with readers. And with myself too, of course.

In that essay, I was able to examine the terrifying reality that we can’t escape carbon. We just can’t escape it. Especially in developed countries. Everything humans do and are these days is based on fossil fuels. This is the world we’ve built, and it’s a volatile and temporary world. Most people who are qualified to speak about this issue agree that the fossil fuel binge we’ve been on is coming to an end. And good riddance, I say. But we’re not ready for it. It’s terrifying.