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.
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 trav