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