Getting to Grey Owl by Kurt Caswell
Trinity University Press, 2015; 230 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
If you’re writing a travel memoir as I am and looking for models, the spectacle of white men traipsing through brown-skinned countries, jet-setting, complaining of orphans, burning metric tones of fossil fuels on the way, and somehow maintaining an aloof, angelic impartiality, can, at times, seem beyond the pale. As does some travel writers’ pithy advice that aspiring essayists should, “Simply drop what they're doing and get on the plane.” As if all the only obstacle in our budding careers has been a lack of gumption to take on the energy-intensive privilege whose cultural ramifications are uncertain at best.
Yet, as Kurt Caswell points out in his new book, “If you travel innocently at first, even blindly, the traveling will change that, because it is only by traveling that you can awaken.” Traveling outside of personalized borders provides a way to examine ourselves in relationship to what’s around. What’s above ground and below. Writers who want to wake audiences must first rouse themselves.
I’ve read several dozen travel narratives in search of a writer model, and so far one of the best I’ve found is Kurt Caswell’s In the Sun’s House, his frank, direct, and searching memoir of a year spent teaching on the Navajo Reservation. Caswell’s 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 book contest. As Grey Owl’s subtitle suggests, the book is a series of travel essays which span three decades.
In the first essay, “A River in Hokkaido,” Caswell writes about hanging upside down from a whitewater canoe, mid-river, with a diving mask looking at salmon. He pens, “how terrifyingly good we are at getting into places we really don’t belong.” The line sends a shock through the essay, the book, and, perhaps, Caswell’s body of work. He is a white traveler preoccupied with the discourse of where is home and the problems of finding self in other places, cultures, and times, an ongoing struggle with self-definition among otherness.
In the stunning title essay, Caswell calculates the minutiae of his carbon footprint on a road trip to Canada to see the cabin of the great Indian faker, Grey Owl. The culmination of the paragraphs and paragraphs of calculations can send the reader into an almost Zen-like trance of irritation, but the work points up the complexity of travel, of human beings jettisoning themselves to other parts of the world (and the complexity of Grey Owl’s Indian-faking). The essay is in stark contrast to the other globe trotters who parachute into jungles, war zones and polar circles as if they were gathering the morning paper. Caswell asks, what is the cost, culturally, climatologically, of travel, of our pretending it doesn’t matter, and what are we gaining by in return?
Caswell doesn’t stop traveling, but does, refreshingly, take stock of the journeys that get him to his sexy(ish) destinations. Elsewhere, Caswell gets hoodwinked into buying a rug in Morocco, he climbs some mountains in the UK, and navigates Iceland by foot. His essay on Venice might first cause an eye roll, but Caswell’s often somber, serious tone morphs to a self-deprecating goofball as we experience the playful reality of, perhaps, the world’s most over-imagined city.
The upshot is this, “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.” There is a hint that this inward searching can be done from the confines of one’s cityscape or padded room so long as one is searching, self-analyzing, and doesn’t ignore the tiny facts of existence that construct something gargantuan like climate change. Caswell’s passport is a privilege that he takes seriously.