By Sarah Woods
MOST TRAVEL WRITERS harbor a secret hope they will uncover something special as they voyage. But many never do. It’s rare to make a discovery in this world. To trail-blaze. To set the world alight; to reveal something new. We travel writers notice stuff, sure, and write it down for the enjoyment of others; most of us end wrapping rather ordinary experience up in ribbons to make it appear more extraordinary than it was.
Kurt Caswell’s Getting to Grey Owl isn’t a standard travel book — far from it. While some pieces are easier reads than others (you’d expect as much from a collection spanning two decades), Caswell writes vividly throughout, with humor and pathos (we learn early on that he has loved and lost), and not just about beautiful vistas or exotic locales; booze joints, bunk beds, and back alleys all have their place. Caswell, who teaches literature and creative writing in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, begins his travels in Japan in 1992 and ends them with a trip to Iceland in 2013 — in between, over the course of two decades, he visits more than a dozen countries on four different continents. Always, he’s as interested in the people as he is in place.
For example, on a river trip in China, boarding at Guilin and disembarking at Yangshuo, Caswell admits to being utterly beguiled by the exotic rosebud lips and coarse black hair of Chinese women. It is also in China, and in the same essay, that Caswell fails to cotton on to the hard-sell advances of a sexually savvy masseuse keen to deliver a “reaaaally goooood ma—ssage.” He fleetingly considers accepting the offer; and is later troubled, wondering why he did not.
While in Italy, Caswell goes to Venice, which he explores without a map (as I do). He is a rather reluctant tourist; still, Caswell can’t help but succumb to the lure of a gondola ride (again, like me.) He also spends lots of money sipping outrageously over-priced coffee (and I’m heartened by this, too.)
Caswell’s travels in Spain hark back, briefly, to the days of Hemingway. In Seville, he decides to attend a bullfight; it’s all rather sad and bloody. He’d ignored the advice of a barman (a pre-fight nerve-steadier is the order of day), and neglected to pack a bag “to vomit in,” because “it’s disgusting,” he writes. As the bull enters the ring he finds himself cheering, then quickly realizes the event is not a contest. “It’s a tragedy,” he writes, and as he observes the bull’s bloody demise, he reflects on man’s 20,000-year relationship with the animal to ponder why the custom continues.
He doesn’t tell us that Spain’s fondness for bullfighting is on the wane. Although Spain’s parliament awarded bullfighting national cultural heritage status in 2014, a 2013 poll showed that 75 percent of Spaniards have not attended a bullfight in the past five years, and that only 29 percent support it. Still, for Caswell, this is mainly an episode of gore, guts, and gloom, not about culture.
Another story centers on ascending four small mountains in the UK and Ireland: Mount Snowdon in Wales at 1085 meters, Ireland’s Mount Carrantuohill at 1039 meters, Ben Nevis in Scotland at 1,344 meters and Scafell Pike at 978 meters. Caswell must have a strong stomach, because Scafell Pike isn’t just England’s highest mountain; it is home to one of the nation’s highest makeshift toilets. I pulled myself up to the summit, red-faced and weary, only to be greeted by the nauseating stench of human waste. Could it be that Caswell didn’t notice? Or had the shocking amounts of litter and excrement been cleared away after my ascent? He briefly remembers another great climb, up the steep winding trail that leads to the top of 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the second-highest waterfall in America, and its sublime vista. But back on Scafell Pike, Caswell can see little through the drizzle, which lends his essay a Wordsworthian air. And when anxiety strikes, Caswell, like Wordsworth himself, “wanders lonely as a cloud” feeling lost and bereft. He recognizes nothing familiar. Nothing comforting. No flower, tree, or creature. As he contemplates weeping, I worried for him, but I needn’t have: that same evening he is rescued by a friendly Samaritan, Xiaolin, a radiant Taiwanese.
In Iceland — the land of ice and fire — Caswell writes of fjords, glaciers, low-lying northern sun, treacherous snow paths, and arctic foxes, as well as his relationship with Scott Dewing, a friend for over 30 years. Travel is the glue that has cemented their bond. As boys, they were competitive; now Scott is happily married and devoted to family life while Caswell is flying solo after a break up. Scott sometimes yearns for Caswell’s solitude — Caswell often longs for his friend’s family life. Caswell is full of wanderlust, Scott is steady. Caswell has long, thick hair, and Scott’s is thinning. But although each man envies his friend, neither attempts to eclipse the other.
In other tales, Caswell stays closer to home, describing excursions into Anasazi Country, Utah (in four separate trips over 10 years, 1996 – 2006), and the tricky mountain paths of Idaho. However, it is the Scottish town of Inverness that provides Caswell with his most bizarre encounter. As one of the prettiest of Scotland’s seven cities, Inverness sits in the south of the rugged Highlands, on the wide sweeping banks of the fabled River Ness. Crowned by a pink castle that looks like a wedding cake about to topple into the waters below, Inverness is famous for its small historic central core, already a thriving trading port in the 6th century. The town has famously survived Jacobite bombs and ground-shaking tremors, and is now a picturesque gateway to the leaping Atlantic salmon that swim the River Ness. It’s a stone’s throw from Culloden Battlefield, Moray Firth and the boats that cruise down the Caledonian Canal to reach Loch Ness. Yet I don’t learn this from Caswell, because his encounter isn’t with the landscape or its wildlife, but rather with Tia, a transgender hostess whom he meets in a restaurant. Once again, as in China, he is slow on the uptake, assuming that Tia is all woman. She is not.
“She was the most gorgeous creature I’d seen all day, ” he writes.
Shouler-length black hair, kinda ratty and witchy, huge dark eyes like Bambi blinking at that raging forest fire, a long graceful line down the length of her tight black trousers, and the most unexpectedly perfect chest. She spoke in a dark smoker’s voice, which, unbeknownst to me until then, kinda turned me on.
Tia and Caswell share a moment outside in the dark street over a cigarette before bidding each other goodnight. Did they go home together to share a bed, as Tia suggests? Caswell isn’t saying. Curiously, he ends the chapter this way: “And from here, gentle reader, our scene becomes so filled with mist, it’s impossible to know what happened next.”
The final piece in the collection — Caswell’s search for Grey Owl’s Cabin in Saskatchewan — gives the book its title. As with the writer’s other rambles, this quest is fodder for a lyrical and reflective essay executed with whimsy and awe. Caswell’s style serves him well: whether he is on a lung-busting hike in Wales, cruising through mysterious Chinese waters, or bartering for a rug in a Moroccan market, his writings are as much an exploration of his inner as outer landscape. He muses as he meanders, wonders as he wanders — about the meaning of life, of love, of lust, of aging, and of the end itself. But for a man so intensely thoughtful and well-traveled, Caswell seems worryingly naive. It strikes me now that his various unwise encounters add a frisson of adventure to his adventures; adding danger to the dangers. But to stroll in strange cities by dark, to drink too much in iffy bars, to loiter too long in the wrong places seems either reckless or gormless, as if the author simply didn’t notice the potential for harm.
Caswell is distracted in part because he’s anxious about the state of the world and he frets about his carbon footprint. A deep thinker, his unanswered questions about the role of the travel writer and the health of the planet resonate perfectly. Undertaking immense journeys to write about environmental disaster, burning thousands of gallons of jet to bring us news of melting glaciers and the decline of arctic? Caswell can’t help but ask if it wouldn’t be better to stay home. He worries if writing and researching a story on climate change — as he has done — is actually worth its weight in carbon. His conclusion, if I’m not mistaken, is that it is important to justify your travels by ensuring that they make some kind of difference.
Will the story of Caswell’s trip to Grey Owl’s Cabin help to save the earth? No, it will not. His discoveries and revelations are mostly of a personal nature. But will it cause us to relish the idea of wandering? Inspire us to yearn for more wriggle room? To more deeply examine our motives and ourselves? Undoubtedly, yes.
Sarah Woods has travelled for two decades non-stop, circumnavigating the globe in several directions and clocking up over 620,000 miles along the way. She has traveled all the continents and navigated many of the world’s most iconic landscapes. She is a veteran of jungle treks and wildlife conservation expeditions and an early pioneer of Giving Something Back and responsible travel. Now based in the UK, Sarah is a regular travel expert/contributor to daytime TV and BBC radio, and she has written extensively for more than 70 magazines worldwide, including National Geographic, Wanderlust, BBC Wildlife, Wild Travel, and Traveller. She works closely with Europe’s biggest wildlife conservation charity, the RSPB, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and the International Travel Alliance.