An Inside Passage (River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize)
by Kurt Caswell
Kurt Caswell’s An Inside Passage manages to express at once a longing for home and a craving for movement, an earnest spiritual search with a self-aware skepticism. Caswell offers brief anecdotes of various trips to far-flung lands – Japan, India, the Philippines, Alaska, Death Valley – that reflect deeply on each place and have, appropriately for his reflective purpose, none of the self-satisfied ambition or strutting adventurousness of a typical memoir essay or travelogue.
Caswell begins this slim volume in his ostensible home, unpacking boxes in a new rental with his new wife. He reads his surroundings, as he does wherever he goes, evoking the history of each place and all that it signifies with and without him. He offers at once acute descriptions and private reflections, building the sort of rapport with his reader that he might build with a fellow traveler: quickly intimate but not reliant on comprehensive personal detail. “The walls are peppered with other people’s pounded nails inside the sun-faded outlines of former pictures,” he writes. “I get my hammer and, one by one, jack the nails out.”
Ripping out the nails is his most forceful and hopeful attempt at making a home – after this initial chapter, he finds it more difficult to do. He travels to places that are meant to have deep resonance for those who belong, but where he only passes through, reflecting on poets and scholars who have written in a worshipful way of movement and homecoming. In Japan, he tells of a friend, whose long memory recalls the “days these woods were alive with spirits.” He confronts the dead, who have reached, in one way or another, a final place. A man who hanged himself from a tree leaves his weight there “forever, in that place and time.”
At a Navajo reservation, Caswell reflects on tombstones and relics that the Indians leave untouched, so as not to upset the dead. “I wasn’t really afraid of ghosts, at least I told myself so,” he writes, “but perhaps to dig deeper was to violate the spirit of the place?” He finds skeletons bleached by sun and road kill (some of it snuffed by his own car). And, most movingly, he considers the brutal car accident death of a student who survived a hard life. He repeats, at different points, the words of her school counselor, who claimed “she was too pure, too fragile for this world.”
Like her, perhaps, Caswell seems ultimately homeless everywhere, which gives his reflections a depth and poignancy. His marriage – another sort of home – unravels over a couple chapters, starting in a foreign hotel on New Year’s Eve, 2000, a most alien time and place. In Wyoming, they tussle over why exactly they’re divorcing, over commonly held objects, before finally filing papers in a gun shop, another unfamiliar place. Between his Wyoming stories, Caswell intersperses tales of his travels to India, where, between bargaining over the price of a Ganges blessing, he reflects on grand and brutal gestures to marriage: the Taj Mahal (also a tomb for king and queen), and the practice of sati, in which a widow, willingly in theory if not in practice, lies on her husband’s funeral pyre and burns with him.
In the final chapters, Caswell makes his most deliberate attempts at finding home, first by vision quest in the Mojave (which he treats with some skepticism and self-deprecation), then by taking a boat he traveled on as a baby to Alaska, where he was born. Both are fruitful, in their ways, in reconciling Caswell to a more changeable notion of home, and to the momentousness and beauty of brief kinship to places and people.
Excerpt: Every summer I led backpacking trips as part of our wilderness program, a program that insisted that a balance of community and solitude against the blank slate of nature would help to move these young people beyond their private dramas and at the same time foster a personal environmental ethic. I had grown up in rural Oregon and spent my boyhood romping through the wild Cascades. I seemed to have turned out all right, so mostly I believed in the school’s philosophy of the healing power of nature. But I was also a bit of a skeptic. Easy to feel holy when you’re out in the woods and scared to death of things that go bump in the night, but upon reentry into the seduction of American voluptuousness I held little hope for most of them.
Further Reading: The Songlines and In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation.