John Haines was an adventure seeker from a young age. He biked through Tibet, kayaked the Niger River, and rode the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to East Berlin. His new memoir, Never Leaving Laramie (2020, OSU Press) weaves his travel stories with his philosophy of travel.
John talked with Rose City Reader about his travels, his work, and Never Leaving Laramie:
What lead you to write your memoir, Never Leaving Laramie?
I had time and a box of writing from over the years, usually for magazines, and detailed journals. Writing became another form of adventure, stringing stories into a thread for a book. I refer to the book as an "essayistic memoir" blending travel, culture, history and landscapes, mostly in places in transition, as I was.
Of all the trips you describe in your book, what was your favorite?
My favorite trip is always the next one. Beyond iconic places – The Potala Palace in Lhasa or the Great Mosque in Timbuktu – I value simple but durable moments: waking to dawn light in the Himalayas; sea kayaking on calm water off the coast of Hvar in Croatia after working in a war zone in Bosnia; walking alone on snow in a medieval Czech village remarkably undamaged by wars; and eating fish with water lily bulbs shared by the Bozo, a semi-nomadic fishing people in the Inland Delta of the Niger River in Mali.
You write about how growing up in the rural community of Laramie, Wyoming shaped your worldview. Can you explain a little about that?
Laramie is home to the only university in Wyoming, which gives it a continual cycle of student energy. It is surrounded by open space that begins on the edge of town and extends forever into the prairie, creeks and rivers, and mountains on the far edge of the high plains. The landscape serves as an escape for kids and eventually, inevitably, as a launchpad for wanderers into a wider world.
You had some amazing travel adventures and patched together a career around your travels before you went to work at Mercy Corps. Can you tell us about that transition?
I first heard about Mercy Corps when I was working in Central Europe and in Bosnia, and admired their predisposition for action and innovation. After helping to start an environmental bank in Portland, I joined Mercy Corps in 2002 to direct their domestic work. While there I worked on this idea to allow low-income people to invest in commercial real estate in their neighborhoods. In 2014 we formed the Community Investment Trust, a national project for Mercy Corps that puts real estate ownership into the hands of the BIPOC community, renters and first-time investors.
Who is the audience for your book?
People who are curious and have a taste for adventure, however large or small. I hope any reader will find something fresh in the stories of places in transition – from East Berlin to Bosnia, Tibet to Guinea – where the book moves. Themes of risk with beauty, pain, persistence and possibility flow through the book much as various rivers around the globe carry the stories.
In general, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope people have fun and relate to the elasticity of time and place that blends home with travel in the world.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I can write watching sports while drinking a beer, but I edit in quiet with coffee.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I read a range between creative fiction (anything by David Markson, for instance) and history (Michael Oren’s Power, Power, Faith, and Fantasy is amazing). I am currently reading Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson and Analogia by George Dyson, both of which take some time to absorb between chapters. I slip into reading the essays in Horizon, the final book of a favorite of mine, Barry Lopez.
What's next for you? What are you working on now?
I am committed to growing the Community Investment Trust into a national force, building replication from our successful East Portland pilot, to close the racial wealth gap throughout the US. I continue to write essays and am editing short stories I had mothballed.
THANK YOU, JOHN!