Name any place in the world, and chances are that Jeff Biggers has been there. A seasoned writer and traveler, he has journeyed to some of the most exotic places on the map and written about them with great vitality and passion. Biggers is not simply a “travel writer” – that label is far too simple to describe his work. His books, short stories, articles, and radio programs explore the inner life of the places and cultures he has visited by weaving a complex tapestry of historical details, vignettes of daily life, profiles of local people, and geographical discovery.
Biggers has worn many hats in his life. Educated at Hunter College in New York, he earned a B.A. degree in History and English, and pursued additional studies at UC Berkeley, Columbia University, and the University of Arizona. In his 42 years, he has worked in politics, as a community organizer, as a reporter and radio correspondent, and, most recently, an author. His writing has earned him many awards and honors, including an American Book Award, a Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, a Field Foundation Fellowship and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship.
In the last couple of years Biggers has released several books in rapid succession. In 2004 he co-edited an anthology of poetry written by legendary Appalachian poet-activist Don West. Earlier this year he released the highly-acclaimed – The United States of Appalachia – which tells how the culture and history of America was influenced by a series of remarkable, pioneering people from this misunderstood region. On October 16th, his third book, In the Sierra Madre, became available. This piece is a remarkable account of his year spent living and learning amongst the Tarahumara people of the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico.
I recently interviewed Biggers by phone from his home in Illinois, where he resides when he’s not living in his wife’s native Italy. We discussed life in the Sierra Madre, myths about Appalachia, and travel writing.
When did you first become interested in the Tarahumara people?
I was tagging along with my wife who was doing her PhD dissertation in social linguistics. She was heading into the canyons of the Sierra Madre to do research on bi-lingual education programs for indigenous people in Mexico. My main job was to fit in in whatever way I could as an outsider in a traditional lifestyle. I worked as a lumberjack, planted corn, and took part in the rituals of the local community. I saw it as a year off from working, which I had been doing a lot of.
Did you intend to write a book, or did that come naturally out of the experience of living there?
No, it wasn’t really planned. While I was there- amazing stories kept cropping up, both things that I would run across, and the history of other travelers and adventurers. I started by occasionally filing stories with places like Savvy Traveler, and then eventually decided to just write a whole book.
You write a lot in the book about the myriad foreigners, revolutionaries, adventurers and misfits who have been drawn to the Sierra Madre through the years. How do you explain the appeal of the region and its people to outsiders?
It’s a breathtaking, amazing landscape. There are seven canyons, three of which rival the Grand Canyon in terms of their immensity. It is only a day’s drive from the Arizona/New Mexico border. My book also draws on the book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which came out in the 1920’s. In that book, an old prospector named Howard tells of gold that can be found deep in the canyons, amongst the Indians, and then everybody runs off looking for it. That has always attracted Americans and Europeans – the idea of these legendary, mythical, treasure-filled canyons. But also, one of the leitmotifs of my book is about how we spin these incredible stories – then adventurers and travelers go up into these canyons in search of this illusory treasure.
That treasure could mean anything. The great French poet Antonin Artaud went there looking for peyote and some kind of life-altering experience. The great travel writer, Frederick Swotka, went down there in search of cave and cliff dwellers. Everyone goes down there seeking their fortune, and although they don’t necessarily find what they’re looking for, they find an even better story. More importantly, the journey is very transformative in their own lives. I think that is sort of the whole essence of traveling and travel writing. You take this journey and it’s not about the trip itself, but how the trip impacts you and your life.