Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth, by Dan Richards, was published earlier this month by Canongate. Andy Childs reviews.
Most of my favourite ‘travel’ books have been about places that, for one reason or another, I’m never likely to visit. Even though I’ve read, with horrified fascination (twice) Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in The World, I know I’m probably never going to make it to Antarctica — even though it still exerts a strong pull on my imagination. Conversely, Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into The Heart of Borneo has convinced me beyond doubt that I never want to venture into the jungle in Borneo or anywhere else for that matter, even (perhaps especially) if the great O’Hanlon is my travelling companion. Both books are indisputably classics of travel literature born of much suffering and to that exalted genre (but without so much suffering) I would suggest we could also add Dan Richards’ new book Outpost.
Richards has all the attributes of a memorable travel writer. He is learned, inquisitive, fearless, occasionally foolhardy, determined, sensibly self-deprecating, thoughtful and, perhaps, most usefully, possessor of a dry wit and sharp sense of humour. The perfect armchair travelling companion. Outpost is a book of several different journeys, all of them loosely linked by the quest to discover why artists, writers, travellers, mystics and misfits are drawn to the most remote and isolated places on the planet to inspire contemplation and nourish creativity. At the same time the book is also an entreaty for preservation, an eloquent voice to add to the growing clamour to protect those still-pristine places in the world which have so far escaped man’s destructive presence.
Richards’ travels are partly prompted by the presence of the pelvic bone of a polar bear that his explorer father brought back from an expedition to Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean – and which sat like an “alien artifact” in his study, and also by a grainy photograph of Richards’ father Tim and his travelling companions standing in front of a simple wooden shed amidst “moonland cliffs and dunes”. A refuge, shelter and outpost. Such basic buildings – huts, shelters, sheds, cabins, lookouts – exist and are used for a variety of reasons. For instance, in perhaps the book’s most amusing and gruelling chapter, Richards and his more level-headed and remarkably cheerful travelling companion Steve embark on a 100-mile trek through hard Scottish terrain, staying overnight in a succession of bothies (“basic shelters left unlocked for anyone to use”) which, devoid of all of the “controls of the modern age…puts us more intensely in touch with wild country, allows us to negotiate it on the ground and take responsibility for our position”. Likewise the sæluhús (houses of joy) of Iceland, the originals of which date back to Viking times and provide refuge stations for travellers crossing the uninhabited interior of Iceland. Delighted by the idea of cabins “animated by joy”, Richards set out to visit as many as possible with overseer Stefán, whose job it is to tour the sæluhús almost constantly, maintaining them and repairing them when necessary. The weird, otherworldliness of Icelandic culture – founded on ancient myths and folktales, the stories of trolls and huldufólk (elves) and other mysterious creatures that have their own place in the natural world – takes on added significance in these ancient structures located in some of the world’s strangest terrain.
His various adventures provide him with a wide range of travelling companions who help set the tone of the various chapters – some unsuspecting friends for the more light-hearted escapades, some vague aquaintances, and some expert guides and scientists for the more instructive and scientifically interesting trips. Unless you’re gently taking the piss, a la Bill Bryson, it seems that there is often very little humour to be had from solo travelling and Richards is expert at extracting just the right amount of comic relief from his somewhat disingenuous amateurism and from the tension in his relationships with his companions. By and large they tolerate him and and a degree of mutual respect ensues. Another memorable account concerns his pilgrimage to Desolation Peak in Washington State to pay homage to Jack Kerouac and to try and understand why Kerouac went a bit loopy during his sixty-three days alone there as a fire lookout. Richards teams up with old university friend Colin who fortuitously agrees to accompany him on his somewhat hazardous and, it has to be said, ill-prepared journey. And in perhaps the book’s most bizarre chapter, Richards visits the extraordinary Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, where astronauts are preparing for a life on Mars, and is escorted and instructed by the charming Dr.Shannon Rupert, whose expression of fear that if we ever get to Mars we’ll do as much damage there as we’re doing here is as eloquent as it is sobering.
In fact throughout the book Richards is faced with the most pressing socio/environmental dilemma in as much that he visits these faraway places, mostly unspoilt, and he delights in the value that they accrue to the human spirit, but at the same time it’s the very presence of people, people perhaps not so different from him, who will inevitably be the cause of their ruin. As he remarks in Svalbard, “I’d travelled to the end of the world to discover that there are too many of us travelling to the end of the world – I mean, who saw that coming? Completely nonesensically I wanted it all for myself and I wanted it left alone”.
Interestingly as well for a book that has long-distance travel at its core, Richards doesn’t ignore the outposts and places of refuge that are not necessarily located in wild, mountainous landscapes. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts and Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne get a mention, and Richards also visits Roald Dahl’s famous writing hut in his former garden in Great Missenden. The seclusion and lack of distraction that an enclosed, rudimentary work space affords, wherever it’s situated, has proved essential for many a writer. But this is essentially a book about a quest – a mission to experience those places where you can view the world differently, look at yourself and your fellow man differently, look inwards as well as outwards, and connect more profoundly with the natural world – and you can’t really have a quest without the insecurity of travelling into the mental and physical unknown.
As well as being an erudite travel book, Outpost is also an adventure book, revelling in the joy of reaching far-flung destinations and the quiet fulfilment of self-exploration in an isolated environment. It’s funny, wise, and humble even though no amount of technical or historical detail phases Richards; he wears his scholarship lightly and has an enviable knack for incorporating esoteric information into his narrative that neither distracted nor bored this reader. I’m not sure I’d want to endure the stress of actually accompanying him to an austere writers’ retreat in Switzerland, or spend any time traipsing over the bogs and mountains of Scotland, but I was very happy to be his vicarious travelling companion throughout this splendid book.
Dan Richards will be taking to our stage at this year’s Good Life Experience to talk about Outpost. See our full lineup for the festival here.