Review: Outpost

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Outpost by Dan Richards (Canongate)

I first saw this book go by in a picture on Twitter, the striking red roof of the little bothy dwarfed by the moor and mountains surrounding it. That, I thought, is a book I need to read. It hasn’t disappointed – in fact I think it’s one of the best travel books I’ve read in a long time. It’s much more than the ‘I went here, it was amazing” travelogue (though, yes, there is that, and now I’m consumed by a desire to visit remote Japanese temples I didn’t know lay within me). This is a book about the whole idea of travel to the remote, almost unspoiled, places – the wild  ends of the earth.

Dan Richards comes from a family of travellers – a mountaineering  great, great Aunt and Uncle, whose footsteps he followed in Climbing Days, and his father, Tim, who’s souvenir of a polar bear’s pelvis found on an Arctic expedition enthralled him as a boy and still does. The book, and Dan’s travels to the remote outposts of the earth, start and end in Svalbard.

The pelvis was full of story, To hold it was to think of Tim as a young man in that great white silence […] and feel my imagination expand.

Over the course of the journeys described in this book, Dan Richards probes the need for humans to get to the “outposts”; places which are remote from the rest, but where humans construct a place to stay; a hut in the Arctic, a bothy, a firewatch post above the forest, a Mars base to practice in, before we actually go to Mars.  Places which do indeed make our imaginations expand – as I think reading this book does too. Richards also visits ‘outposts’ which are not geographically remote at all – Roald Dahl’s writers hut in Great Missenden, Roger Deakin’s in Norfolk – places you can get to easily, but where you can make yourself remote from the noise of the everyday. I think this need to go to outposts – far or near –  demonstrates not only the nomad in us all, but also that we need silence, to just be in a place, have time to think and ponder, while doing the routine things you do in that place with no distractions.

Dan Richard’s writing is informed and thoughtful, self-deprecating and often extremely funny – he often travels with a friend, and a lot of the humour in this book (I laughed out loud sometimes, my fellow bus passengers giving me funny looks) comes from these relationships. On the trip to Desolation Peak he’s accompanied by Colin, who suffers from nightmares and sometimes wakes up screaming – how will that go in a tent in bear country, our author wonders. The hike across Rannoch Moor with Steve begins with a massive hangover acquired on the sleeper from Euston – that wait for the train in the pub always seems a good plan, and the tiny bottles of “toy wine” do still have alcohol in them (yes, I may have done a similar thing). Dan and Steve’s relationship is one of bickering comradeship familiar to anyone who’s spent HOURS, kind of lost, hiking in the rain, wet to the skin. Later, in Japan, how do you stop a mountain guide making you sing rather tedious call and response as you walk? Ask him about his mountain, he will tell you at length…but you’ll be rumbled by the little boy hiking with you.

Dan and Colin’s journey to Desolation Peak fire lookout is influenced by Jack Kerouack’s time as a fire watcher. Looking for some Zen silence and time to himself, Kerouac couldn’t hack it and went a bit crackers after only two weeks on his own up there. The outpost won’t suit everyone, however it does suit many, and the people we meet (there are a lot of people in this book, despite the remote destinations)  are compelling characters.

These are people with huge respect and love for the place they’re in, they are part of it, not apart from it. This really comes across in the reported conversations (Dan Richards seems to have that easy connection with people I see in Michael Palin,s, and recently Sue Perkin’s, travel programmes). We meet Jim Henterly in his cabin on stilts watching for fires, for all his remoteness he’s an important node in communications in the Washington State wilderness. Dr Shannon Rupert in the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, clearing plastic bottles off the desert after visitors have left; Stefan Jokull Jakobsen in Iceland, looking after the Saeluhus hut network, which have experienced a huge influx of tourists since a guidebook about the Laugavegur trail was published. These once utilitarian bunkhouses, fragile structures some of them, now surrounded by huge  waste generating campsites. The question of whether we should continue to visit these places haunts this book – it  properly manifests itself in the final chapter, wen we find ourselves back in Svalbard at Longyearbyen, and travelling by snowmobile to the ghost Russian mining town Pyramiden, the furthest point north reached in this book.

As the expedition party whizzes through the frozen landscape on whining diesel snowmobiles the writer considers, should we really be doing this? The polar bears are drowning, the guide tells him, while trying to swim to sea ice which is no longer there. Richards dwells on this (as should we all, it’s Very Bad) and is annoyed by other snowmobilers; the noise you can hear from a mile off, the “pristine wilderness” chopped up by tracks. But he was doing exactly the same thing, “completely nonsensically I wanted it all for myself and I wanted it left alone”. This articulates the anxieties I too feel about visiting practically anywhere these days – I want to go and see amazing places, but in doing so I’m part of the problem.

How should we address this then? Richards suggests that the question is not if but how we travel “what is the point of racing through a longed-for landscape if the means of travel renders it a blur?”. The last journey of the book – again through the Arctic landscape – is by dog sled rather than skidoo. The sled is low, there is no noise apart from the dogs, shush of runners and harness jingle, Dan feels immersed in the landscape (I feel mainly envy because dog sledding is an ambition of mine). I agree – we need to slow down. Ramble not race, look around us and take it in. We can – Dan Richards suggests –  probably find ‘remoteness’ right where we are, right now, just by switching off our phones for a while.

Finally, Outpost ticks off pretty much all of my favourite book design things; big margins and nicely spaced lines, footnotes, lovely endpaper maps. There’s a select bibliography too, which I shall be mining for reading matter for quite a while.


Twin Falls, WA

A little personal note – You know a piece of travel writing has really got in amongst you when you have to go and seek out the pictures you took in the same area ten years ago – buried, modernly, deep in a virtual shoebox on a server rather than in an actual shoebox in the loft. Dan Richard’s chapter on Desolation Peak WA left me positively pining for The Cascades, that  magnificent, watery, rocky green and grey landscape, with its frisson of spookiness lent by association with Twin Peaks. We didn’t hike up Desolation Peak, or hear a bear,  but the rest of it – the lakes, the RAIN, Twin Falls and Snoqualmie…it was like I was back there again.

Outpost was published by Canongate on 4th April 2019, thank you to Katie Huckstep at Canongate for sending me a copy.

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