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A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth
There are still wild places out there on our crowded planet. Through a series of personal journeys, Dan Richards explores the appeal of far-flung outposts in mountains, tundra, forests, oceans and deserts. These are landscapes that speak of deep time, whose scale can knock us down to size. Their untamed nature is part of their beauty and such places have long drawn the adventurous, the spiritual and the artistic.
For those who go in search of the silence, isolation and adventure of wilderness it is - perhaps ironically - to man-made shelters that they often need to head; to bothies, bivouacs, camps and sheds. Part of the allure of such refuges is their simplicity: enough architecture to keep the weather at bay but not so much as to distract from the natural world.
Following a route from the Cairngorms of Scotland to the fire-watch lookouts of Washington State, from Iceland's 'Houses of Joy' to the Utah desert; frozen ghost towns in Svalbard to shrines in Japan; Roald Dahl's Metro-land writing hut to a lighthouse in the North Atlantic, Richards explores landscapes which have inspired writers, artists and musicians, and asks: why are we drawn to wilderness? What can we do to protect them? And what does the future hold for outposts on the edge?
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What Reviewers Are Saying
Within pages of beginning Outpost by Dan Richards I realised that it was an extremely rare thing… a book that both my husband and I would equally enjoy! It is a catalogue of exploration from mountain to desert. Tick from my expedition loving husband. The narration of this exploration is an affectingly poetic prose which is often exceptionally funny. Tick from me. Dan's choices of location are all based around the human desire for solitude. Tick from my hermit inclined husband. Each place is littered with references bursting in human interest and literary story telling. Tick from me.
What ties this book together are the ‘outpost’ buildings, with several locations targeted from Washington to Japan to Svalbard. However, journeys are just as important as the buildings themselves. And crikey, Dan’s journeys are funny: genuinely laugh out loud tickling. I’m sure I’m not alone in loving those who are bumbling, ill-equipped and winging-it. It’s the joy of seeing an underdog succeed - especially if that underdog is soaked to the skin and horribly hungover! The prose offers more than just belly laughs, though. It’s full of reflective musings that struck a very real chord with me.
As we journey with Dan to arrive at each building, he explores different meanings of refuge; different reasons for solitude. From literary seclusion to seek self reflection at Desolation Peak to a more scientific acclimatisation in Utah, there are myriad reasons for solitude. Of course, it is impossible to achieve true solitude without journeying far beyond ‘the main army’ (as Dan’s musings on the meaning of the word ‘outpost’ clarifies). Clearly, it is the journey that gives the destination its significance. Much like the path of the book as a whole, with its final destination that of the beginning: Svalbard.
The outposts couldn’t survive without the people who facilitate their upkeep. And Dan gets deep into the human stories of those people who exist around the buildings. They’re just as fascinating as the buildings and landscapes themselves. From Japanese mountain guide to lighthouse keeper, I understood so much more about each place by learning about these people. “Story spurs us on, helps us stay in the moment and consider the past. It makes us better, human; better humans”. Dan concludes later in the book. He’s quite right, of course.
Amongst those human stories that I find so appealing is Dan’s own story. His desire to go on this voyage of exploration was ignited by the pelvic bone of a polar bear that his father acquired on his inaugural expedition to Svalbard. To Dan’s initial irritation he was not able to visit the ‘shed’ in which his father had resided due to the protection of the area. In contrast to the bone, it is the travails of living polar bears that make Dan question the sustainability of exploration. Again, his eloquent prose touched my heart and my already green inclinations.
So it is that this book tackles the conflict of exploration and environmental damage. There’s a fearful side to the narration of the Mars Desert Research Station outpost in Utah. Visiting groups leave rubbish and disrespect their surroundings. So once humanity has spoilt the earth beyond ruin, will we go ahead and trash our neighbouring planets next? Probably, is the answer - and this brings a sadness to Dan’s writing that I share. The eco message of this book is one often shared amongst those who strive to live sustainably: “go and leave no trace, go and do no harm”.
For an outpost to exist, then, does its presence automatically spoil the scenery that it is best placed to enjoy? Clearly, from the photographs in this book, these buildings are as striking as their surroundings. I’m glad that Dan leaves the photos to the ends of each chapter, allowing his lyrical words to build the image far more vividly. Because it’s all about the words: and like the nooks of this planet that Dan was lucky enough to explore, they’re evocative and perfect.
There's a special magic in Richards' luminous descriptions of nature and place, but also in the stories he tells . . . Richards has penned a thoughtful and beautifully written meditation on our quest to find spaces in which we can find something unexpected in ourselves and forge a new relationship with the natural world * * Guardian * * Richards' prose is by turns beautiful, funny, evocative and learned, the pages illuminated by lovely, warming footnotes . . . [Richards' voice is] vivid, self-deprecating, literary and very, very funny * * Observer * * Fascinating and funny * * Financial Times * * Dan Richards is brave, bold, pure of spirit and, on occasion, foolish. In Outpost Dan follows both his father's footsteps and his own heart to explore the furthest possibilities of human habitation, and our interface with a changing wilderness. Intelligent, surreal and always generous, Dan Richards is a Jerome K. Jerome for our set-upon times who bequeaths us that rarest gift - laughter -- KATHARINE NORBURY, author of The Fish Ladder This book will be equally at home in the library of the armchair traveller and the kitbag of the weather-beaten nomad - Dan Richards has created an atlas of adventure for every reader possessed of an intrepid imagination -- NANCY CAMPBELL, author of The Library of Ice Dan Richards is that rare thing, a writer whose way of looking at the world is utterly unique. His new book, Outpost, is shot through with a sense of wonder, an infectious enthusiasm and a surreal wit. Pure joy -- RUPERT THOMSON An incredible book, beautifully written, wild and wickedly funny -- PHILIP HOARE 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 . . . 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 . . . splendid * * Caught by the River * * A melancholic exploration of the increasing impossibility of escape -- STANLEY DONWOOD He writes in a lyrical way that also has an impish humour . . . Cracking stuff and one for anyone who likes well-written travel writing * * NB magazine * *