I’d been enjoying his sprightly tour of what he calls “outposts” – among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse – and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. He was a cheery and thoughtful leader, a man who could not only weather a storm but summon it powerfully again later: “Every few seconds a cannonade of rubble smashed into the valley’s skip.”
His only serious failing was an addiction to footnotes. In a book that’s largely about pared-down staging posts, places that enable you to reconnect with what’s important, the frequency of the notes, all elaboration and ornamentation, was a distraction. They got in the way of the flow. And I enjoyed the flow.
At some point in the future, I’m pretty sure Dan Richards is going to write a book that I can fall in love with. I enjoyed big chunks of 2016’s Climbing Days... However, while some of the meandering digressions proved intriguing or illuminating, others were simply frustrating, and the book also suffered from questionable editing from the folks at Faber & Faber. Richards’ new book, Outpost, has clearly been properly proofread (kudos to the team at Canongate) and some of the descriptive writing is wonderfully vivid – cinematic even – but, as with Climbing Days, there’s a niggling sense that the author keeps getting distracted from the main thrust of his story, and the intellectual wandering off and ping-ponging around can get so convoluted that you’re left wondering if there is even a main thrust to return to...The chapter on the fire-watching huts of Washington State, and in particular the author’s pilgrimage to the one formerly occupied by Jack Kerouac on Desolation Peak, is brilliantly done: perceptive about Kerouac’s state of mind during his stay and so atmospheric you’ll feel as if you’ve yomped up there yourself.
There’s a special magic in Richards’s luminous descriptions of nature and place, but also in the stories he tells – traveller’s tales of nightmare journeys, literary anecdotes, and encounters with quirky characters (“the further from home I am, the more people seem to tell me things”): “story spurs us on, helps us stay in the moment and consider the past. It makes us better, human; better humans”. From lighthouses to a writers’ retreat in Switzerland (an austere “machine for writing”), 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: “All outposts are lighthouses – sites of illumination.”