I first became aware of Chris Townsend as the equipment reviewer for TGO (The Great Outdoors) magazine, telling me which boots were badly made, which stoves are useless in a moderate breeze, or which tents are easiest to pack-away in a storm! There was usually a little thumbnail picture of his face alongside the review, and I think I may have actually seen him on a hill near Ullapool once, over a decade ago. Without any doubt I once saw Cameron McNeish (who contributes a forward to this volume) filling his car up at the Auchenkilns service station north of Glasgow, many, many years ago before the road was upgraded. I was going to say hello, but he was in a hurry, with his head down - and didn't look especially approachable! So, when I was given a copy of Townsend's Out There for Christmas, I was aware of him, but had no idea what the book would be like. It turned out to be an unusual and rather lovely book, quite unlike any other outdoor book I have read.
Out There, is not a route book, it's not a technical how-to book, it's not a macho 'conquer the wild' survival guide, or even an endurance and survival memoir - it doesn't fit into any of those well-rehearsed genres of outdoor writing. Rather uniquely Out There, is a series of essays about different aspects of the wild environment, the value of it, being in it, the sensations it produces, great past writing about it, pioneers of it's exploration and preservation, of walks, camps and backpacks up small hills and across vast continents. Although what I am about to write sounds as if the book is dreadfully cliched and cheesy, Out There reads less like an outdoor manual, and more like a series of love-letters and eulogies to wild country. Townsend just loves wild land, in fact he seems to like it the more wild and unaffected by humanity he can get it. The book isn't romantic in the sense of a romantic poet gushing over the countryside in mystical whimsy; rather every paragraph of this delightful book is simply pulsing with Townsends love of the outdoors. His writing I found especially moving was were his descriptions of places I have seen, especially those in the Scottish Highlands which he has explored extensively; and where I have had many, many wonderful days.
Although this is about North America, this is how he remembers a night under the stars:
"On the first few days, I was captivated by the way the rocks changed colour with the passing of the hours - black, dark grey, deep red, gold, pale yellow, cream then darkening back to black - and the way shafts of sunlight lit up the shaggy red bark of an incense cedar, the way the creeks sparkled as they slid over speckled ganite" (p125)
This passion comes through whether Townsend is writing about long-distance paths like the Cape Wrath Trail, of encounters with wolves or bears, of battling the elements in the Arctic, or camping in a gentle woodland. I have to confess that some of Townsend's exploits are beyond those that most of us could ever contemplate; either in terms fitness, time or cost. Not many people get to walk the length of America - even if they were so inclined. It is tempting to think about such schemes, and to look at maps of the Pacific Crest Trail - only to be brought back to the sober reality, that my last attempt to climb a modest Corbett were stymied by the need to pick kids up from school!
This is just a wonderful read for anyone who loves the outdoors. My most regular walk is a circuit of little Kinnoull Hill in Perth - at the other end of the spectrum to Townsend's huge achievements. But for a modest hill plodder like myself, there is so much in this book which is inspiring. Happily, the book avoids being diverted into other discussions - particularly politics, which add an unwelcome tension to some hill writers works. This is about Townsend's love of the wild, and little else. The best chapters are those in which he writes about the benefits of the wild, how to appreciate them most, and of his appreciation of it. The less interesting are those at the end which tend to be more straightforward memoirs of places, and trips; although those these too are good reads.
The book describes Townsend as amongst other things a photographer - and so I was a little disappointed that there were no photos in the book. I found that reading the book with a Google image search to hand was enjoyable, as the vast majority of places he describes, have been photographed by others. I subsequently discovered that he has his own website, http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/ which does contain some images.
Townsend quotes John Muir - something of a hero in the book; who wrote:
"Everyboody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike." (p149)
It is early March, and the rain is currently lashing the roof slates on my house, which makes my study tucked in the very top of the building, rattle and vibrate. In fact, it sounds not unlike some of Townsend's descriptions of wild nights under canvass! I have been on 'parent duty' all day - which isn't something I begrudge by the way; but with Out There, open on my desk; I am itching to get my boots back on, feel a pack on my back, and see the hills again. I need beauty as well as bread.