You join me overlooking an empty Edinburgh crossroads, an indoorsman considering my new neck of the woods. Near-empty buses roll down Dundas Street and shush across the junction in the haar (fog). In this brave mute world – a month of Christmas mornings so far – I watch lone joggers and mothers with children, and wave at good dogs. I write to my friends. I check in by phone. “Yes,” I say, several times a week, “Edinburgh’s very nice. Quiet.”
Two years ago, I spent several months travelling for a book, seeking out solitude and remote locations – strange to think now. I visited wild places on the edge – frozen Soviet ghost towns, Mars missions in the Utah desert, shrines perched high on Japanese mountains – as well as spartan structures whose wildness emanated from within, such as Simon Starling’s metamorphic installation Shedboatshed, the writing “Wendy houses” of Roald Dahl and Tove Jansson, and Roger Deakin’s Suffolk shepherd’s hut.
I’m thinking about these places a lot these days; about the way different people either embraced their outposts or, like Jack Kerouac, went to pieces. Kerouac spent his 63 days as a wildfire spotter crazed and lonely, beset by nightmares of yetis and bears … as well as by actual bears. There are fewer bears in Edinburgh but the cabin fever is still very real.
Here we all are isolating inside, alone together. Parisian writer Sylvain Tesson makes the point in his marvellous book Consolations of the Forest when he’s left alone for six months in a cabin in the middle of the Russian Taiga: “It’s –27° F. The truck has dissolved into the fog. Silence falls from the sky in little white shavings. To be alone is to hear silence … I will finally find out if I have an inner life.”
The closest I came to such boondocks deprivation in my outpost travels was the days I spent helping renovate a bunkhouse in the middle of Iceland’s interior tundra – plumb in the middle of nowhere. The hut, called Hvítárnes, was built in 1930 and sits on the shore of a frozen lake facing Iceland’s second-largest glacier. Such cabins are called sæluhús in Iceland – houses of joy – and it’s easy to see why when one pictures the ancient Norse people sighting such a shelter after a long day’s slog.
Originally built as way stations along ancient roads, they are used today by people exploring this country’s uncanny beauty. Rebuilt and reimagined over the centuries, sæluhús now range in form from rudimentary rock-and-turf igloos to solid chalets with plumbing and stoves.
I travelled to Hvítárnes with two carpenters, Stefán and Atli, to fix up the building for future hikers. As we drove towards the glacier’s huge white maw, the sæluhús emerged from the grass and marsh: red roof, green gables, white sides banked with turf. A little cabin sitting up, hugging its knees. “So, you know this place we are going is a very haunted house,” Stefán announced. “Oh yes?” I replied. Atli met my eye in the rearview mirror. “Oh yes!” he said. “Oh yes.”
It turned out Hvítárnes is one of the most haunted buildings in Iceland – a title for which there’s a lot of competition in a country steeped in fantastic tales and the supernatural. I was furnished with copious tales of spectral encounters – ghostly women haunting sleepers in the “bad bed”, doors slamming, heavy footsteps in the attic; or walkers approaching a well-lit cabin full of life but opening the front door to find the inside freezing, dark and silent. Imagine walking all day and reaching, at dusk, the only man-made structure on a vast permafrosted plateau to find your bothy beset by poltergeists. It would be… upsetting.
But there was no sign of malevolence for the first week, and work to replace rotten planking and posts went well. In 24-hour daylight we hammered and dug, wrapped up against the wind, tiny figures in a leopard-print prairie. And we all slept well in our cosy cots … Until the time Stefán had “a long night with the ghost” – an Inception-style series of dreams within dreams, none of them good. “I’m part-troll so I can deal with it,” he told me next morning with a wry smile, but he looked knackered, like a man who’d fought his way out of a supernatural tumble dryer.
If ever I awake after bad dreams now, I think of Stefán’s matter-of-fact “I’m part troll” mantra, because I think it’s true that being at peace with oneself is important for any traveller who wishes to explore the unknown. So often wild places reveal us to ourselves – how we are, whether we’re happy in our own skin. If only Kerouac had possessed Stefán’s stoicism, faced with the great beyond. So often, to paraphrase early conservationist John Muir, going out is really going in. In these locked-down times, many may be longing for company, noise and bustle, but solitude still enthrals me; just as much as wilderness, I think it’s a great teacher.
• Dan Richards is author of Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (Canongate, £9.99)