The Last Empty Places

Peter Stark has been compelled to seek out the “blank spots” of the world — the remote and wild places. His travels and assignments have taken him to Tibet, Manchuria, Greenland, Antarctica, Afghanistan, Iceland, Irian Jaya, the Sahara Desert, and by kayak down the unexplored Lugenda River of Mozambique, a country where he and his family lived for a year.

But, until recently, he’d never really explored the “blank spots” of his own country. He assumed America was too developed – blanketed with roads, farmers’ fields, subdivisions, shopping malls, parking lots, and the sprawling cities themselves.

“You could pick up any road atlas,” he writes, “and see the vast highway system thrown like a giant fishnet over the entire United States.”

Yet Stark had also flown over much of the country and had seen from airplane windows what appeared to be vast, roadless stretches in the West and also in parts of the East – miles upon miles of mountains or forests or badlands that, from thirty-thousand feet in the air, looked largely untracked.

“What was down there?” he wondered.

With the help of a satellite geographer who suggested he get NASA satellite photos of the “Earth at Night” and identify the darkest spots in the U.S., Stark set off on his quest.

In his book, The Last Empty Places: A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map (Ballantine Books, 2010), Stark takes the reader to four of the most remote, wild and unpopulated areas of the United States outside of Alaska – to the rivers and forests of Northern Maine, to rugged, unpopulated Western Pennsylvania that lies only a short distance from the big cities of the East, to the haunting canyons of Central New Mexico, and to the vast arid basins of Southeast Oregon.

Stark discovers that in the past, some of these were not “blank spots” at all but were alive with vibrant, teeming communities. He also finds that each has played an important role in shaping our American idea of wilderness through the influential “natural philosophers” who visited these four regions regions and wrote about their experiences – Henry David Thoreau, John and William Bartram, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

“The clearest way into the Universe,” Stark quotes John Muir, explaining the allure, “is through a forest wilderness.”

Critical Praise for The Last Empty Places:

“an engaging, informative travelogue that combines first-person accounts of driving, rafting and backpacking trips with concise histories of, for instance, the French and Indian Wars and William Bartram’s travels through the Southeast. Stark took his family on a canoe trip in northern Maine and uses it as a jumping-off point to explore how Thoreau developed his ideas not only at Walden Pond but also on a memorable trip to Mount Katahdin.” — The Portland Oregonian 

“…intriguing, both a solid refresher on our savage colonial history and a smart rumination on what it means to get lost.” — Outside Magazine

The Last Empty Places reviewed at