- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 17, 2010

THE LAST EMPTY PLACES: A PAST AND PRESENT JOURNEY THROUGH THE BLANK SPOTS ON THE AMERICAN MAP
By Peter Stark
Ballantine, $26
325 pages, illustrated

For as long as he can remember, freelance writer Peter Stark has had an irresistible urge to seek out the world’s remote, unpopulated areas and spend serious time in those places.

His passion has led Mr. Stark to distant Greenland, Manchuria, Africa, Tibet and other exotic realms. About his adventures, he has written well-received books like “Last Breath” and magazine articles for Smithsonian and the New Yorker.

Now, in “The Last Empty Places,” Mr. Stark turns his attention to the U.S. - or at least the lower 48 states. Alaska he excludes because it’s still packed with wilderness.

But do his beloved “empty places” still exist in an increasingly crowded continental United States?

Mr. Stark is happy to find that they do. A friend provides a satellite-generated “Nighttime Map of the United States.” Bright areas are everywhere, indicating the nocturnal illumination of vast urban sprawls. But there are dark areas where few people live, he finds, and from these dark spots, Mr. Stark chooses four to explore and get to know.

For two destinations, a trip down Northern Maine’s St. John River and a hike through central New Mexico’s high desert, Mr. Stark takes along his very nature-loving (and mostly intrepid) family: wife Amy, 10-year-old son Skylar and teenage Molly.

On two of his expeditions, he travels - totally alone - through the remote forest of north-central Pennsylvania and the alkaline desert of eastern Oregon. Mr. Stark divides his book into four parts, each devoted to one of his chosen “empty spots.”

Between vivid narratives describing the hazards of wilderness travel - the relentless biting insects of Maine, for instance, overcome any amount of “bug dope” with which the Starks douse themselves - Mr. Stark skillfully interlaces local history and discussions of America’s great naturalists. The mix makes for pleasant, informative reading.

It is important to note that by “empty spaces” Mr. Stark does not mean tourist-frequented parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. The regions he seeks are places where his cell phone loses contact with the outside world. They are the areas, he points out, that the Romantics of 200 years ago called “wild nature.”

To explain his deep need to experience nature firsthand, Mr. Stark quotes Henry David Thoreau’s simple claim in “Walden:” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Thoreau is one of Mr. Stark’s heroes. So are the equally eloquent naturalists William Bartram, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Each of the four is paired with one of the book’s four sections.

Mr. Stark offers just the right amount of historical background to give readers a sense of the places he visits. He’s especially good on the French and Indian War and its seminal influence on 18th-century Pennsylvania, and on the Spanish and Pueblo Indians in old New Mexico. But it’s the characters (living and long since dead) Mr. Stark introduces who form some of the richest parts of the book.

Unforgettable are Charles de la Tour and Charles Biencourt, French boys who came as teenagers to unsettled Canada in the early 1600s. Both eagerly took to the wilderness, writes Mr. Stark, gaining what Thoreau 2 1/2 centuries later would admiringly call “Indian wisdom” - the ability to be at home in the forest and come out on top of whatever dangers the wilderness posed.

Indeed, one of Mr. Stark’s big themes is the Indians’ role in American history. He notes evidence indicating their presence in Pennsylvania for at least 80 centuries. That’s 270 generations, he writes, deeply impressed, encouraging respect for that long past.

But Mr. Stark came to realize that the greatest discovery in these travels - in large part because it was unanticipated - is that in his “empty spaces” he unexpectedly found a profound connection with an America whose existence he hadn’t known.

He learned that “far beyond the homogenous nodes and exit ramps and strip malls, lay this other life in America,” a kind of life, he emphasizes, “tied closely to our national identity and history and destiny.”

Such an “empty spot” America, he explains, is “a collection of self-possessed individuals, creating an individual destiny, in a vast land,” a land “that has become swallowed up in the anonymity of the interstate exchange and … the fantasized dramas of television.”

Mr. Stark worries that we’ve forgotten about this America and “that we lose strength by not seeing it and touching it in its genuine incarnation - the flesh.”

Basic common sense prevents Mr. Stark’s love of nature from descending into tree-hugging rapture, but it sometimes comes close. He notes that one of his naturalist heroes, Aldo Leopold, traveled to Germany in the 1930s to view government-operated forests. Leopold did not like what he found, describing the German projects as nothing but “tree farms” that had long since lost all wildness and were the habitat of no animals other than deer.

“[T]oo much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run,” Leopold concluded about government planning. The danger he feared was the loss of all wildness.

Mr. Stark likewise fears this loss. Near the end of “The Last Empty Spaces,” he quotes an old man he overhears talking in Missoula, Mont., where Mr. Stark and his family live.

No longer able to traipse off into the nearby forests and mountains and experience the wilderness as he’d obviously love to do, the old man muses, “I can’t go there anymore, but I feel better knowing it’s there.” That old man very likely speaks for many Americans.

Stephen Goode is a writer who divides his time between the high desert of New Mexico and the shores of Delaware.