The Last Empty Places

Peter Stark

The Last Empty Places

In celebration of our trip to several of the western National Parks this month, I decided to write about a book that Shawn and I read recently, The Last Empty Places. Subtitled A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map, it's by writer Peter Stark, and tells the stories of four trips he and his family took in search of wild places and their histories. These four empty places are central Pennsylvania, New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, northern Maine, and southeast Oregon. Here is a passage from the section about the Gila Wilderness, as the family sets out on its trip:

“The road crested a tall ridgetop and we stepped out of the car at a turnout and looked around. The westering sun backlit one of those landscapes and shone so enormously and silently and lucidly that it reminded me of a museum diorama of, say, the Mesozoic Era. There was a dead, windless silence except for the occasional primordial caw of a crow and the crunch of gravel under our shoes. From our feet the mountainside fell away into a deep chasm of luminous bluish air, then, maybe five miles off, the bottom crumpled into still more layered, bluish ranges of mountains whose faces were split and contorted by canyons, cliffs, and escarpments of naked, tannish rock, and beyond them rose still more bluish ranges. Creatures from a different era existed out there...spirits from a different time.”

Later in the same section, as the family is settling down into their campsite one night, Stark writes:

“I looked up into the night sky.

The stars looked so hard, and bright, and sharp, little diamond chips spangled through the treetops, so many, many stars – the milky bands of stars, the swirls of stars, the clusters, the constellations.

It occurred to me, standing there, that I gazed up at the inverse image of my 'blank spots' satellite photo. From one of earth's dark patches, I peered up to where the lights of the heavens shown brightest. There were no human-made lights for miles around. The desert air was dry. The altitude was high. I was at the bottom of a deep canyon.

I'd found the perfect blank spot...a kind of black hole.

I let my mind roam over the surface of the earth. I could see scores of sprawling cities and their beaded strings of lights. But so much of the earth, I saw, remained lightless. So much actually remained or became a blank spot. I thought of all the oceans, and the deserts, and the high mountain ranges, and the deep forests, and the icy poles. They all remained lightless in the satellite image in my mind. They all remained places where the stars shone as intensely on the earth's surface as they did right here.

But so rarely did we venture to these places. They were difficult to reach. They lay far beyond the convenience of our airports and our cars, beyond that web of wires and buildings and roads that bind the accessible parts of the earth. It was easy to become convinced they didn't exist anymore. We think blank spots are gone because we, as individuals and as a species, almost always follow the crowds.

But the stars are out there, with effort, for us to see.”

If you've ever longed to find a blank spot to get away from it all, whether to see the stars or just enjoy the solitude, Stark's book is a must for you. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright 2009, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.