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The Last Empty Places: A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map [Kindle Edition]

Peter Stark
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Americans have shaped the idea of wilderness, and it has shaped us. The Last Empty Places is one man’s love letter to the enduring American wild, where our country’s character was forged and its destiny set in motion.

Memories of growing up in a log cabin in the Wisconsin woods inspired writer Peter Stark to seek out untouched tracts of the American wilderness. What he discovered in these “blank spots” on the U.S. map is that these places are actually teeming with the rich history of our nation.

Stark journeys into the great wild to four of the emptiest expanses he can find—northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, and southeast Oregon—and in so doing weaves together a majestic and dramatic tale of frontiersmen and fighters, naturalists and philosophers, émigrés and natives. But he also goes beyond that, acknowledging to some of the great minds that first framed our relationship to the wilderness that would become our home—passionate thinkers and writers including Thoreau, Emerson, and John Muir.

The result is a narrative that blends nature and history in a vivid new way, a tale that provides an unforgettable window into our country’s past and present.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Peter Stark is the author of Last Breath and At the Mercy of the River. He is a freelance writer, a correspondent for Outside, and has written for Smithsonian and The New Yorker. He has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and has written a collection of essays, Driving to Greenland. He is the editor of an anthology of writing about the Arctic titled Ring of Ice.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Part One

From far off, it was said, you could hear the women and children screaming. If you’d been there, in Nova Scotia—they called it Acadia then—in September of 1755, you would have seen the women down on their knees along the dirt lane, pleading, praying, wailing, reaching up with extended arms as their men and boys were marched from the church at Grand Pré down to the British ships that waited with the high tide.

All men and “lads” over the age of ten had been summoned to meet at the church at this Nova Scotian port town at exactly 3:00 p.m. on September 5. When 418 of the Acadians were gathered within the church, British soldiers barred the doors and windows. Colonel Winslow, the British commander, in a powdered wig, sat at a table surrounded by soldiers and read aloud from a document containing orders that supposedly originated with the king. It detailed the fate of these French-descended inhabitants of Nova Scotia—the Acadians—as the British soldiers went from port to port to round them up.

“His instructions and commands, to wit, That your lands and tenements, cattle and live-stock of all kinds are forfeited to the Crown, together with all your other effects, except money and household goods, and that you yourselves are to be removed from this his province.”

The decree was translated into French. The Acadians, most of them, didn’t read or write. No one recorded their precise reaction at that moment in the church at Grand Pré more than two hundred years ago except as it lives on today in stories and songs among Acadian descendants in the bayous of Louisiana, deep in the North Woods of Maine, and still in parts of Nova Scotia. We have instead the words of Colonel Winslow himself, who wrote that the Acadians were “greatly struck.” He couldn’t understand the imprecations hurled his way in their ancient dialect of French.

Inside the church at Grand Pré, the British pointed their muskets at the outraged Acadian men and boys. The Acadian ancestors had migrated from France and settled here, on this great peninsula of land they called Acadia and we know as Nova Scotia that hovers out in the Atlantic east of Maine. By the time the British read their decree at Grand Pré in September 1755, the Acadians had lived on the peninsula for a century and a half. They’d been among the very first permanent northern European migrants to the New World, arriving in 1606—even before the first British colonists founded Jamestown far south in Virginia. The Acadians had hunted the forests for furs and for meat, fished the bays and coastlines, diked the tidal salt marshes into fields. Unlike many of the British settlers to the south, they’d lived harmoniously with the Indians, learned to craft birch-bark canoes and snowshoes, traded with them, intermarried with them, raised métis families. They “trucked with the savages,” as the British put it disgustedly. They were an independent, self-sufficient people, a people of the forests and the marshes and the rivers—not quite French, not quite Indian, but both; or, rather, a unique people that blended both.

And now the end had come for Acadia. The British had won the great peninsula from France in 1710 in a military victory, and for more than forty years, during a time of peace between the two great empires, had let the Acadians be. But now war was again afoot between Britain and France. The Acadians, way out here on the remote fringes—on the vague borderlands between the two clashing worlds—were caught between.

The heavy rains started as we drove our rental car up the New England coast toward northern Maine—toward the lands where fleeing Acadians had disappeared. After flying east from home in Montana, we’d spent the night outside Boston, in Concord, close by Thoreau’s Walden Pond. That morning, in the motel’s breakfast room, where the children gleefully made waffles on the do-it-yourself iron, the television had predicted rain for the next four to five days. As I paid the bill in the lobby, a fine, warm Gulf Stream drizzle was falling on the electric-green motel lawn. A few hours later on I-95, when our economy rental car reached L.L.Bean at Freeport, Maine, a blurry deluge crashed on the windshield and streamed up from the tires. At Bean’s, I bought a tarp, poles to suspend it, extra tent stakes, and a new rain jacket to replace my old one, as it suddenly seemed woefully inadequate. As a kind of treat to myself, I also bought a new fly rod. For the children, already well outfitted with rain jackets and pants, Amy picked up a couple of extra insect headnets—the kind with brims. The previous night, over an expensive bistro dinner in Concord, she’d been much bemused by conjuring the image of me taking notes while wearing a headnet propped up on sticks.
“That’s why it’s blank where we’re going,” she’d choked through tears of laughter over her soup, to the children’s bewilderment. “No one wants to live there! Because of the bugs!”

But it was the prospect of rain that bothered me more than the threat of bugs. I was slightly cheered after we left the coast past Bean’s, heading inland, almost due north, on I-95, and the rain tapered off. By the time we reached Medway—the gateway to the Maine Woods, a couple of hours inland—the rain had stopped altogether. Stuffed to the ceiling with our camping gear, our little white car bumped off the dry highway and into the graveled parking lot of Nicatou Outfitters, a wood-sided building scattered with a few others beside the road. The late afternoon gloom and heavy gray skies held low over the pointy tips of the dense fir and spruce forest behind the shop. I was thinking, Five days. That’s a whole lot of rain on an eight-day canoe trip. Especially on a wilderness river. With children. And no way out of the forest. Except paddling onward into the cold downpour.

“Are you Betsy?” I asked the wiry, blondish, thirty-something woman who emerged from the shop to greet us, followed by a bouncy young black Lab.

“I am,” she said.

I later would learn that her mother’s family, the Faloons, had settled here in the mid-1800s when Medway was still known as Nicatou—located at the forks of the East and West Branches of the Penobscot River. Her husband, Galen Hale, held a regular job with the Maine environmental inspection branch while she ran their outfitting shop. Inside, fishing lures and billed hats and paddling gear lined the walls, and a wide assortment of mosquito repellent. I inspected the varieties while she gamely showed our children, Molly, eleven, and Skyler, eight, how the black Lab, Nicky, could roll over.

“It’s been so wet lately. I was out in my garden today and the bugs were pretty bad. You’ll want to bring plenty of bug dope,” she said, in an accent full of dropped “r”s and open “a”s.

I’d heard the same mantra—“bring plenty of bug dope”—from at least three other Mainers, including her husband, Galen. From Montana, I’d spoken to him by phone several times, telling him I was looking for the emptiest, blankest spots on the map, as well as an outfitter to help us.

“Do you know the Saint John River?” I’d asked him.

“Ayup,” he replied, with that famous Mainer laconic brevity.

Could he rent us canoes for it?


Could he guide us down it if we wanted?


Did he know the other rivers of northern Maine?


Then, in a burst of loquaciousness, he volunteered his qualifications.

“I been living here in Medway all my life. My family started guiding here in 1833. When Henry Thoreau came to the Maine Woods in 1846, his guide was Thomas Fowler. That’s my great-great-great-granduncle by marriage, on my mother’s side. I can show you pretty much exactly where Thoreau went, if you want. I can even show you where he spent the night here in Medway. Supposedly at Mom Howard’s.”

I knew I’d found my man. You could say that in a strange, roundabout way it was Galen Hale’s great-great-great-granduncle by marriage (on his mother’s side) who inspired me—and other like-minded Americans—to have a passion for wild places to begin with, to yearn for the blank spots remaining on the map. Until Thoreau and company came along in the early 1800s, most of what European people strove for during their first three hundred years on the American continent was to stamp out every spot of blankness that they could reach. They sought out these blank places, this largely uncultivated continent thinly peopled by Indians, as cheap land to homestead. They saw nothing good—but rather evil—in the “wildness” of it. The value of blank spots, of wild places, lay only in their cultivation—in “civilizing” these spots and “taming” the natives. It was in good part Thoreau—and his trips to the Maine Woods—who changed all that.

“You’re a brave woman, Amy,” remarked David Skipper as another gust of rain lashed the windshield of his van.
A burly, friendly man, Skipper drove shuttles to the Maine rivers for Galen and Betsy Hale’s clients who wished to canoe. He now steered the big blue van—our rented canoes lashed on top, our mound of gear loaded in back—down a gloomy mud-and-gravel forest road. The wipers whipped back and forth. The rains had begun that morning, reaching from the coast up into the Maine Woods, when we woke up in the little motel across from the Hales’ shop in Medway. For nearly three hours since Medway, we’d been driving on these graveled roads through the soaking wet fir and spruce woods, through this great green sponge of evergreen trees, woody brus...

Product Details

  • File Size: 1089 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (May 25, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0036S4CRA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #661,322 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hodge-podge, but likeable enough August 16, 2010
Peter Stark is an accomplished outdoors writer, so The Last Empty Places has that going for it. However, he and his editor made some questionable choices in structuring it, in deciding what to include where.

The book covers Stark's visits to four American "blank spots": a family canoe trip on the St. John River in Northern Maine, a sojourn to an isolated patch of Western Pennsylvania, an auto tour of a large stretch of Southeast Oregon, and a family backpacking outing in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

Stark selected these areas because they each show-up dark on night-time satellite photos, nearly devoid of human population. He sought to avoid national parks and official wilderness areas (Gila was an exception) and he left out Alaska. He added some more idiosyncratic criteria, such as wanting to include places with compelling first-encounter stories and historical significance and places that have shaped iconic wilderness thinkers.

The problem, in my view, is that he consequently tries to stuff too much disparate material into each chapter. He mixes the tales of his own visits with synopses of historical events and of the lives and thought of the wilderness icons (Henry David Thoreau, William Bartram, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold).

I found the abrupt shifts from the contemporary visit sections, to the history accounts, to the biography extracts, etc. to be disruptive rather than complementary. They worked best when there was a direct connection of the history or the thinkers to the actual spot of Stark's visit (for example, the capture of two white Pennsylvania settler girls by Allegheny Indians in the mid 1700s), but there was seldom such a direct geographical tie.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The secret places July 29, 2010
`The Last Empty Places' tries to answer the questions: Why do people seek them out? Why are they important? Peter Stark travels to four of the emptiest places he can find in the continental US. He uses the NASA night time map, also ignoring open stretches of desert, that are an obvious empty area.
What makes this an appealing exercise is that he makes the decision to search out two in the east - where one might assume you would not find an empty space. He explores northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, New Mexico and southeast Oregon. What lends more interest is that his two young children and wife accompany him on 2 of his trips.
He intersperses his descriptions of his journeys with the ideas of writers such as Thoreau; that have gone before, and the history of the region. There is a very fascinating section on the environment and the economy and the successes that can come with a well run ranch when Stark visits a cattle ranch in Oregon.

For the most part the stories of his trip, naturalists thoughts and the history are evenly done; however if your tolerance for history is low, it will probably be too much for you. If you are interested in the environment and wilderness, even travels of a different sort you would enjoy reading `The Last Empty Places'. Stark puts it well when he says;" 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."
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great concept, but it never engaged me January 1, 2011
I love the concept of the book. I occasionally fly from Chicago to the west coast. I'm continually amazed when I look down and see vast, vast stretches of the American West. For miles and miles there are no roads. I thought it would be great to learn more about the blank spots of America. I believe the author picked some great spots to investigate. I appreciate the discussion of environmentalism. However, I have two criticisms of the book. The lesser: it got very preachy about America's treatment of Native Americans. I appreciate that what happened was a tragedy. However, it was inevitable in many ways. Pennsylvania is a great example. The Scots-Irish settled the interior part of the state. They had been marginalized and pushed to desperation. Someone was going to lose. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, the Scots-Irish has numbers and firearms. I just got tired of the author focusing again and again on this aspect of history. Finally, and most importantly, I just didn't find the book that interesting or engaging.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb.... September 21, 2010
Love, love, love this book. I generally skim non-fiction but I read this one cover to cover. Loved how history was interwoven w/Starks experience. Enjoyed empty places because I personally live in one. He captured the essence of feeling what it's like to live in the empty places if you can only travel a few weeks out of the year and experience that solitude/no tv thing. I'm wishing for a sequel...Empty places to raise a family and not go crazy?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Waiting for volume#2 August 4, 2010
By PeterA
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed reading this book. The author does a tremendous job taking you along on his journeys while creating a thought provoking essay about some of the last remote areas left in this country and the value of those places whether we realize it or not. He ties in some historical aspects of each location that is both interesting and entertaining without being too detailed for those that are not history buffs. Also reflected upon are some of the historical figures (Thoreau, Leopold, Bartram) that had a part in the evolution of todays environmental/conservation movement.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Great
I really enjoy the mix of well researched history and his own tales of travel. It was a great way to write a story like this!
Published 4 months ago by Aaron Oldenburg
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!
What a wonderful story of the adventures of the author and his family as they discover "blank spaces" in America. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Ele Jordan
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent history lesson!
Published 5 months ago by Ralph
3.0 out of 5 stars Seemed like a stretch at times to relate his favorite conservation ...
Well written but not much insight to "The Last Empty Places". Seemed like a stretch at times to relate his favorite conservation authors to the areas he was covering. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Kent Brandtjen
4.0 out of 5 stars Really Good Book!
A well written & informative read! I really enjoyed it!
Published 6 months ago by CVSjr
4.0 out of 5 stars A must for your library
This is a book that every explorer - at-heart needs to have in their library. Stark ' s style of entwining descriptions of his current adventures with the history of the area he... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars A blend of history and now
Nice blend of history, literature and current events
Published 6 months ago by julianne howell
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeking Out Empty Places
I thought this book very nicely laid out the progression of philosophical thought around the topic of wilderness and its importance in the lives of humans who seek it out, as well... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Don M
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A great story with all kinds of local history. Very enjoyable and thoughtful insight.
Published 8 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Not particularly "great". But very interesting and good. Great way to get introduced to the history and geography of places that once and still exist. Read more
Published 8 months ago by christopher walz
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