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Destination Nowhere

The most remote spot in the Lower 48 is inside Yellowstone National Park. It's also the goal of our correspondent. What he encounters–and what it says about the solitude backpackers treasure–will surprise you. PLUS: See more of his photos and read a Q&A.

As far away as you can get. This has been my perennial, implacable need since I was a youth. I guess I’ve read too much Thoreau, Whitman, and Leopold. (I have three heavily-underlined editions of Walden, two worn copies of Leaves of Grass, and a dog-eared Sand County Almanac, which I received for Christmas in 1970, when I was 12.)

As far away as you can get. Growing up in Wyoming I was always pushing toward it, bicycling through the red dirt prairie, camping beside clucking alpine creeks, scrabbling up giant granite towers and then scaring myself to death trying to get back down. When forced to come indoors, I would read about the outdoors. To this day, famous phrases from outdoor literature weave together in my mind like the mellifluous, teal-colored braids of an Alaskan river.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately … to celebrate myself … to front only the essential facts of life … to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world … to witness a river in the painting mood … to experience the intrinsic beauty of the organism called America … to be not a bit tamed, to be untranslatable.”

I had come to the Thorofare because I wanted to remove myself from the man-made environment of our thick-with-flesh-and-asphalt contiguous USA. I wanted to compare the vision I’ve carried in my mind for decades with what actually exists, today. Having been to many of the most remote places in the world, from Greenland to Tibet, with stops in Afghanistan, Alaska, the Amazon, and the Congo, I wished to rediscover what the best of the American outside feels like–from the inside.

This required some pre-trip planning.

First I had to ask myself where, or perhaps more precisely–what–is the middle of nowhere. To the elk hunter, hiker, and most outdoor adventurers, the middle of nowhere is a wild-feeling geographic phrase that refers to someplace extremely remote, somewhere beyond the plastic conveniences and constant safety checks of urban life. In the middle of nowhere, you can’t call for a pizza or an ambulance or check into a hotel. And you definitely can’t drive there. You have to walk, or maybe ride a horse. The romance and risk of remoteness implies, nay, insists upon having to take care of yourself. Remote means roadless. Which is problematic for today’s hiker. Roadless regions have all but vanished from 21st-century America. According to Harvard Professor of Landscape Richard Forman, who wrote Road Ecology: Science and Solutions, about the environmental impact of roads, there are almost 4 million miles of public roads in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of miles of private roads. Roads are the first thing we build, before houses, warehouses, and water slides. “Americans in the 1990s converted open space to developed land at a rate of 2.2 million acres a year, or 252 acres per hour,” writes Forman.

Once upon a time, wide-open spaces–not asphalt and concrete–defined our landscape. They’re gone now. In less than 250 years, the U.S. went from a country of Indian footpaths and horse trails, wagon tracks, and game paths to a domesticated nation of streets, strip malls, parking lots, and superhighways. West of the Mississippi, the mythological hinterland of rolling plains and high peaks, the countryside has been drawn and quartered by bulldozers. Paved county roads checkerboard farmland from Iowa to Idaho; gravel roads stitch together the ranches, ranchettes, and resorts.
Even our once immense forests have been carved up. In the last century, logging roads, truck routes for oil, gas, and mining, and ATV tracks have crept into the most distant regions of our mountains, forests, and deserts. Officially, there are more than 430,000 miles of roads in our national forests–unofficially, it could be twice that.

As you might expect, roads cause a litany of negative impacts to the environment. Road-paving destroys habitat, poisons the ecosystem, and provides a causeway for the invasion of non-native plants. Roadkill may be a good thing for a few scavengers such as eagles and ravens, but the vast majority of wildlife suffers. Forman documented the carnage: cars squashed 205 painted turtles in just four months on a highway adjacent to Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge in Mission Valley, Montana; drivers crushed 856 snakes over two years around Everglades National Park; and they killed an average of 36.3 snakes per mile per year in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (seriously reducing the region’s rosy boas and shovelnose populations). Roadkill mortality figures for larger game–including deer, elk, moose, skunks, rabbits, and birds–are also astronomical.

Roads alter animal behavior as well. Traffic noise alone has reduced bird life by 50 percent in some species, including pink-footed geese, spotted owls, and a host of woodland birds. Grizzlies in Montana, bobcats in Wisconsin, ungulates and large carnivores across the Rockies: All have shifted their home ranges away from roads–when there are roadless areas to move to.

Unfortunately for these species, the only notable roadless regions left in the contiguous 48 states are the tiny designated wilderness areas and parts of a few national parks. East of the Mississippi, the nation is so heavily highwayed that remoteness hardly exists; it is not possible to be more than 10 miles from a road. Even in the West, there are only four places one can truly escape roads: Utah’s Escalante region north of the Grand Canyon; the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho; Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness; and the Yellowstone National Park/Teton Wilderness/Washakie Wilderness trinity in northwestern Wyoming.

And yet, even in these putatively isolated regions, you’re still just a two-day hike from a highway. As the crow flies, the farthest you can be from a road in Idaho’s River of No Return is a mere 15 miles; in the Escalante and Bob Marshall it’s even less. Astonishingly, in the entire continental U.S., coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, there is only one place left where you can get more than 20 miles from a road: in the greater Yellowstone region.

To find the most remote point, I went to the Wyoming Geographic Information Systems Science Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. Hovering over a computer screen bouncing with colored lines, geographer Shawn Lanning combined a bewildering array of GIS programs. “Let’s use spatial analyst extension to access the Euclidean distance tool, and a Lambert conformal conic projection, with a raster 100mx 100m cell parameter,” he said, cranking out an original, full-color topo map. In the dead center was a red dot with a latitude/longitude number. I promised not to share the exact coordinates, but I will say that the most remote point in the Lower 48 is located on the Two Ocean Plateau in south-central Yellowstone National Park.

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