A decade ago, after the end of a long partnership, I jammed Miss Violet (my purple Kelty backpack) with camping gear. I tossed her into my car and headed to Canyonlands National Park with a simple goal: Get lost in the delicious solitude of Utah’s red-rock country to clear my head and figure out what was next in my life.
Excited to leave my Subaru behind for a few days, I parked along Elephant Hill jeep trail and hoisted my pack on my shoulders. The Needles district — dotted with massive red and white sandstone pillars created by erosion — stretched out before me.
Keen to find a place with no sounds or sights of people, I clicked Miss Violet into position on my hip bones, lined my pockets with trail mix, and set off into a pathless section known as the Grabens (from the German for “grave”), a group of relatively young — geologically speaking — flat-floored valleys formed some 60 million years ago by the faulting process.
On my 19-mile journey along Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail, I took in stellar views of the La Sal Mountains and jagged spires. I traversed treeless gorges, stark ridges, and ravines. I fell asleep, tent-less, losing count of the stars in a swarthy sky. I woke to the sounds of cheeky loggerhead shrikes splashing in the Colorado River.
I basked in the feeling of remoteness, that joy of being untethered from smartphone notifications, traffic noise, and my mind’s endless rehashing of the mistakes I’d made in my relationship. The wildness was, as Thoreau noted in Walden, “a tonic.”
Time spent in nature improves mood, and the vastness of wilderness may inspire a profound sense of fear and wonder that makes us more altruistic. But these benefits are evaporating as wilderness becomes less wild. Today, only about 5 percent of U.S. land is protected as wilderness — and about half of that is in Alaska.
Because these losses have been gradual, many of us may not have noticed the decline. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, argues that we simply adapt our definition of “wild” to the current condition of wilderness, which becomes our new normal — a concept he calls “shifting-baselines syndrome.”
For example, we’ve become used to roads carving through our cities — and our wild spaces. The U.S. road network exceeds 3.9 million miles in aggregate length, which makes getting away from one challenging.
“In over half the states in our country, you can’t get more than six miles from a road,” says ecologist Rebecca Means, MS. When she’s not spending her time helping repatriate the rare striped newt, Means and her fellow ecologist and husband, Ryan, document and visit remote spots across the country.
They began Project Remote in 2009 after their daughter, Skyla, was born. “It started out as an idea for how we could get the most remote in our home state of Florida as a family adventure,” Means explains. “Once we started looking at other states, we realized this was much bigger than just wanting to get away from people; we were losing roadless areas piecemeal and no one really knew it.”
They set out to investigate and raise awareness of the impacts of development on both humans and the environment. But first they needed a quantitative definition of remoteness — a standard that all observers could accept.
“Everyone has a different qualitative feeling of being remote,” Means says. “Some people feel remote when there is no gas station around, while others feel remote if there’s no flushing toilet present.”
Since roads and towns are relatively known entities, the couple decided to make their calculations based on the distance farthest from a road or town that could be marked on a landscape by latitude and longitude.
The couple locates candidate sites using GIS software and satellite imagery. Then the family travels to each of them to conduct “remote-spot assessments,” which involve observing wildlife, taking panoramic photos, shooting video footage, and noting any human-made sights, smells, and sounds.
It turns out that all those roads create a lot of noise pollution. Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) and the U.S. National Park Service found that 63 percent of all U.S. protected lands are exposed to noise from cars, aircraft, and resource-extraction processes, including mining, logging, and drilling. And it’s at least twice as loud as ambient sounds from wind and other natural sources.
“Many species will avoid areas with too much noise,” says George Wittemyer, PhD, associate professor at CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “It can actually restructure ecosystems.”
Because noise might keep seed dispersers and pollinators like birds and bees away, Wittemyer notes, even plants can suffer from all that racket.
“Roads allow humans to permeate the landscape,” Means says. “By doing so, we can spread invasive species on our tires or boat trailers; impact reproduction, migration, and other wildlife behavior; and cause huge amounts of direct mortality on everything from butterflies to black bears.”
Roads affect humans, too. “Our physical health depends, in part, on having these large roadless areas where ecological processes remain intact,” Means says. “For example, these areas preserve clean drinking water.”
Keeping drinking water clean is imperative, especially given recent Environmental Protection Agency surveys indicating that nearly half of U.S. rivers and streams and a third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.
“To have space to roam free is part of our American psyche, too,” Means says. “From a mental standpoint, we need places where we can get away from the constant barrage of noises and stimuli, places where we can restore ourselves and remember what’s important to us.
“Remote spaces are also a symbol of our values,” she adds. “Do we value only what is economically important or do we value something bigger than ourselves as well?”
These notes are from Rebecca and Ryan Means’s Project Remote expedition journals. In an effort to minimize human footprints on the remotest places, they never reveal their exact location. Visit ProjectRemote.com to read the journals in full and learn more about their project.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
Size: 16,251 acres
Remote Spot: Near a shipping channel
Miles to a Road: 3.2
Travel Method: Motorboat
Travel Time: One hour one way
The refuge’s tidal salt marshes, streams, and rivers provide valuable natural habitat for mammals and migratory birds, such as great blue herons and bald eagles. A 12-mile road makes touring the refuge by car easy, and five nature trails offer opportunities for self-guided hikes and for observing and photographing the wildlife. Pharologists can enjoy exploring the Port Mahon and Bombay Hook Lighthouses. www.fws.gov
Expedition Note: “One of the unique pleasures of remote spotting is listening to the natural sounds of an area. At the Delaware remote spot, the sound of the water rolling against the grassy shoreline was peaceful and soothing.”
Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana
Size: More than 1.5 million acres
Remote Spot: Near Rampart Mountain’s summit
Miles to a Road: 18
Travel Methods: Hiking; backpacking
Travel Time: Five days
Covering both sides of the Continental Divide and comprising the Great Bear, the Scapegoat, and the Bob Marshall areas, this complex makes up the third-largest wilderness area in the lower 48. Nestled between the southern border of Glacier National Park and Helena, “the Bob” features more than 1,700 miles of trails. Quintessential Big Sky Country, the alpine meadows and forest river bottoms are home to grizzly and black bears, lynx, wolverines, moose, mountain lions, and mountain sheep. www.fs.usda.gov
Expedition Note: “We are nearly an hour past our turnaround time, but absolutely high on our decision to make a second attempt at the Montana Remote Spot after yesterday’s failed attempt. It feels like we accomplished a Denali or an Everest summit. To us, even better.
“As far as we know, no humans have ever stood in this exact location simultaneously with the knowledge that they were occupying the remotest location of one of the least populated, wildest states left in America. . . . Other than con trails, which are an eye sore, and conservation conundrum in the atmosphere, we measure zero human presence terrestrially from the Montana Remote Spot.”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Size: More than 500,000 acres
Remote Spot: Near Silers Bald Shelter along the Appalachian Trail
Miles to a Road: 4.2 (There are 384 miles of roads in the park: 238 paved; 146 unpaved.)
Travel Method: Backpacking
Travel Time: Two hours one way
One of the most popular national parks (with more than 11.3 million recreational visits in 2016), the Great Smoky Mountains offer something for everyone. Hike some of the 850 miles of trails, ride horses or take a carriage or wagon ride in historic Cades Cove, view wildlife and waterfalls, or pedal your bike through the many valleys in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Campers are welcome in more than 100 backcountry campsites and 1,000 developed campsites. www.nps.gov
Expedition Note: “This remote-spot trip was definitely one of the easier ones we will encounter on this project. Despite being near the highest point in all of Tennessee, we were able to reach it in an afternoon’s hike. What does this say about the remoteness of Tennessee?”