THE LAST EMPTY PLACES

A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map

By Peter Stark

Ballantine. 352 pp. $26

As a travel writer, I have spent years crisscrossing the globe in search of the fabulous, the rare and the exotic. Mine has been a life-long quest for the bizarre, and my rule of thumb has been "If it ain't crazy as hell, leave it out." But time and travel are great levelers. Hack through a few jungles, stagger across three or four deserts, climb some mountains, sleep in yurts and tents and at least one wretched west African brothel, and you begin to crave something else. Something new. It's a deep-down craving, the kind pregnant women get when they feel they have to chew on dirt. It's almost primeval . . . the craving for the ordinary. It's a desire that is satisfied by Peter Stark's new book, "The Last Empty Places."

Stark is a writer and a journalist who grew up in an old log cabin in the Wisconsin woods. After 40 years of traveling the world and writing about what he has seen, it seems right and proper that he turn his attention to his homeland. From the start of his book, there's a sense that it's about coming home, Stark reacquainting himself with a blissful childhood, while somehow pitting himself against urban sprawl and the claustrophobic suffocation of the virtual world. He practices gentle observation the low-tech way.

Yet the book does begin with some high-tech thinking. Taking advice from a friend, Stark got himself a copy of the "Nighttime Map of the United States," a satellite shot showing population densities by electric lights across the country. Cross-referencing this with his Rand McNally road map, he plotted key target zones, areas of emptiness that somehow sang out to him. Uninterested in national parks (or in Alaska), Stark was more concerned with the realm of the pioneers, the American naturalists and thinkers who influenced his life: men like Thoreau, Emerson and that Scottish-born champion of the wilderness, John Muir. Over the next two-and-a-half years, Stark roamed and roamed, lured by the blank gaps in northern Maine and western Pennsylvania, in southeastern Oregon and the New Mexican desert.

To someone who grew up largely in Europe -- which is full to the point of bursting with people, towns and cities -- there's something deliciously refreshing about rambling through the United States in search of emptiness. I often find myself imagining that it, too, will be somehow overloaded. But it isn't. The United States is a vast, mesmerizing canvas of nature, a land that in many ways is as untamed now as it was in the times of the pioneers. It's just a matter of going in search of it.

I must admit that, when I read that Stark was dragging his wife and two kids along, at least part of the way, I raised one eyebrow and then the other. "Sounds like a travel writer trying to sell us a family vacation," I said to myself. But after pushing my way through the prologue (oh, how I dislike prologues), I found myself in the warm, wonderful underbelly of Peter Stark's world. It's a realm of considerable erudition, one that's observed with a reporter's eye for detail -- a reporter of the old school, who knows never to waste a syllable, let alone a word. There's plenty of history, the kind that's nailed firmly to places and the people he encounters. There's delicious description, too, such as that of a tiny Oregon village called Fields, "It had that oasis look to it -- a distant, yellow-green island of cottonwood trees and a huge brownish valley rimmed by dry mountains."

But the most touching thing about this book is the way Stark detours us away from the world we've all been sold -- the shopping malls and the theme parks, the gridlock, the cities and the desperate homogeneity of it all. With irresistible charm he reminds us that America is still a wild and vibrant miscellany of nature, a one-of-a-kind place.

With time I can imagine "The Last Empty Places" becoming required reading in schools. And I hope it does. It's a book that the early American naturalists and the pioneers before them would be proud of, one that carves through the smoke screen of mass culture, reminding us of the true essence of America.

Tahir Shah is the author of "The Caliph's House" and "In Arabian Nights." He lives in Casablanca.


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