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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 2000
By Stephanie Gregory

What is the most remote spot in the Lower 48?

B. Simms, Charleston, West Virginia

That depends on how you define remote, but in general it's harder to get away from it all than you might think. The National Park Service offers two criteria: farthest from a paved road and most distant from a town. The most out-of-the-way spot by both measures? The southeastern corner of 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming's Absaroka Mountains, 20 miles from U.S. 26, a scenic parkway that cuts through nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest, and about 20 miles from the ten-ranch community of Valley, Wyoming. The Bureau of Land Management, on the other hand, opts for the place most distant from a city with a growing population. It selected a desolate lava bed in northwest Nevada's Black Rock Desert between Winnemucca, Nevada, and Cedarville, California, about an hour's drive on dirt roads from each. Meanwhile, Vermont-based Cartographic Technologies, a geographic consulting company, has the simplest definition—distance from any human dwelling—and perhaps the most objective answer. After crunching census figures, the mapmakers pinpointed a forlorn speck of Utah canyon country smack in the middle of Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument on the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau. Thirty miles—about a two-day hike—away from Escalante (population 811), it isn't as isolated as Alaska's Brooks Range, but you're just as unlikely to run across a ranchette.

How long can an average person survive in an airtight room that's packed with plants, assuming there is plenty of food and water?

Ron Franscella, Lakewood, California

Environmental engineers have been working on this very question since the 1950s in hopes of one day sustaining life on Mars. Survival in an airtight pod—which requires 500 to 650 liters of oxygen per person daily—depends largely on the kinds of plants you choose as roommates. Cram a well-lit room with philodendrons or other slow-growing houseplants, and you'll be gasping for air within a month. But stock the same room with corn, beans, or other fast-sprouting vegetables, and you could spend a natural lifetime there. Blame the discrepancy on Biology 101. Plants take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen during photosynthesis, and varieties that grow faster generate more oxygen; about 600 grams of new leaves, stem, or stalk produce the minimum 500 liters you need daily. The rest is basic math: Farm-variety vegetables grow six new grams every day under ideal conditions, so 100 seedlings would do the trick. And while long-term survival in this miniature biosphere is entirely feasible, one unwieldy condition remains: "The inhabitant," notes former NASA engineer Bill Wolverton, "would have to fertilize 100 square feet of soil with his human waste."

Do spiders ever get caught in each other's webs?

Jim Siedler, Boulder, Colorado

"Sure," says Jon Coddington, a Smithsonian Institution arachnologist. "And most of them are more than happy to eat each other." This is a rare event, since spiders don't usually visit each other except to mate. But occasionally a black widow, say, will blunder into a cousin's silk trap, which is gram-for-gram stronger than steel. Most web-wise arachnids know to avoid the thin, sticky strands located closest to the web's center, and stealthily creep away along the thicker, slippery fibers that make up the web's radial spine. If all else fails, they can spit oily secretions on their eight tarsi, or feet, step free, and make a Spiderman-like escape via a self-secreted dragline. As for spider cannibalism, this happens frequently, and usually under different circumstances: Males hot and bothered by comely females will venture forth for the chance to mate. But given the fickle ways of arachnid romance, sex is a gamble. On a good day, a male can love her and leave her. On a bad day, he's lunch.

Why am I always most sore two days after a hard workout?

David Briggs, Tucson, Arizona

Athletes often blame their pain hangovers on lactic acid, that burn-inducing by-product of anaerobic exercise, which is formed by the rapid metabolism of a muscle's glucose stores during high-intensity workouts. Truth is, lactic-acid buildup is nearly painless once the workout is over, and our bodies flush it out within 24 hours. Rather, your delayed achiness is a sure signal that damaged muscle fibers are being repaired. Overtax underutilized muscles (by riding hard after shirking Spinning class all winter or trying a new lift) and your muscle fibers are prone to minute tears. In ten to 20 hours, white blood cells flock to the area to heal the tears. Upon arrival, they secrete prostaglandins, chemicals that transmit pain from your rubbery quads to your brain and coerce you to let your muscles recoup. For the next 24 to 48 hours, white-cell reinforcements keep arriving, secreting more prostaglandins, which build up and voice a collective scream. That's what makes you walk like Frankenstein's monster—right before the pain police bid your muscles adieu and dissipate into your bloodstream.  

Illustrations: Brian Rea

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