Books: Epic Quests!

The Last Empty Places, by Peter Stark     Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books

A few years ago, Outside correspondent Peter Stark dug up a satellite image of the United States taken at night, found the unlit areas, and began to plot. Like many Americans, he didn't consider his country wild—too much connective pavement, too many yellow arches—but he wanted to prove himself wrong. So Stark traveled through Maine, Oregon, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania looking for emptiness. He failed: In every destination, Stark unearthed stories of the settlers and Native Americans who'd come earlier. That's what makes the resulting book, The Last Empty Places: A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map (Ballantine Books, $26, June), so intriguing, both a solid refresher on our savage colonial history and a smart rumination on what it means to get lost. Stark's conclusion: While there may be no such thing as a literally "blank" spot on the map, that fact can't diminish the power of the wilderness. What he perfectly captures is the electric wonder a person feels when setting eyes, for the first time, on a fast river breaking through a forest. "In the blank spots," he writes, "what exists, we hope, is meaning."

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