Have you ever wanted to get as far away from it all as possible? But how would you do it? And what would “far away from it all”even mean? For the past nine years, Ryan and Rebecca Means have been trying to determine exactly that for every state in the nation. But of course, the couple, both ecologists, weren’t content to simply map America’s most inaccessible places—they wanted to experience them for themselves.
“We thought, if we can calculate this location, then we must stand on it and know what it feels like,” explains Ryan, “and we must bring our baby along with us.” With their daughter Skyla in tow, now ten years old, the Means have successfully calculated and trekked to the remotest spots in 33 states for nearly a decade. They call this midlife crisis-inspired family mission Project Remote, and document their efforts at RemoteFootprints.org.
Visitors to the site can click through the family’s bios, plus blog entries about their efforts in mapping each state, photos from their 773 miles of total travel by foot and sometimes boat, peaceful videos taken at the remote spots, rankings of their distance from civilization—from 21.6 miles in Wyoming to 1.1 in Connecticut—and other multimedia tidbits to help you live out your own escapist fantasies.
To keep their efforts scientifically grounded, they defined “remoteness” as the distance from a road. A “road,” they defined in turn, is any public, private, paved and unpaved motorway, train track, powerline right of way, or other manmade route that leaves a scar on the landscape. Working within these parameters, they discovered very quickly—beginning in their home state of Florida—that remoteness in modern America is hard to come by.
“At the Florida [mainland] remote spot, we heard motors and saw trash on the ground,” Ryan recalls. “It just wasn’t as climactic as you’d want it to be.” So they kept going, moving on to other Southeastern states. But even as they moved west, mapping states famed for their rugged wilderness, the problem persisted. “The real idea of Project Remote was born in looking at those other states and realizing roads were so much closer than we ever dreamed was possible,” Rebecca picks up the anecdote. “There was a bigger story to tell than just our family trying to get away from people and have an adventure.”
Among their findings, they’ve learned it’s no longer possible to get more than five miles from a road in the vast majority of the contiguous United States, and that the number of roads we have is continually increasing—even in national conservation areas where most “remote” spots are located. “Almost every state has a different type of environmental issue, driven by a different industry,” Rebecca notes.
Big Agriculture engulfs vast tracts of the Great Plains. Mining dominates the landscape in Kentucky. Oil and gas roads infiltrate forests in Pennsylvania and deserts in West Texas, while in North Dakota, fracking drills are visible from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. The industry is even encroaching on a mainland remote spot in Alaska’s arctic North Slope. “It says a lot about our unchecked development and lack of massive planning,” muses Ryan.
With so many private industrial roads being developed, determining their locations has proven the most time-consuming part of Project Remote. Rebecca obtains the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) files from different state departments of transportation, but keeps adding to them based on undocumented roads found via satellite imagery, resulting in recalculations of remote spots up to 40 to 50 times per state.
The Means family’s mission gradually evolved into a crusade, and their travel blog into a document of Mother Nature on the run in the 21stcentury. They now advocate a stop to roadbuilding across the country, but especially within public lands, and that if a new road is built, another of equal mileage be restored to nature.
It’s a bold proposal, to be sure, but not without reason, as roads have many negative impacts on their surrounding environment. They contribute to runoff pollution, interrupt migrations, drown out mating calls, fragment habitats, reduce genetic diversity, and are responsible for the deaths of an estimated one million vertebrates in the U.S. each year.
Not to mention, having fewer wilderness areas bodes badly for humans, too. Spending time in nature is an essential buffer for our mental well-being, and is associated with reduced levels of stress and anxiety, as well as an increased capacity for learning and social engagement. Speaking of social engagement, citizens can work to protect their at-risk public wildlands by voting for conservationist policies, participating in parks’ public comment periods, or simply getting out and making use of them.
“All national forests have sign-in books,” explains Rebecca, “and they actually use those numbers for visitor statistics, which can drive funding and feelings for how important these areas are.” Take the time to appreciate America’s natural areas now, both for your own good and so future generations will still have somewhere to get away.
The Numbers Behind Project Remote
As ecologists, precise research is important to the Means family. They’ve collected vast amounts of data for Project Remote, as listed on their website, remotefootprints.org.
33 Number of states the Means family has traveled to for Project Remote
773 Miles traveled by the Means family for Project Remote
6.6 Average distance (in miles) each remote spot lies from a “road,” as defined by the Means family
66 Percentage of remote spots reachable by the Means family in one travel day
60 Percentage of remote spots where cell phones still had service