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 in place on my hip bones, lined my pockets with trail mix, and hang off into a pathless section known as the Grabens (from the German for “grave”), several 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 absorbed 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 within the Colorado River.

I basked in the sense 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.”

Paradise Lost

Time put in nature improves mood, and also the vastness of wilderness may inspire a profound sense of fear and wonder which makes us more altruistic. But these benefits are evaporating as wilderness diminishes wild. Today, only about 5 percent of U.S. land is protected as wilderness — and about 1 / 2 of that is in Alaska.

Because these losses happen to be gradual, many of us may not have noticed the decline. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist located in Vancouver, British Columbia, argues that people 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 america in our country, you can’t have more than six miles from the 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 '09 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 like a family adventure,” Means explains. “Once we started looking at other states, we realized this was much bigger than just wanting to get 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. However they needed a quantitative definition of remoteness — a standard that all observers could accept.

“All of us have a different qualitative feeling of being remote,” Means says. “Some people feel remote when there is no service 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 in line with 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 these to conduct “remote-spot assessments,” which involve observing wildlife, taking panoramic photos, shooting video clip, and noting any human-made sights, smells, and sounds.

Big Noise

It works out that all those roads produce a lot of noise pollution. Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) and also the U.S. National Park Service found that 63 percent of all U.S. protected lands experience noise from cars, aircraft, and resource-extraction processes, including mining, logging, and drilling. And it’s at least two times as loud as ambient sounds from wind along with other natural sources.

“Many species will avoid areas with an excessive amount of noise,” says George Wittemyer, PhD, associate professor at CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “It may 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, along with other wildlife behavior; and cause huge amounts of direct mortality on everything from butterflies to black bears.”

Roads affect humans, too. “Our health depends, in part, on having these large roadless places that ecological processes remain intact,” Means says. “For instance, these areas preserve clean drinking water.”

Keeping drinking water clean is imperative, especially given recent Epa surveys indicating that nearly 1 / 2 of U.S. rivers and streams and a third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.

“To possess space to roam free belongs to our American psyche, too,” Means says. “From the mental standpoint, we need places where we are able to get away from the constant barrage of noises and stimuli, places where we are able to restore ourselves and remember what’s vital that you us.

“Remote spaces are also a symbol of our values,” she adds. “Will we value only what is economically important or will we value something bigger than ourselves as well?”

Remote-Spot Reflections

These notes are from Rebecca and Ryan Means's Project Remote expedition journals. In an effort to minimize human footprints around 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 some Road: 3.2
Travel Method: Motorboat
Travel Time: 1 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 as well as for observing and photographing the wildlife. Pharologists can also enjoy exploring the Port Mahon and Bombay Hook Lighthouses. www.fws.gov

Expedition Note: “One from the unique pleasures of remote spotting is listening to the natural sounds of an area. In 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 each side of the Continental Divide and comprising the Great Bear, the Scapegoat, and the Bob Marshall areas, this complex comprises 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 for the Montana Remote Spot after yesterday's failed attempt. It feels like we accomplished a Denali or perhaps an Everest summit. To us, even better.

“As far as you may know, no humans have ever stood in this exact location simultaneously with the knowledge that they were occupying the remotest location of 1 of the least populated, wildest states left in the usa. . . . Other than con trails, which are an eye sore, and conservation conundrum within the atmosphere, we measure zero human presence terrestrially in the Montana Remote Spot.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Size: A lot 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 around the block: 238 paved; 146 unpaved.)
Travel Method: Backpacking
Travel Time: 2 hours one way

One of the most popular national parks (using more than 11.3 million recreational visits in 2021), the truly amazing 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 additional 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'll encounter on this project. Despite being close to 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?”