What does NOWHERE have to offer us that other places don’t? Some go there for solitude and to find a place to heal and recover from the stresses of life. Others seek it out for the Freedom it offers. Whatever your reason, you can find what you want or need in “undiscovered” places. And, Where exactly IS NOWHERE?
Too many people miss out on some very special places in this world simply because they dismiss places that aren’t on the “Top ten” places to visit. If a place has “Nowhere” status, is it really worth discovering? You better believe it is! You have no idea what you’ve been missing, simply because you weren’t sure where to look!
I continually find myself irresistibly drawn to the blank spaces on maps. They are the unknown places begging to be discovered. While most other travelers are looking to “discover” well known places that appear in the glossy ads of travel magazines, I usually try to find places that are interesting which are not normally associated with the beaten path of industrial tourism. The best compliment that I ever receive from someone after visiting a new place is for them to ask, “Where’s That?”
The term “Nowhere” means different things to different people. For some, it implies the absence of human beings…a place to decompress from the rigors of social interaction with others. It is a quiet place that introverts can escape to in order to heal and recover from interacting with other people. I’ll share a picture of one of my “Nowheres”, but I won’t tell you how to get there.
While exploring this snow covered track, I can escape to other worlds and let my mind wander. It’s 2021, but here there is no pandemic. I don’t have need of a mask and the closest person I imagine is miles away from here. This “road” is no longer connected to anywhere….its sole purpose is to collect just enough snow for me to leave my footprints in a straight line so that I can retrace them easily and find my way back home. A visit to this Nowhere replenishes my battered soul and allows me to come back into “society” and somehow function, at least for a few more days.
I returned to that Road to Nowhere a few days ago. Without snow on it, the feeling was different. It invited me to take a longer walk on it. On the drive out to get me near to the Road to Nowhere, I passed by what appeared to be a gypsy camp next to one of my favorite buttes to hike, far from town. It seems that Nowhere is getting harder to find and its territory is diminishing….
The vegetation between the old tire tracks was pretty high; evidence that this “road” is no longer used. Even a high clearance vehicle would have problems here. After a few miles, I sat my pack down in one of the tire tracks and took a long drink of water and enjoyed the peace and solitude. I had a conversation with my shadow about whether to turn back or keep going. He said to turn back, but I insisted on continuing up ahead.
A little while later, the Road to Nowhere intersected another dirt road, one that had less vegetation between the tire tracks. When you come to a four way intersection on the Road to Nowhere, does that mean you are in the Middle of Nowhere? Or, on the other hand, are you now Somewhere and only at the border of Nowhere?
From here, I think it would be possible to walk a thousand roads to Nowhere in order to reach the borders of either Idaho or Nevada, which would be about two weeks of hiking, IF one could find water along the way. But recent tire tracks on this intersecting road tells me I am no longer in Nowhere. This time, my shadow whispered that there was something ahead that I should see, so I continued on.
About 1/2 mile down the dirt road, I came to a slab of basalt in the shape of a tombstone on the side of the dirt road. It signaled that this part of Nowhere died here not too long ago. I removed my cap, and spent a moment of silence at the grave site. Then, I headed back towards camp, lamenting the death of another Nowhere.
At camp, I contemplated the problem of diminishing Nowheres. What should we do, if anything about this problem? Am I part of the problem by venturing into someone else’s Nowhere? Or, do we need to train human beings to be respectful of the natural world to leave as little trace of our visit as possible, so as to leave it worthy of discovery for someone else in the future?
The concept of Nowhere is such a socially constructed term. Who decides for us where Somewhere is and where Nowhere is? Too often, we let other people define it for us. Too often it is defined by the Chamber of Commerce. Other times, cultural tribalism has a say in which community or zip code gets tagged with a nowhere designation. To some groups, Nowhere status is the desired objective; to others it is seen as a curse. Would we really need a Nowhere to escape to if we all lived in safer, more sustainable and connected communities? These are the concepts I engage my shadow with in a deep conversation.
Lately, I’ve been open to exploring many other types of Nowheres, not just the ones with the absence of humans. But for now, I still need to be alone in nature every so often.
Other “Nowheres” can be in urban areas. In his book, “The Geography of Nowhere”, James Kunsler describes how suburbia can be the quintessential nowhere due to the boring reproduction of the same housing styles, leaving the community without a unique personality. But even the Nowhere of suburbia can have its merits, if you look closely. During my walks in suburban neighborhoods, I sometimes see a Little Free Library that a homeowner has put up on the street…a place to take a book and/or leave a book. There is a website supposedly documenting the locations of these “Little Free Libraries”, but most of them I’ve encountered do not show up on the website. You have to either live in the same hood, or just wander up on it.
I’ve wandered up on many of these little free libraries during my urban hikes around Bend. Only about 5% of them are listed on a website showcasing their locations. Finding one is a sign that you find yourself in a “community”, where residents care about others around them. This is an example of a Nowhere turning into a Somewhere, due to the efforts of caring humans. One may not be able to research them ahead of time, but you can discover them by “wandering through what you previously thought was ‘nowhere’.”
That brings me to another question….Should we encourage the knowledge of all Nowheres, so as to appreciate the different perspectives on it without having to see it through our own cultural lens? Or, on the other hand, should we discourage people from venturing into “Nowhere” lands to protect them for the use of other species, and for future humans? Is there any way we can have a little of both? There might be a need to better define what the term actually means.
Your flower garden could be the Nowhere place that you escape, to close off the rest of the world and heal. Or, you might find that safe space in the corner of your public library. A walk through suburbia at 1 A.M. might give you the same sense of peace, quiet, and solitude that a deserted trail in the countryside does. That is, if you feel safe in doing so….Every time we use any of these spaces, there are fewer of us who need to escape to far away places….we can go to distant places in our minds.
Below are a few locations that some people might label as Nowhere, but are actually Somewhere….
LaFayette (pronounced Luh-FAY’-ette), Georgia is a town in the mountains of Northwest Georgia that many would put into the category of “Nowhere” at first glance. It is a small bedroom community of the larger city of Chattanooga, TN. Residents of LaFayette have to drive to the neighboring state to buy donuts. But LaFayette became an important somewhere for me four decades ago, when I made some friends there and a family took me in. If you were just to drive through there today without stopping, you might be unimpressed. But if you were to stay there a while, you might just meet someone of character, who would change your perception of the place. Besides, the town is also called “The Queen City of the Highlands!”
Wahoo, Nebraska is another location that at first glance seems like a Nowhere place. I’ve never been there in person, but I did recently drive through the center of town down Chestnut Street via Google Earth. Wahoo has a grain elevator, a Family Dollar Store, a Dairy Queen, a few gas stations and Quick Marts (they advertise Bud Light on sale), a Subway sandwich shop, and some local construction companies. It is west of Omaha and north of Lincoln, but within commuting distance of either of the larger cities. The name of the town was intriguing, and a friend of mine had ties to that location as a kid. Who knows what hidden treasures lie inside the treasure chest of Wahoo, NE? You’d have to take the time to find the key to open the chest!
To a first time outsider, Hibbing, Minnesota is also a kind of a Nowhere place, although it is larger than either LaFayette or Wahoo. Hibbing, Minnesota would not have been so famous had Bob Dylan not been born there. In fact, I didn’t even know that factoid before I rode my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail through Hibbing back in 2010.
The Mesabi Trail is a 132 mile paved bicycle path through the Iron Mountain Mesabi Range and the forests of NE Minnesota. In a few years, it will extend from the Mississippi River all the way to the entrance to the Boundary Waters Canoe area at Ely, MN. At 155 miles, it will be one of the longest paved bike trails in the nation. When we were there, we pedaled the 43 miles from Grand Rapids to Hibbing, had lunch in Bob Dylan’s hometown, and pedaled another 43 miles back to the car. Although that was 10 years ago, we discovered many Nowhere towns, like Taconite, Colerane, Calumet, Marble, Nashwauk, Keewatin, Pengilly, and Bovey along the way. And we still remember them, and Hibbing, to this day. To me, Hibbing would have been just as memorable had Bob Dylan been born somewhere else, like New York City. We felt content pedaling through the bucolic countryside, and although tired at the end, we felt a feeling of renewal and were at peace with the rest of the world.
In the process of “discovering” these Nowheres and turning them into Somewheres, I found that I got the same benefits from the other Nowheres I have visited. They all offered some solitude from the busier places in the world. They offered a place to connect with others, which lessens the need to escape to some wilderness Utopia. And the feeling of discovering a new place was invigorating, especially for a Geographer.
To all geographically minded folk, you cannot find Nowhere looking for a latitude and longitude coordinate. There are only blank spaces on your mental map that are begging to be filled in. When you fill in that map, please try to leave as little trace as you can if it is already a wild place. Respect its value for other life forms other than humans. And, if it is already inhabited by other humans, then by all means leave the best trace of yourself there and come away with a new perspective on it.
Truly, every place is a Somewhere, and Nowhere exists only in our minds….