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Episodes: To the ends of the Earth


Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 13 2016

5 min read



If I had a dream job (OK, if I had one dream job among many I wanted to talk about here today), it would be to get paid to visit remote places and write about the people who live there.

This is probably because I grew up in a remote place (we were 42 miles from the nearest McDonald's!). But I also have an innate fascination with the people who get as far away from everything else as they possibly can, then stay there, especially in an era when we're all connected via the internet (at least theoretically). What is it that sends somebody skittering out to the farthest out of the Aleutians? What force of gravity keeps the same seven families tethered to the most remote island on the face of the planet?

At literally every job I've had, I've proposed some sort of video series or podcast in which I am given a car and just sent out to explore the most random corners of the country and world. I think my favorite iteration of this was a travel show I pitched at AV Club that I knew would never get produced, in which we sent stand-up comedians to the most remote places we could find, then had them perform their sets for the people there after doing a quick travelogue. Naturally, I would go along as producer.

I'd love to make the excuse that this is a subconscious longing for the home of my childhood, that now that I live in the country's second largest city (and its single largest county), I have an intense longing for being alone. Some of that is true, but I also remember sitting in the back seat of the car as a child, looking at road atlases and other maps, finding the weirdest places I could, then imagining what it must be like to live there, what my life might be like if I had wound up there.

Some of this is baked into the DNA of the imaginative adopted kid, who can always look back at the facts of their birth and imagine a few things twisting in a different direction, leading to an entirely different life. And for a while, I thought that, say, my attraction to large bodies of water had something to do with the fact that I was born on the shores of Lake Michigan. But the Grand Rapids metropolitan area isn't some sort of isolated burg, out in the middle of nowhere. So the fascination with the remote is ultimately an invention of my own mind.

The funny thing about all of this is that if, say, I ended up moving to Pitcairn Island or something, I would be so bored within about five minutes of doing so. The idea of extreme isolation is a compelling one, but only in fits and starts. I need most of my life to be surrounded by noise and people and sensation. And yet there's still the dream of the open road and the car and nothing constraining me but my imagination and ability to turn my random voyages into clean copy.

So if you're looking to fund a random road trip, in text, video, or podcast form, these are some places I would visit, almost certainly.

Ocracoke, North Carolina: This is a place I've actually been, but I was sort of thrilled by it. It's way the hell out in the Atlantic Ocean, on a thin band of land known as the "Outer Banks." What kind of person moves out here? What kind of life can you live when you're literally at the mercy of the ocean? Something about climate change.

Barrow, Alaska: The northernmost city in the United States, you would be surprised how many people live here. It's almost 5,000! And they're only around 250 miles from the friggin' North Pole. You can only get here by plane, pretty much, because who would build roads up here? And yet people come.

Western North Dakota: I've never actually been here, but the oil boom suggests there might be some interesting stuff going on. (I think I missed the boat on this one.)

Ushuaia, Argentina: Hey, if I'm going to Barrow, may as well go to the planet's southernmost city as well.

Any random monastery or something that's up incredibly high on the side of a mountain: These are less common than you'd expect from playing lots of Dungeons and Dragons, but they do still exist, and I'd love to go hang out with some monks. Who wouldn't?

Shelter Cove, California: It's always amazing to me that a town this isolated can exist in our most populated state. But when California Highway 1 was being built, the builders had to skirt around a particularly impenetrable section of mountain range, which left a bunch of people on the coast effectively cut off from everybody else. That's left this tiny town, now connected by winding, dangerous mountain roads. If you ever have the chance to go, you should.

Svalbard: It's entirely possible my desire to visit remote places is driven by my desire to visit cold, snowy places. Which is why I keep trying to convince my wife that we should spend the winter holidays in this extreme, remote outpost of Norway some year. So far, she hasn't seemed interested. But I'll convince her!

Tell me: Where should I go? In particular, I'd love to find some weird, remote radio station or something like that -- businesses out in the middle of nowhere that cling to existence by the skin of their teeth. That's the good stuff.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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