Paul Salopek is two years into a 21,000-mile walk that will take him from Ethiopia to South America’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago, retracing the path of human migration out of Africa. Even the most intrepid travellers would classify his walk as an extraordinary achievement – but Salopek believes that humans are hardwired to walk long distances. After all, our ancient ancestors were hunter-gatherers who walked some 2,500 miles per year.
Inspired by this belief that humans are not meant to be sedentary, the nomadic 52-year-old National Geographic Fellow and veteran foreign correspondent decided that rather than fly, he would travel on foot from one story to the next, writing many of them for his Out of Eden Project Dispatches. And he maintains that his walk isn’t a radical departure; it’s an extension of his peripatetic life. He’s been on the move since he was six, when his father quit his US government job and moved the family to a small town in Central Mexico.
When Salopek’s walk is complete, he has no idea where he’ll go; the only thing he’s certain of is that he’ll continue to travel the world telling stories through his uniquely anthropological approach to journalism. We caught up with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist via Skype on a rainy night in early November to find out why he believes that slowing down brings the world into crisper focus and makes us better stewards of the planet.
Q: You started the walk in Ethiopia nearly two years ago. Where are you now?
I’m in a small town in eastern Turkey, north of Lake Van, called Agri, heading toward the Caucasus Mountains. The plan is to walk through the mountain border pass into Georgia, and then I’m making a beeline to Tbilisi because the weather is getting miserably cold and I will spend the winter there.
Q: Where have you walked to date?
I spent the first two months crossing Ethiopia. I was in Djibouti for about six weeks, but there was a lot of down time because I was waiting for a ship. I took a cargo ship carrying livestock across the Gulf of Aden and across the Red Sea. I landed in Jeddah and walked up the Hejaz Coast. That took about seven months.
I couldn’t give a hoot about how many footsteps I’m making per day. I’m walking story to story. I’m just a foreign correspondent who happens to walk.
Q: Was the walk your idea?
It was my idea. There was no eureka moment. It’s not really a departure from my previous life; it’s more like an arrival at what I’ve been doing for many years. I’ve been a travelling journalist for most of my adult life. My background is not in journalism; I’m a biologist by training, but since my early 20s I’ve been travelling, reporting.
My approach has always been immersive. I don’t try to compete with big guys like The New York Times who go in, cover stories very thoroughly and then leave. I stay. I seek out quiet points of the world where there is no news. Usually, that means something is happening there but no one is interested yet. I spent a decade in Africa. I’ve covered Latin America, Central Asia, the Balkan Wars and the Middle East.
I’ve always recorded current events by going to places, getting out of vehicles and using my body as the main tool of collecting information. When I’m in Africa, on the Congo River, I want to get in pirogue boats with fisherman. In Mexico, I like to work on a ranch for a year and see how that figures into narcotics, or whatever I’m covering. It’s an anthropological way of doing journalism.
The notion of connecting it by walking is the only innovation. I thought, rather than flying into places and doing immersive journalism and then leaving, why not walk to the next story? That’s where this idea came from. I love Africa. I know a lot about the science of human origins, so I thought, why not combine my scientific background with my anthropological bent and my interest in current events by retracing the dispersal of humans out of the African continent 60,000 to 70,000 years ago?
This is my job, I’m not doing this for an adventure or to explore new landscapes or see new destinations. What’s more interesting to me are people. So I have a hard time answering the question: what’s your favourite place? I don’t have one. I have favourite people. What motivates my work is the inner map of what it is to be human. What makes us amazingly diverse but also very much alike at the same time.
Q: How soon did you start walking after you developed this idea?
It was probably 18 months to two years from when I had the idea to when I set out from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia. I had been working at the Chicago Tribune as their Africa correspondent and all-purpose foreign affairs fireman until the spring of 2009 when that newspaper, like a lot of others, eliminated their foreign desks. I did a few fellowships, and then I worked on my father-in-law’s cattle ranch in West Texas. I was working on a book and it was during this transition period that I thought about walking the world on the pathways of the first human diaspora out of Africa over the course of seven years.
Q: Did you set any ground rules for the walk before setting out?
All I knew is that I would walk wherever possible, and where it was impossible to walk I would be honest with readers about those motorised segments. Given that this is a story about human migration, the fact that I’m impeded from walking across certain parts of the world is part of the story. Because of the security situation in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey, I had to put our mule in a truck and drive it for 190km around Diyarbakir, where there were street battles and people being killed. Villages were up in arms. We were detained. There were threats made against my walking partner’s life, so at that point, I said, “Bugger it, I’m not going to martyr myself for this project.” We put the mule in the truck, I told readers what happened, and it became part of the journey.
Everything is structured and engineered to deprive you of the sensation of moving and travel, of having made a journey. Modern air travel annihilates time and space, so I try not to fly anywhere. That’s about as baked as my ground rules are.
Q: Have you spent most of the walk alone?
Most of the time I’ve walked with guides, but that might change. I need guides and interpreters in places where I don’t speak the language. I speak fluent Spanish so in Latin America I’ll be able to dispense with interpreters completely. But I’ll still probably walk with people because they become more than just the interpreters of language. They’re interpreters of landscape, of culture – and they’re good company.
The project is kind of a lunatic idea, but the people who walk with me take possession of the journey. In some cases, more than I do. Their enthusiasm and rediscovery of their own familiar landscapes has been one of the great joys of the trip. The walk is as much theirs as it is mine.
Q: What kind of financial support do you have for the walk?
There are two big backers, National Geographic and the Knight Foundation. And then we have a couple of other partners. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington DC is helping with expenses and they created a curriculum around the walk for teachers who want to use it. The Project Zero Research Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education set up a platform on independent learning that connects schools that are following the walk, with the aim of getting the students to talk to each other and teach each other about their own backyards.
Q: If you don’t finish in seven years, will your funding dry up?
My sponsors are doing it in two-year increments, which is what any sane institution would do. I’m talking to National Geographic about committing to the end of the project – that would relieve me of some fundraising duties – but I understand their point. I’ll be pushing 60 even if I’m on schedule near the end. I’m not getting any younger.
Q: Would you press on even if your funding dried up?
If the project remained interesting and fun, yes. I’d find a way, in a diminished scale, to continue. You have to do it for yourself. A large part of this journey is self-improvement – to become a better writer.
Q: Are you on schedule to reach Tierra del Fuego in 2020?
I think I’m about four months behind schedule so far. It’s pretty certain I’m going to go over by a year or maybe even two.
Q: Is that OK or are you determined to finish the walk in seven years?
Seven was based on a mathematical calculation where I’d walk for half the year and use the other half to be stationary and report. It’s also biblical: seven years of famine, seven years of feast. I’m not wedded to seven, but I would hope I’m not doing this for a decade.
Q: How fit were you before undertaking this journey?
I’ve done a series of hikes in remote and rugged corners of the world, but I’ve never done anything big like the Pacific Crest Trail [2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada]. There is no real way to train for something like this. You just walk.
Q: Before you embarked on the walk you went to Tierra del Fuego to meet an 84-year-old woman, Cristina Calderón, who is the last full-blooded speaker of a language called Yaghán. Can you explain the significance of this pre-walk trip?
It was a symbolic, pre-walk pilgrimage to the finish line. I had heard about Christina through my research. A lot of what I’m writing about is the reclamation of memory, so I wanted to meet her. More than 5,000 languages are in peril.
I recorded her words and I hope she’s still there when I make it to that part of the world. You have to start a circle somewhere to close it. She was the start.
Q: I read that you avoided walking through Somalia and aren’t sure if you can walk through Iran. How are you planning the route?
One of the reasons I’m walking north to Georgia, which wasn’t on the original itinerary, is because Iran has yet to give me a visa. I would love to walk through Iran. If you are talking about the diffusion of knowledge and culture, if you don’t walk through Iran you’re missing an enormous bridge between East and West. I’m still hopeful that my visa will come through, in which case I’ll route south.
The route has been blown sideways and back depending on political considerations. Now the plan is to walk through Azerbaijan and then take the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan and then walk through the ‘Stans along the old Silk Road. From there, it gets fuzzy.
I’d love to walk through the Wakhan Corridor [a narrow strip of territory in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China] which is wild and has a major predator – the snow leopard – and then, if the mountainous part of northern Pakistan is stable enough, we’ll go through into northern India and beyond. We’ll see how the route evolves.
Q: Tell us about one day from your walk so far?
I’ll tell you about the last two days. We woke up in a small, cheap pension in a town called Patnos in far eastern Turkey. It’s a market town in the middle of nowhere with no real economic or historical significance. We’d had to find someone on the outskirts of town to take care of our mule, so we recovered the mule, walked through town and headed north on the high steppe through these yellowing grasslands over a sea of autumn grass for as far as the eye could see in all directions. It was a beautiful, stunning, crisp clear autumn day. We passed tiny little hamlets of six or seven stone houses – very poor places with sheep farmers who are ethnic Kurds – spaced out about two to three hours apart.
I saw my first wild wolf running away from us in the dropping sun. In the evening, coming down off those heights toward a river, we tried to find shelter in a village mosque, which is what we’ve been doing often, but they said, “No, get out of here.”
We asked if we could camp out in a field around town and they repeated, “No, get out of here.” It was already dark out and they said, “If you leave, you’re going to get shot because we have enemies, other Kurds, and they might take potshots at you.” It was a very unpleasant, tense evening. We walked into the night toward a paved road and camped near the road that night.
We got up the next morning and started following the river toward Agri, where I am now. And in the mid-morning, lagging behind my walking partner, I was ambushed by three guys with Kalashnikovs who were barking at me and had their fingers on the triggers waiting to shoot. They turned out to be Kurds who had been co-opted by the Turkish military to fight the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers' Party], the Kurdish guerrilla movement. Walking disassembles these big political constructs – the Kurds fighting the Turks – for example, and gets down to a real granular level, in this case, uncomfortably close to how incredibly complicated the Kurdish question is here in eastern Turkey.
These guys nearly shot me. But after diffusing that encounter, we walked on to this town and ended the day on a beautiful note. We parked the mule at a farm where this wonderful guy was out caulking his windows. He brought out cushions for us to sit on in his green, green pasture with willowing birch trees. He brought out tea and we had this magical moment watching the sun go down with this feeling of accomplishment.
People say, “Isn’t it boring to walk?” That viewpoint says nothing about the world but everything about the lack of imagination of the questioner.
Q: You wrote that in 700 miles of walking through Saudi Arabia, only one person chose to walk with you. In other countries, far more people have joined you. What does the level of participation say about each culture?
This is a complicated question that I’m still trying to figure out. The automobile has taken over life, subordinated life in some places. Car ownership is not an evil thing. But we also give up something. And that is a certain spatial familiarity and awareness of the world we live in that goes back to the beginning of our species. By losing that connection to our feet and landscape, the car has made us spatial morons.
When you step in a car, it gives you an unearned sense of entitlement. Once you’ve been out walking around the world, to be travelling sitting down on your ass all the time seems ridiculous. It’s hard for me to take anybody who travels sitting down on their ass very seriously any more, having walked several thousand miles out of Africa.
We’ve become so dependent on cars that we don’t realise how blind we’ve become. I’m not suggesting that people give up cars. That’s ridiculous. Our economies would collapse. But it’s worth stopping sometimes and unplugging from that umbilical device.
Q: When you turn up in villages looking a little unkempt, have you at times felt unwelcome?
In Northern Europe or North America, car ownership is the ticket to mainstream society. If you are out on foot, you are by definition a freak, unless you’re wearing $1,000 worth of Gore-Tex and are out hiking the Appalachian Trail. You’re a homeless person; you might be some sort of deviant; you might be dangerous. I haven’t been in a society affluent enough and mechanised enough to be scared of us yet, but I think that will happen in my own country a lot.
Q: There have been moments of danger on your trip. There were shots fired in your direction by the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank; you had the above incident in eastern Turkey. But have those scary moments been trumped by occasions of hospitality?
Yes and I hope that comes through in my stories. Being on foot in dicey areas is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can’t get away very quickly, but on the other, you get to avoid dangerous situations because you aren’t blindly driving into them. On foot, you are constantly interacting with people around you, so people warn you about things. Walking protects you. It’s like an early warning system to protect you from hot spots.
Q: Do you worry about how you’ll transition back into normal life after walking for seven or more years?
It’s not a concern for me, because what is normal life? I’ve been doing this since I was six years old. I crossed my first border at six and I was raised in a village in central Mexico in a dramatically different culture. I don’t have those concerns because I don’t have a home. I don’t have a normal life to go back to. This is my normal life and I’ll be doing it until I draw my last breath.
I have no clue what I’m going to be doing when this is over. Maybe I’ll become sedentary but I don’t spend one nanosecond thinking about it.
Q: Why did your father move you to Mexico?
I was in kindergarten in California and my father was working for the US government as a graphic illustrator. He was also a big Kennedy man. He had campaigned for Jack and Bobby [Kennedy] and was a big supporter of Martin Luther King. In ‘68 when Bobby and MLK were killed, he said “to hell with this country”. He quit his job, sold our house and bought a used van, lured four kids and his wife into it and headed to the nearest border, which was Mexico. He had no destination in mind. We still don’t know what his plan was; he just wanted to get out.
We ended up settling in a small town outside Guadalajara. He was an artist, so he opened up a tiny backyard art school and he taught middle-class Mexicans how to paint. I went to Mexican schools until I was 13. My father’s health was declining at that point and we moved back. He was preparing to move us back to his ancestral land – Croatia – but he got sick, so we took him back to the States and he died.
I went back to Pennsylvania for a year, which is where his clan was from, then moved back to California and did two years of high school before I dropped out to do odd jobs.
Q: What did you do before you became a journalist?
Until my early 30s, I worked outside journalism as much as in it. I would do a job at a newspaper for six or nine months or a year, get bored with it and quit and go back to doing manual labour. I started my working life knocking almonds on farms in Central California at 16 or 17. I got my first commercial fishing job on a shrimp boat in West Australia. It’s great money, and it’s exhilarating to work at sea. And I continued working as a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific and North Atlantic for years off and on while also bouncing in and out of newsrooms.
Q: How did you make the transition to writing?
I was driving to the Gulf of Mexico in 1985 to try to find work on a shrimp boat. My motorbike was second hand and when it broke down in Roswell, New Mexico, I had to stop and earn some money to get it fixed. I was a butcher’s assistant during the day and I worked at a doughnut shop at night.
I rented a room in a woman’s home for $25 a week. She had worked at the Saturday Evening Post during its heyday in New York during the 1950s and ‘60s. She noticed I was reading beat up paperbacks and she got me a job at the local newspaper where she had been the city editor. I owe my career to Lee Dixon and this random encounter – and that’s what’s so great about nomadism.
Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your walk?
If the walk can provide readers with a coherent narrative that stretches over an unusually long period of time, I’ll consider it a success. If I can keep readers travelling along with me for the duration of the walk, then that in itself is a major success.
We have thousands of school kids around the world following this project using the walk’s journalism as a teaching tool. That’s also an important measure of success to me. The walk is also about reminding young people that the world is not a dangerous place. Thrill seekers who go on TV to do extreme things, by the very nature of what they do, they’re implying that the world is a dangerous place. My philosophy is 180 degrees the opposite. The world is yours. Whether you realise it or not, you own it. You can walk through it as if you own it or you can fear it and be afraid to go out and claim it. If we can remind people that, yes, there are wars, there are famines, there are diseases like Ebola, but you can also get killed just staying at home.
We are adapted to this planet. We have come to own it. If we have that sensibility, we might become better curators of the planet. And on a personal level, I hope that by the time I reach Tierra del Fuego my work is different. I don’t know how, but if I haven’t grown, then that’s a failure.
Q: Have you heard from people who said they were inspired by your walk?
Yes, and it’s like having a tailwind. It’s very encouraging. Our partners at Project Zero and at the Pulitzer Center are having kids go out into their neighbourhoods to explore. You don’t have to go to Patagonia. You don’t have to go to Chechnya. Go out in your own neighbourhood and walk around. Take a notebook or an iPhone with you. Slow down and have a look around your own backyard and you get to rediscover the world. If the walk inspires some people to do that, that’s huge.
Title page photo © John Stanmeyer/National Geographic
All information correct as of March 2015.