Paul Salopek began his current journey in Ethiopia. At this writing, travel changes and border closings find him paused in Myanmar.
It has taken him seven years to get this far.
That’s because Salopek is traveling on foot. Guided by time and history, and walking very much in the present, he is tracing a route walked by our oldest ancestors and along the way talking with people he meets about their lives and concerns.
Salopek has always traveled — he crossed his first border as a young child when his parents moved from the US to Mexico — but this is the first time he has done so this slowly. An award winning reporter with two Pulitzer prizes to his name who has covered stories in the Balkans, the Middle East, in Latin America and across Africa, he was used to getting in, getting the gist of a place and a story quickly, and getting out, going on to the next assignment.
He began to wonder what it would be like to report differently, to find the stories between the dots, so to speak, the stories of day to day lives lived in between well known places and important events. What would he find as he explored these storeis, stories that could take, perhaps, months or years to discover and understand?
The result of that thinking is the Out of Eden Walk, a journey which Salopek at first thought would last about seven years. At the seven year mark, however, he is only about halfway through his route, which began in the Rift Valley in Africa and is meant to conclude at the tip of South America at Tierra del Fuego.
“I’m using the past as a road map. I’m using what scientists are telling us are the closest approximations of how we dispersed out of the mother continent, Africa, about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago,” he said in an interview with NPR as he was beginning the walk. It is not, however a journey about the past, he went on to explain, but rather how the world is changing and how people have changed the world.
To that end he stops and talks with people along the way, and every hundred miles he makes a point to ask the nearest person three questions: Who are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going?
The answers so far have led to friendly conversation, abrupt dismissal, invitations to meals, a place to stay for the night, and in at least one case being led off by a police officer. The conversations and the walking have also led to one off and ongoing stories, lasting friendships, walking partners, and lessons learned and shared.
You can read some of Salopek’s articles in National Geographic (they are one of the sponsors if his walk, along with the Knight Foundation and others; Salopek is a National Geographic Fellow). and in other publications, as well as at the Out of Eden web site. If you are an educator, doing home schooling, or a curious independent leaner, you will find many resources useful for education at that Out of Eden site, too. You will also be able to follow Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk on most social media platforms.
One of the points of the walk, perhaps its main point, is storytelling, in many different ways and which reach to many subjects from politics to climate change, from how a wooden cart wheel is made to what it is like to walk through harsh conditions of snow, to reflections on how the oil fields in Kazakstan parallel what was the ancient Silk Road trade route.
“History informs everything,” Salopek pointed out in an interview with PBS Newshour. He has found that “every step could be in a different era.”
Traveling by foot lends itself to slow journalism. That’s something Salopek expected, and yet he has learned things about that along the way as well. His past travels had led him to have trust in setting out most days with a destination of “how far I get before nightfall” to determine where he’d sleep that night. He has local walking partners along the way, but still, he and they have gotten lost at times. “Being a little lost is good. It keeps you alert,” he said.
As he explores thee stories that connect the dots “one story bleeds into another. Walking gives space to slow down to reflect,” he said. “What we need is not more information, but more space.”
From Ethiopia to Georgia to Kazakstan to India to (thus far) Myanmar, he finds that stories of hardship, hope, resilience, joy, and connection, differing in detail and ways they are told but holding similar threads, recur across the conversations he’s been having.
He has hope for more such exchanges. Adapting to changes along his route, he is about 9,000 miles into what is projected to be a 21,000 mile journey, on foot, leading to an end point in Patagonia at the tip of South America.
Part of the Out of Eden walk is about the longtime human quest to see what’s over the next hill, what’s beyond the sunset and sunrise. Part of it is about staying in the rhythm that travel by walking allows, and part of it is about finding the conversations and stories that rhythm invites.
It is also about sharing those stories. “Join me,” Paul Salopek said in a story in the Washington Post. “Follow the walk’s storytelling. And do get out and walk a bit on your own, to better understand your community.”
Photograph of Paul Salopek and map of the planned route courtesy of the Out of Eden Walk.
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