Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is documenting the world on his global, multi-year Out of Eden Walk. Since January 2013, the 59-year-old American has been walking from Africa along the ancient path of human migration, which started between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.
The journalist’s more than 38,000km odyssey across 36 countries will extend from Ethiopia to Argentina, passing through west Asia, the Silk Road, India, China, Siberia and the west coast of North and South America before terminating at Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. So far, he has covered 12,000km and is currently stuck in Myanmar due to a pandemic-induced border clampdown.
A scientist by training, Salopek says his project is about storytelling; an experiment in slow and immersive journalism. Through the Out of Eden Walk, he aims to gather knowledge in a slower way, at a more human pace, infusing his work with richer, deeper insights into the landscapes and lives of the people he encounters.
We recently caught up with Salopek to ask him how Covid has affected his travels, what inspires him to keep walking and what he wants the legacy of his voyage to be.
Q: We interviewed you six years ago, two years into your walk, when you were in eastern Turkey. Does your trip seem any more important or urgent in light of some of the recent challenges the planet has faced?
Like almost everyone, I’ve been affected by the pandemic. Borders are closed. Movement is restricted. I’ve paused the walk in northern Myanmar, waiting for things to open back up. Fortunately, among the things that walking teaches is patience.
In my immediate horizons, not much has changed. Farmers are cultivating rice. Lorries bump along jungle roads bringing the next consignment of beer and taking away river fish or timber. I’m lucky. Myanmar has a very low morbidity and mortality rate. The reasons are not entirely known and probably complicated. They may include some background level of resistance because humans and wild coronaviruses have been coexisting in this tropical environment for millennia. Because of this, a geneticist friend calls this the “pangolin belt”.
I’m not sure Covid makes my journey’s messages more urgent. It might make them more pertinent. Pandemics highlight our interdependency. We won’t heal until everybody heals. Our safety is communal.
Q: Travelling and storytelling come naturally to you as a foreign correspondent. Is that what inspired you to do this journey, and can you tell us what inspires you to keep walking?
This project is about storytelling. Walking is just the antique vehicle for that mission.
Ancient Greek bards. West African griots. Confucian walking scholars in China. The human habit of combining foot travel with narrative, learning and sharing culture is very old. It is a tradition found in many parts of the world.
I was a conventional foreign correspondent for years, zipping between breaking stories by plane or car. The advent of the Information Revolution has only sped up that whole process. Our stories today move at the speed of light. So, the Out of Eden Walk is a bit of pushback against all that. It aims to gather knowledge in a slower way, at a more humane pace, at the rate that these Stone Age brains that we’re still carrying around were designed to process – at 5km/h.
By slowing down my reporting process, my work is hopefully infused with richer, deeper insights into the landscapes and lives of the people I encounter. Walking bakes in the added element of time. It connects one story to another in a primal way. It encourages you to think before writing. I call it “slow journalism”, but it’s just our oldest form of discovery.
What keeps me going? The stories I encounter. They’re never-ending and no two are alike. Each one raises a new question.
Q: What made you decide to trace the ancient path of human migration?
I’m a scientist by training. I studied genetics, archaeology and human origins. It always struck me how closely interrelated global human populations are. Those of us residing outside of Africa only dispersed out of the mother continent yesterday, biologically speaking. And I’ve also been intrigued about how incredibly little is actually known about that first peopling of the world. It’s by far the greatest tale of human achievement in our species’ 300,000-year history – the exploration of an entire planet, mostly on foot. It’s the journey that made us the problem-solving creatures we are today.
Pandemics highlight our interdependency. We won’t heal until everybody heals.
Since all of us contributed to that original discovery somehow, because some common ancestor must have walked part of those trails, following the old dispersal routes serves as a unifying narrative through-line. It’s a reminder that [the English poet] Donne was right. Our fates are entwined, probably now more than ever. You’re a fool if you believe that whatever happens in America or Myanmar won’t somehow touch you.
Q: Following on from this, has the Black Lives Matter movement had any impact on your trip and on what you’re trying to show through your work?
I’m a very privileged nomad. I’m male, white and backed by powerful institutions such as the National Geographic Society. I was going to add that I carry a viable passport, but that’s not really the case anymore, is it? In any case, I walk the Earth by choice, not out of necessity, like most of the estimated one billion migrants on the move across the globe today – war refugees, economic migrants and those fleeing the destruction of the climate crisis.
I try my best to convey this position within my storytelling. It’s actually hard not to. Walking is a humbling experience. But that’s also its main strength. Think about it. When you move constantly, year after year, on foot, through the lands of strangers, it’s hard to “other” unknown people you encounter because, often, your life literally depends on them. I would be dead now without the mercy of strangers.
You soon learn that people everywhere are concerned by 95% of the same things. We all talk about the same issues. Love or its absence. The fates of our children. Hate the boss. And, increasingly, the ominous climate.
What’s happening with Black Lives Matter, it seems to me, involves a lot of long overdue reckonings about an American caste system and its fossilised injustice. But it’s also a huge chance to listen. I mean really listen. That’s its rare power. This is what I tell students following my journey. I’m listening as much as walking my way across the world. It’s what all decent storytellers do, of course. But I’d argue it’s a form of prayer. Listening is an act of human reclamation.
Q: You spent many months in India walking along the country’s great rivers, such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra. What did you learn about this country and its people?
The route in India lasted 16 months and calipered almost 4,000km across the country’s north. What you learn on foot is that every village is a cosmos, with [its] own personality and issues. That said, what I chose to focus on in my work was water. India is a riverland. Every one of its rivers is a deity. Yet the country is undergoing a silent water calamity – shortages, pollution – that impacts a staggering 600 million people. That’s a whole lot of human woe and the problem is so colossal that few can even look at it squarely. The government certainly isn’t; it’s still relying on 19th-Century British plans to reroute entire rivers. Good luck with that. As one of my walking partners, the amazing environmental photographer Arati Kumar-Rao says, the place is in massive denial.
On the human level, India is a very congenial place to walk. That’s because millions of people still do it. Farmers leave clay water pots at roadsides for pedestrians to drink, and some communities still have dharamshalas, or pilgrim guest houses. The boom of Indian traffic still echoes in my ears.
Q: Documenting your journey is an important part of the process. How are you recording and sharing what you see, and what do you want the legacy of your walk to be?
I write weekly or fortnightly dispatches, and the people who walk with me – the project’s walking partners – also contribute their own storytelling. Most of this material appears on the National Geographic website. There are “milestones” that I record every 100 miles (160km) of displacement along the walk. There are narrative maps. There are photo galleries and videos. My editor calculated that the current rate of production, the journey is on track to produce a million words of text. My walking partners and I also conduct workshops en route in “slow journalism”.
I think that this educational mission will be the journey’s real legacy. Nothing would make me happier than to leave a multicultural community of thoughtful storytellers in my wake. In that way, the journey continues via others long after I hang up my boots in Tierra del Fuego.
Q: The world is an amazing place. Tell us about some of the things that have made you fall in love with our planet as you walk?
I think walking teaches about the world in an ideal way. The horizons are earned. You live within your body’s limitations – marking progress by the length of your stride. It keeps you grounded, humble. Like a lot of things that are good in life – love, friendship, food, conversation – the slowness of it is essential. There is a sort of sacrament of days. You wake up, have a cup of tea, pack your rucksack and move on. At sunset you carry out this process in reverse, savouring it. Walking reacquaints you with the forgotten ceremonies of arrivals and departures. These are daily rituals that motorised transport, speed, schedules, have obliterated. And you wake up to every sky not knowing where you will sleep next, yet with a steadying directionality to your life: east. You experience a continuity in life that I think must have been our original state. The world slides by, your waking hours balance between alertness and daydreaming.
Q: What challenges have you faced in planning your route? And where are you headed to next?
Around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, when the first modern humans began roaming out of Africa in earnest, the main obstacles were deserts or oceans or ice caps. For me, the big hurdles today are artificial – political borders. I wasn’t able to get a visa to walk through Iran or Turkmenistan, two countries that are important centres of human migration and culture. I walked around them.
Now I’m waiting for borders closed by the pandemic to reopen, hopefully in the month or two. Then I’ll walk from Myanmar to China. Walking across China, a country whose incredible environmental and cultural diversity often gets flattened in the media, will be one of the highlights of the global trek. I look forward to it much in the manner of the old Confucian scholars, who pursued a well-lived life through the exercise of dé 德 (potency, virtuosity) while engaged in an activity labelled yóu 遊 (wandering).
This segment of the trail will cover more than 6,000km and take about a year and half.
Q: An aim of your walk is to connect with local people, but your journey also sounds as though it could be fairly isolating. Can you tell us about the people who have both helped and accompanied you on your walk?
From [the] beginning of the walk in Ethiopia, I have moved with local walking partners. At first, this was for logistical reasons mainly – for navigational help, and interpreting interviews. But I quickly discovered that walking with people through their own homelands became a fundamental pillar of the project itself. Without them, I would learn much less, be able [to] share much less with readers, and in general have a diminished experience of the journey.
Nothing would make me happier than to leave a multicultural community of thoughtful storytellers in my wake
This is especially true about walking with women. They help open the doors to the stories of half the human species and contribute a crucial perspective of their own that I can’t often access, especially in conservative rural societies. My walking partners – and they include Ethiopian camel pastoralists, American palaeontologists, retired Saudi army officers, Turkish landscape photographers, Georgian high school students and amazing Indian writers, among many others – are like family. We now incorporate their stories of the walk into the fabric of the narrative. In this way, the walk is building a global community of narrators, artists, thinkers who will be the real legacy of this lunatic jaunt.
Q: What is the first thing you’ll do after completing your journey?
Walking teaches by taking away expectation. I have no idea.