The National Geographic Fellow is walking “Out of Eden” and into the defining conflicts of our time.
Paul Salopek in the Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan. Image: John Stanmeyer / National Geographic
Paul Salopek remembers the time his motorcycle broke down in Roswell, New Mexico in 1985. To earn repair money, he took a bunch of manual labour jobs: a butcher's assistant, a donut-maker. And “on a lark” he told us, he applied for a job as a cub reporter at the local newspaper. “I never looked back.”
Born in California and raised in Mexico, Salopek said, “I got into journalism like a lot of people do—by accident.” Salopek has covered conflicts in Central America, New Guinea and Balkans, but in January 2013, he decided to undertake a different kind of investigation as a National Geographic Fellow. Salopek began retracing the footsteps of our ancestors, on foot, embarking on a ten-year, 21,000 mile journey across four continents.
His aim, he told us, was “to find humanity. To know home—that would be the planet.” Salopek, who is now 56, is currently in India. VICE corresponded with him ahead of a talk at the American Centre in Delhi on May 18, which will also be broadcast on Facebook.
VICE: What was the first day of your journey like?
Paul Salopek: It was January, 2013, winter in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia. The camels and camel drivers I'd hired months before never showed up. I forgot to bring cargo bags for the animals, so we strapped my airport rolling-luggage bag onto the back of a fill-in camel. That sort of set the tone for this whole enterprise. It's all been pretty improvised, seat-of-the pants. I prepared for this walk by spending my whole life as a nomad.
How long did it take you to prepare?
I was 50 when I took the first step. So, I'd have to say it took me 50 years of prep work. What I remind readers is that this isn't an athletic exercise, a team sporting event, a reality show or even an "adventure." It's a storytelling project. It's about traveling attentively, with an open mind, as much as it is about feet and walking.
What was going on in your mind at the start of your journey?
I'd like to think I was thinking epic thoughts about the spirit of human discovery, but the truth is, I was irked by all the dumb, last-minute glitches that plagued my logistics that day. Like everyone, I still get frustrated when trivial things go wrong—but I'm happy to report that my threshold for preoccupation has risen. I let a lot of unimportant things be unimportant—I let them go. This is a gentle gift of the walk.
How has this project impacted your personal life?
My family wasn't too surprised when I shared this idea. They know me. It was, "Oh, sure—you're going to ramble from Africa to Patagonia. Of course you are." They come visit me along the trail. We all get together as often as we can. But the journey is continuous, as journeys were until recent times. There's a narrative reason for this—to try and tap into the ancients' frame of mind. It took human beings about 70,000 years to explore the far edges of the Earth after walking out of Africa in Pleistocene times. I'm not planning on going back to the US until my own smallish trek is over.
How do you define “slow journalism”?
It's another name for immersive journalism. This project was devised as a way to subvert the conventions of the digital media industry. To go diametrically in the opposite direction that we're all headed: faster and shallower. I believe there's a space for longer, hopefully more thoughtful storytelling in our lives, and walking accomplishes this. By moving at 5 km an hour through the mains stories of our time, I think I gather a better understanding—and make connections that others, ping-ponging between stories in planes and cars—miss all the time. It's basically experiencing the news as a form of pilgrimage.
Have you ever regretted this project?
No. I haven't yet questioned my decision to walk for ten years across four continents. But I have evolved in terms of my relationship to narrative. I think I've become a better writer. Hard not to. Taking millions of footsteps sort of deepens and internalises your rhythms—even in language. My sentences are more iambic.
Five years into this project, what have you learned and unlearned?
To be honest, I haven't had an obvious "Aha!" epiphany. I've been using my body as the principle tool for reportage most of my professional life. I covered Africa for a decade. In Africa you do a lot of walking to reach stories. So the walk is more like a refinement of a lifelong method—a way to connect stories—about environment, war, culture, politics or anything else—organically, with a more thoughtful narrative through line.
What you learn by this boot-level journalism is that world isn't flat (it only looks that way when you're reporter on an expense account working from the 20th floor of a five-star hotel) but that it is indeed extraordinarily interconnected. What happens to each of us affects others in faintly measurable or profoundly impactful ways.
What do you aim to achieve at the end of this project?
To be a better writer. To share a few hunter-gatherer insights picked up along the way. To know home. That would be the planet.
This is a cliche question but what are some of your most memorable moments from the walk?
And the cliched reply: There are simply too many to enumerate. Every day brings a miraculous moment. And you know what? They usually involve people. I tell my readers, I'm not walking to Tierra del Fuego. I'm walking to people. People are my destination.
Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org .
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