It is the middle of the night in Yumurtalik, Turkey. Two men load their belongings on a pack mule. Alarms clang. Around them, people stand in their pajamas. Behind them, the hotel where they were staying smokes from a fire caused by a cosmetics bag left in a hot laundry room. The two men and the mule walk away, heading east.
This is just one moment in what will be a very long walk.
National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek is walking from Africa to the tip of South America. His walk will take him through the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. Salopek is following the path our human ancestors took out of Africa about 200,000 years ago. It took ancient humans around 50,000 years to migrate from Africa to South America. Salopek will make the trek much faster. He estimates his journey, which he began in 2013, will take about ten years.
Salopek has named his journey the Out of Eden Walk. As he walks through different countries, landscapes, and cultures, Salopek is documenting what he sees and hears. And he isn’t walking alone. During each part of his walk, Paul is joined by a local guide. Along the way, he meets people from small villages, cities, and rural farms. Sometimes, they give him a place to stay for a night or two. Often, his hosts share a little bit about their lives with him.
The Out of Eden Walk is well-named. Besides a few rides on boats or ships, Salopek is walking the entire way. No cars. He doesn’t even ride bikes or horses, though he does use pack animals. An important part of Salopek’s mission is to tell the stories of ordinary people. Walking gives him more time to look around and to talk to the people he encounters. Salopek has conversed with everybody from Turkish pistachio farmers to Saudi generals to Afghan cobblers. He has spoken to thousands of people since his walk began. As he puts it: “I am engaged in a seven, eight, nine-year-long conversation with total strangers.”
Following a story is not new for Paul Salopek. He is a journalist. He has written for The Atlantic, the Chicago Tribune, National Geographic, and other publications. His work has earned many awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Traveling the world is not new for Salopek, either. He crossed his first border at age six when he moved with his parents from the United States to Mexico. He spent more than ten years traveling through Africa as the Chicago Tribune’s chief foreign correspondent.
Salopek has covered conflicts and crises around the world. He has reported on topics ranging from the environment to immigration to human DNA. In 2006, he was jailed in Sudan while working on a story for National Geographic about the Sahel region of Africa.
As a journalist, Salopek would often fly into an area to cover a story and then quickly leave again. But he felt he was missing part of the story and wanted to dig deeper. The Out of Eden Walk was born from this desire. Salopek calls it slow journalism. The goal is to deeply explore some of the major news stories of our times by talking to ordinary people who are affected. As Salopek describes it: “It is about slowing down enough to actually inhabit the stories of the day. To immerse yourself in the stories of the day and to get to know the people who are behind the headlines, the ordinary people who are behind stories about mass migration, refugee crises, climate change…”
This storytelling is the main focus of Salopek’s walk. He is sharing his stories through dispatches from the trail, articles for National Geographic, and interviews with news organizations. Every one hundred miles, he stops and photographs his surroundings. He asks the nearest person three questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going? These images and encounters will help him tell the story of humanity along his path.
Connections to History
There are many stories to be told from Paul Salopek’s explorations. Among them are interesting connections between the modern world and our past. As part of his walk, Salopek traced the path of the ancient Silk Roads. As far back as 2,200 years ago, humans were trading along this web of roads connecting China to the Roman Empire. Along with the many kinds of goods, traders also brought less tangible things—disease, religion, culture, and ideas. Europeans were introduced to algebra, paper-making, and the bubonic plague. Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism spread and took root in new areas.
The impact of trade along the ancient Silk Road was immense. Today, the people who live along this route are also impacted by trade. During Salopek’s walk, he has found many examples of how globalism has affected local areas. Traveling through Kazakhstan, he walked through oil fields that are a key resource in this region. Like the paths of the Silk Road once did, pipelines now cross this area, bringing oil and gas to Europe and China.
Trade along the ancient Silk Road brought wealth and access to new ideas for those along the route. Today, trade in oil and gas is doing the same thing for some. The wealth from oil and gas has been used to build new infrastructure. This wealth has also led to new opportunities for some children to attend universities outside the area, bringing back both knowledge and influences of outside culture.
This area will continue changing. China is leading a charge to build more infrastructure. Just as in the days of the Silk Road, their goal is to make trade between
Humans and Nature
Along his walk, Salopek has also seen how humans interact with the natural world around them. From Africa to the Middle East to Central and Southeast Asia, he has met farmers whose livelihoods depend on nature. And he has seen firsthand the real impact of climate change on ordinary people. In Djibouti, he spoke with migrants leaving behind the lives they knew in search of work in the Middle East. Many were herders and farmers. They were fleeing droughts made worse by climate change. Their journey was not easy. Some would die before reaching their destination. But as one Ethiopian farmer explained to Salopek, “It is useless to plant. The rains never come. It is better to die trying to leave than to wait for death at home.”
Changing climate patterns mean more rain in some areas and less in others. In Ethiopia, Salopek had to navigate around groups of nomadic herders fighting over access to water and grass which have become scarcer, as rainfall has become less reliable in the region. In Georgia, he saw the effects of too much rain; an entire neighborhood slid into a river in a flood. And in the steppes of Kazakhstan, he witnessed the spring blooming of plants more suited to the wetter savannahs. Even the ninety-year-old nomads who had spent a lifetime walking through the area had never seen some of the plants before.
A Million Global Citizens
One of Salopek’s goals for the Out of Eden Walk is that one million global citizens will gain a better understanding of who we are as a species and our relationship with the natural world. And he believes that slow journalism will help him build that understanding. He explains, “I believe there's a space for longer, hopefully more thoughtful storytelling in our lives, and walking accomplishes this. By moving at five kilometers an hour [three miles per hour] through the main 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.”
Salopek’s slow walk has given him a chance to hear stories from thousands of people. And he has found that many of those stories are connected in ways he would not have noticed before. Salopek says of his experience, “It remains, four years in, one of the most amazing experiments in my life as a storyteller. It is making connections between stories that I was never really aware of before when I was traveling around the world quickly, as most of us do. It’s continuously surprising.”