Time traveler Paul Salopek leads his camels across Ethiopia’s Afar desert. (John Stanmeyer / National Geographic)
Paul Salopek is going for a walk. He set out in Ethiopia at the beginning of 2013. If all goes well, he’ll arrive at the tip of Chile in 2020. Salopek, 51 and a veteran foreign correspondent, is retracing the 60,000-year-old route of the first humans who emigrated from Africa, through the Middle East and Asia, and into the Americas.
Christened “Out of Eden,” the project grew partly out of Salopek’s love of literature, particularly the tradition of quest stories that dates back to Greek epic poetry. Such stories gave his journey its structure and mission: Follow a prehistoric route in an effort to understand the modern world more deeply. By “inching slowly across the surface of the Earth,” as Salopek puts it, he wants to discover “links between stories,” like globalization and climate change, “that are covered in a really granular, segmented way by the media.”
The project is funded by the National Geographic Society and the Knight Foundation. Salopek writes stories about his travels, transcribes interviews with people he meets, and posts photographs and videos at nationalgeographic.com and outofedenwalk.com. Every 100 miles he snaps a picture of the ground and the sky, takes a panoramic shot of his surroundings, records some audio, and then asks the nearest person three questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?
Salopek spent much of his career covering developing countries, winning two Pulitzer Prizes reporting on Africa for the Chicago Tribune. As a result, he is comfortable in conditions Westerners might consider extreme. “Maybe the most important thing that people might find extreme,” he says, “is the capacity to wait, which the global north seems to find increasingly incomprehensible. The ability to sit under a tree and wait for something to happen—it’s a way of perceiving the world that is getting rarer as the world becomes more wired.”
The objective is to walk for seven years straight—no coming home for holidays. His “long-suffering wife” visits him on the road, as do his brothers and sisters. But, Salopek says, “There’s no guarantee that in 2020 I’m going to be walking onto a beach in Chile. That is the goal, but I reserve the right to stop walking. And that itself becomes part of the journey.”