On this seven-year journey, I simply walk into the next story.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek, is recreating the journey of our ancestors through stories, with National Geographic.
From 2013 to 2020, Paul is walking from humankind’s birthplace in Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America, where our forebears ran out of horizon. Along the way, he is engaging with the major stories of our time — from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival.
Instead of parachuting or driving into stories, you’re now walking through them. How has the Out of Eden Walk differed from your work as a foreign correspondent?
It’s both a continuum and a departure. Throughout my years of international reporting, I’ve used similar means of immersing myself in a story, which basically means you immerse yourself within the lives of the people you are writing about.
For a story on tracking oil around the world, I clerked for seven months at a US gas station. For a piece on child marriage I spent weeks in the highlands of Ethiopia, living with an Amhara family who were betrothing their seven-year-old daughter to a neighbor. (I helped the girl’s father plow his fields with oxen.) Once, I spent a month living with transvestite prostitutes in Mexico. What’s different with the walk project is that I no longer go back to a “home base” to regroup between stories.
On this seven-year journey, I simply walk into the next story. This has proved a revelation on professional and personal levels. Physically moving on foot between stories, I now can see the more subtle connections that lace together all our stories, regardless of the subject matter. And doing journalism in this way also submerges me continuously in a life narrative: my own. Now, I am literally inhabiting all my stories.
You say that, had we slowed down a bit and increased our attention span with critical stories from the 1980s and 1990s, for example “walking” through the refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, we may not have had as many crises to report in the early 2000s. What do you mean by this and how will the walk help?
It’s about attentiveness. Attentiveness is a vanishing human resource in the Information Age. Unless we slow down enough to explore deeper meanings — to analyze what we’re actually seeing — along the Information Superhighway, all information becomes equal: just a smear of factoids, a blur of breaking micro-headlines, and, ultimately, a mere pastiche of reality that is nearly incoherent. Speed flattens the world. And unfortunately, despite what some pundits say, the world isn’t flat. Far from it. It’s cratered and canyoned and vital stories lie hidden — by speed, by superficiality, by an obsession with 10-second apps — in those deeper corrugations. In this sense, our information technology isn’t making us smarter. It’s making us more ignorant.
The example you mention: If somebody had bothered 25 years ago to walk through the vast, festering, and hopeless refugee communities dispersed by the Soviet-American proxy war in Afghanistan, they might have been able to observe and communicate the explosive power of political Islam that was ticking away there, with global repercussions that are today painfully obvious. Instead, our accelerating media cycles abet precisely the opposite trend: a culture of disconnect, of aphasia.
What are the most important things you have learned since you started the walk?
How easy it is. How crowded the world is. And how laughably ephemeral and temporary everything I’m seeing is. Walking gets you into a geological mindset.
You live and work alongside the people whose lives you document. What has been your process for this? Is there a particular person’s story that sticks out in your mind?
I don’t pretend to know the process. I meet a person. They seem to embody an interesting story. I hang up the pack and spend some time with them. The most beautiful or wrenching lives I’ve co-inhabited have involved reportorial visits of a few days to many months. This has always been the case. In the Kosovo war, the most intense storytelling came out of a three-day stay with a family in Djakovica: watching them emerge from hiding in their home when the war was over, unboarding their windows, washing their car, meeting neighbors on the ruined sidewalks (“You are still alive!”). I spent almost an entire year tracking a criminal gunrunner across the globe.
On this walk, it took me weeks of being marooned in the African port city of Djibouti to come to understand that remote place through a tale of stowaways. There is no conscious formula. No set time frame.
Can you give examples of experiences you’ve had that have changed the walk, and/or your thinking, in any way?
A dispatch on living off the land — physically and emotionally — might explain it.
Which media methods have been the most successful in getting people to engage with what you are doing?
My partners at National Geographic just surveyed readers about this. The crystallized answer is simple and hard, like the molecule structure of a diamond: good storytelling. You forge an interesting yarn, and people will pause to pay attention. Using social media or emerging media — Twitter chats, Periscope, old-fashioned commenting, etc. — is empowering and interesting. It’s a heartbeat for your audience, too, a way to tell them — and hear from them — in between longer articles or features. But it’s not the thing itself. Unless you have a worthwhile story to share, no app in itself is going to earn you an audience.
How are you marking milestones? Will this soon be on the new, merged site?
I carry a pocket GPS device. As soon as it ticks off 100.00 miles from the last milestone, I stop and take a panorama shot of the Earth, a photo of the sky and ground, do a short video and audio recording, and interview the nearest human with three stock questions about identity.
And yes, we’re in the process of merging the features of the independent “Out of Eden Walk” site — including milestones — with the National Geographic storytelling site. The result, which will go public later this year, is going to be truly beautiful: a much more integrated, organic user experience, with more reader participation from across the globe.
How has the state of the media changed since you started walking and how do you think it will develop over the next few years?
I’m not an expert in emerging media. All I can do is parrot what informed folks tell me: We’re heading towards a world where mobile devices rule absolutely. National Geographic is designing the new Out of Eden Walk platform mobile-first, with that in mind. This worries me on an aesthetic level — it’s going to be harder to appreciate the majesty of some of the vistas I’m witnessing on a tiny phone screen. (The irony of a global journey being so miniaturized, so squeezed.) But this is beyond my control. If it at least encourages more people to get out and use their bodies in our wider, shared world — to take a walk, to look slowly — then it’ll be worth it.
On a meta level, I’m walking through one of the greatest transformations in human consciousness since the invention of agriculture and the decline of nomadism 11,000 years ago: By the time I reach my finish line at Tierra del Fuego in 2021, most of the world’s people will be wired together via the digital grid. (When I started in Ethiopia, about 30% of humanity had access to the Web; it’ll be more than 80% when I finally unlace my boots at the Beagle Channel.) How is this revolution going to change our lives? I can’t begin to fathom an answer.
At the same time, the accelerating speed of information technology — of all technology, really — is cause for some serious pondering. Most people still can’t explain how a light bulb works, and that’s 19th century science. Good luck trying to elicit comprehension of the supercomputers in our pockets that we still insist on calling phones. This growing chasm in understanding is sobering.
What do you hope you will have achieved at the end of the seven years? Is there a particular question you are hoping to find an answer to along the way?
I’m just a reporter who walks. If people read my stories, and if those stories encourage them in any positive way to be more curious, to be more empathetic, to be excited about the privilege of being alive today in the world, that would be great.
I’ve learned over the last two years how important it is to start the process of learning early — to educate our children in wonder. This was unexpected. I’m not an educator. But I am lucky in my partnerships with the creators of the “Out of Eden Learn” platform at Harvard University and with colleagues at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, DC. Each of these organizations has contributed immensely to the walk experience by sharing it with students within the United States and globally. This is an early achievement of the walk — one I can’t claim any credit for, yet which I’m immensely proud of.
Finally, what’s in your walking bag?
Probably the same things you would carry on a weekend hike. Change of clothes. A razor to shave with, using rain puddles as mirrors. A water bottle. A tarp. A tent. A rock to swing at aggressive dogs. A paperback. And the usual electronic kit required to transmit text, sound, video and photos. I carried insect repellent, too. But my Kurdish guide Murat Yazar used it all up on my cargo mule in Anatolia, Turkey. He couldn’t stand the sight of flies on her hide.