If I Could Follow in Anyone’s Footsteps, I Would Choose These

In 2015 I met some extraordinary travelers:

Julian Sayerer, who broke the world record for cycling around the world in 2009. A newly-married couple who put their careers on hold to travel the world for a year. A friend who plans to visit sustainable farms on five continents before setting up one of her own in 2017.

But the travel story that really knocked me off my feet was that of journalist Paul Salopek.

He's on a 21,000-mile, seven-year journey to cross the world on foot.

He's tracing the steps of our ancestors who made the same journey—from Ethiopia to the tip of South America—60,000 years ago.

Salopek began his walk in 2013. This is the beginning of his account:

“Walking is falling forward.
“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.” [source: National Geographic, emphasis added] 

He is tracing the route of the world’s oldest explorers as they moved out of Africa, into the Middle East, across China, through Siberia, across the water to Alaska and down the long western coastline to southern Chile.

Why, you ask?

“If you ask, I will tell you that I have embarked on this project, which I’m calling the Out of Eden Walk, for many reasons: to relearn the contours of our planet at the human pace of three miles an hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as a form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness. I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.” [source: National Geographicemphasis added]

Salopek’s trek has required thousands of hours of planning and a healthy dose of madness.  His first guide’s perception of this seven-year journey sums up the view many onlookers might share:

“This project is, to him, a punch line—a cosmic joke. To walk for seven years! Across three continents! Enduring hardship, loneliness, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion, confusion—all for a rucksack’s worth of ideas, palaver, scientific and literary conceits. He enjoys the absurdity of it.” [source: National Geographic]

The Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist is documenting his epic voyage through two websites: National Geographic’s Out of Eden Walk with weekly dispatches from the field and a companion site, Out of Eden Walk: A Journey Through Time, which is more interactive.

Salopek was a foreign correspondent for several years and his poignant narrative makes you feel you’re in his breast pocket witnessing the journey. His account of traversing a vast desert in northern Ethiopia brings you right to his side, licking your lips in sympathetic thirst.

“The world changes when you are thirsty. It shrinks. It loses depth. The horizon draws close. (In northern Ethiopia the Earth butts against the sky, hard and smooth as the surface of a skull.) The desert tightens around you like a noose. This is the thirsty brain compressing the distances of the Rift, sucking in the miles through the eyes, magnifying them, probing them for any hint of water. Little else matters.
[After miles of walking, Salopek and his guide meet their hosts.]
“Our hosts: an Afar family camped on a hill. Two strong, smiling young women. Eight children in thin rags that once may have been articles of clothing. And a very old woman—she doesn’t know her age—who hunches like a gnome in the shade of a reed mat. Her name is Hasna. She has been sitting there, weaving with spidery fingers, since the beginning of time. She invites us to join her, to rest our bones, to remove our shoes. From a battered jerrican she pours us water—chalky and warm, so salty, so alkaline, it oozes down the throat like soap, but precious nonetheless.” [source: National Geographicemphasis added]

Through his journey, Salopek offers us a gift—the chance to slow down through his eyes. The chance to experience the world at a stroll.

By walking these seven years, he hopes to push against the velocity of a world that is spinning ever faster.

Humanity remakes the world in an accelerating cycle of change that strips away our stories as well as the topsoil. Our era’s breathtaking changes flatten collective memory, blur precedence, sever lines of responsibility. (What disconcerts us about suburbia? Not just its sameness, but its absence of time. We crave a past in our landscapes.)” [source: National Geographicemphasis added]

This December—three years into his journey—Salopek wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he responded to a question posed by a London-based friend. “Aren’t you tired?” she asked him. He knew what she really meant, “Aren’t you bored?”

His answer?

“I get a lot of this. Readers frequently ask what strolling across continents is really like — as if they’re secretly hoping to hear that plodding from horizon to horizon (I’ve clocked about 5,000 miles so far) is mind- numbingly dull. As if commuting by car or subway to a desk job wasn’t boring. As if gorging on the ersatz stimuli gushing from our hand-held devices wasn’t ultimately, at the end of each digitally bloated day, somehow tedious. From the global walking trail, my answer is an astonished, ‘No.’”
“My ‘work,’ such as it is, is simply this: to be awake. You can sleepwalk your way through a relationship or a soul-smothering job. (I have.) But you cannot sleepwalk your way across the scorched Hejaz dune fields of Saudi Arabia. Because if you do, you won’t come out the other side. Naturally, this doesn’t preclude states of reverie, wakeful dreaming, which are long associated with foot power and are anything but boring.”
“Walking as a lifestyle is a moment-to-moment intellectual exercise that seems recollected, familiar. It electrifies the Stone Age brain that we all still carry with us: a restless brain, a brain that thirsts not just for change — our information age technology drenches us in novelty — but for tangible instead of symbolic progress. It is a brain that abhors routine. It is a brain that does not know boredom.
“No, I’m not tired yet.” [source The New York Times]

What a thrill to have learned about the Out of Eden Project while Salopek still has four years to go. I hope you also enjoy witnessing his next 15,000 miles of falling forward, staying awake and shedding light on this human experience—one step at a time.