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Paul Salopek’s
Out-of-Eden Walk

Text  ©2014 by J. Pint

Photos  courtesy of Out of Eden Walk

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Natgeo covers Salopek's walk

National Geographic features the start of Paul Salopek’s seven-year walk. Each year the magazine will dedicate an issue to the latest results of the project. Courtesy Out of Eden Walk.

Paul Salopek begins his 7-year walk in Ethiopia

Paul Salopek and his Ethiopian guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, leave the village of Bouri in the Afar region of northwestern Ethiopia, at the start of his seven-year walk. PHOTO BY JOHN STANMEYER-VII. Courtesy Out of Eden Walk.

Paul Salopek teaching along his long route

Teaching in Ethiopia. On several occasions during the first year of his walk, Salopek visited local schools and offered to work with the children. Courtesy Out of Eden Walk.

Paul Salopek's route across the world

The approximate route for Salopek's 33,000 kilometer journey. Click to see a larger version of the map and the article "Around the World in Seven Years" by Karanjeet Kaur.


Caves beneath the dunes? Check out our Saudicaves page:







A foster child of Mexico retraces humanity’s greatest voyage

By John Pint

The three elements of Wadi al Safra: sand, stone, sky. The wadi is located southwest of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek . Courtesy Out of Eden Walk.Several years ago National Geographic Magazine published what struck me as an absolutely astounding story. It stated that every single human being on the face of the earth today is a descendant of a rather small number (perhaps only a few hundred) people who emigrated out of Africa around 60,000 years ago, embarking on a trek that would quite literally take them to the very ends of the earth. This conclusion was based on advances in genetics and DNA samples taken worldwide.

The fact that we are all descended from Africans impressed me, but I was especially interested in the fact that most of our ancestors had crossed the Bab Al Mandeb Strait over to the Arabian Peninsula and worked their way north through what is now Saudi Arabia.

This resonated with my own thirteen-year study of Saudi Arabia’s caves. I knew that the principal sources for water and shelter (from heat, cold and especially from wind) along vast stretches of western Arabia are lava tubes: caves up to twenty kilometers long and 40 meters wide which are located (sometimes in great numbers) among the 80,000 square kilometers of lava fields near which many of those early forebears must surely have passed.

That map of mankind’s great migration must have impacted many people around the globe, among them a man named Paul Salopek, one of the world’s great journalists and two-time winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize. Salopek really took the story of humanity’s long walk to heart. Following clues provided by DNA studies, he mapped out a route all the way from Ethiopia to Patagonia—21,000 miles—and proposed to walk all that distance (except for a couple short stretches over water) during seven years of his life.

Why does he want to do this?

“Long-term storytelling,” he replied. “It’s not an athletic event… I want to examine the great issues of our day at three miles an hour… to watch the world around me and to get into people’s lives.”

Salopek started his journey in January, 2013, crossed the Red Sea and, accompanied by a Bedu and two pack camels, slowly walked his way north through Saudi Arabia, always talking to local people, listening to their worries, hopes and dreams, and reporting short, fascinating dispatches every few days. 

A'urta gets a reassuring head scratch while being loaded for the trail. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER-VII

A'urta gets a reassuring head scratch while being loaded for the trail. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN STANMEYER-VII

“I am on a journey,” he says. “I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage.”

“We know so little about them… They straddled the strait called Bab el Mandeb—the ‘gate of grief” that cleaves Africa from Arabia—and then exploded, in just 2,500 generations, a geological heartbeat, to the remotest habitable fringe of the globe.

Millennia behind, I follow.”

At the time of this writing,  Paul Salopek is somewhere close to Syria (not too close, I hope), having recently walked past Jordan’s Wadi Rum (through which Lawrence of Arabia sneaked up on the Turks) and the famed Nabatean tombs of the once Lost City of Petra.

When I contacted the indefatigable walker regarding some of the curious features along his route through Saudi Arabia (for example, the ruins of Roman Therms or bathhouses along the Red Sea coast and the Nazca-like “kites” which Neolithic Man used to trap oryxes and gazelles), he noticed I was living in the Mexican town of Zapopan and told me that he also had lived there:

“I grew up on the fringe of Colonia Seattle in Zapopan,” he said. “I would go drop fishing lines down holes in Agua Azul Park to fish for rats. Took buses into the Barranca de Oblatos to go hunting with my neighbor Lalo's hand-made flintlock. It was a fairly wild area back then. We used river stones as ammo and never hit anything… My playgrounds were the guamuchil trees, garbage-strewn lots and lush green corn fields around the edge of the city. Some of my boyhood friends died young of curable diseases. We had fun.”

Salopek’s Mexican adventures didn’t stop there.

“Some years ago, I rode a mule from Douglas, Arizona, to Michoacán, down the spine of the Sierra Madre. A memorable journey.”  The story of this 2,090 kilometer odyssey, which retraced the route explored by Carl Lumholtz in 1890, is told in the book Sierra Madre Pilgrimage, By Paul Salopek, Photographs by Maria Stenzel.

In Literature as Lucha Libre, a lesson on writing for The American Scholar, Salopek reflects on a perhaps surprising aspect of his youth in Colonia Seattle:

“My greatest literary inspiration at this time was a comic book called Kalimán. Kalimán was a vaguely Sikh superhero in white tights who spoke Spanish. (These) adventures introduced the notions of cliffhangers and the second act. Kalimán was always going into trances, slowing his metabolism down into deathlike comas. Even then, as a child, this struck me as the perfect Mexican super power, a defense against one billion years of fatalism.

Soon I was drawing my own. My cartoons featured schizoid child geniuses who lived on desert islands and a race of woolly mammoths who lived underground. I rented out my comics, thus discovering editing and royalties. Kids in huaraches paid me 20 centavos to sit on the dirt sidewalk outside my house, page through stacks of my crude narratives, and offer mostly negative textual analyses.

I asked him how much his years in Mexico had influenced his life.
   “Mexico informs everything I do,” he replied, “because it's my childhood. And like childhood, that Mexico of mule-plowed fields is fading fast. Maybe it's gone. I grew up between 1870 and 1970. For better or worse NAFTA closed that gap. 'El Mexico que se nos fué’ and all that. It occurs to me from time to time that maybe I'm out looking for the older Mexico elsewhere. Don't we all do this? And isn't it always a lunatic enterprise?”

Well, I started this article with the intention of describing Paul Salopek’s long walk, but I ran into more than I bargained for. But if you didn’t know before, now you do: here is someone you ought to investigate on your own. You’ll enjoy what you find! As Ken Armstrong said in the Seattle Times (that’s the other Seattle, eh?):

“Paul doesn’t take shortcuts. To tell a story of civil war, he took a five-week trip down the Congo River, mostly by canoe. To tell a story of the people in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, he traveled 1,300 miles by mule. He crosses mountain passes, deserts and seas, all to tell us stories.”

Want to read some of those stories? Go to Out of Eden Walk, have a look at Paul Salopek’s latest dispatches, and if you like what you see, sign up right there for regular email notifications of his latest reports. In my opinion, you’re guaranteed six more years of reading pleasure…and don’t forget: about five years from now, Salopek should be walking the length of Mexico and hopefully will pass through Jalisco…but this time he won’t be riding a mule.


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