Paul Salopek follows humans’ first footsteps

July 26, 2013

Paul Salopek is an adventurer and a dreamer. And he’s an old-fashioned trekker — setting out on foot to circle the world. No Ford Mustang for him.

Salopek is also a modern-day explorer. In addition to a few clothes, a small first-aid kit and notebooks, he is carrying an audio recorder, a camcorder, a small computer and a satellite phone — a telephone that connects to a satellite and can be used in many places where cellphones don’t work. (A few fellow trekkers help carry supplies and keep him company.)

The journey is long: 21,000 miles! That’s more than seven times the distance between New York and San Francisco.

It will take seven years to complete his journey.

Salopek was born in California and spent his childhood in Mexico. He says he has always liked to travel and doesn’t like to rush. At age 14, he climbed Mount Whitney in California and crossed the state’s Sierra Nevada mountains by himself. At 15, he walked the length of Death Valley. He once rode a mule 2,000 miles through mountains in Mexico.

A longtime journalist, Salopek has reported from Africa, Asia and Mexico. Now 51 years old, he plans to keep writing. As he travels around the world, he is writing stories about the people he meets and the way they live. He looks for how people find local solutions to big problems such as food shortages and lack of water. He also records the sounds he hears and takes photos of the sky and the Earth’s surface.

The long walk started in January in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia in East Africa. Many consider East Africa to be home to the first humans, who lived 160,000 years ago. It is here that the oldest fossils (traces of living things) of human ancestors have been found. The people who lived in the valley were hunter-gatherers, who obtained all of their food by catching wild animals and gathering edible plants.

Many of these hunter-gatherers left Ethiopia about 60,000 years ago and crossed over to the Arabian Peninsula when the water in the Red Sea was so low that a chain of islands was formed to connect the two pieces of land.

Salopek is retracing the paths our ancestors took as they left Africa and settled in parts of the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas. As Salopek walks, he is learning more about himself — and all of humankind.

Where will Paul Salopek go, and what will he find?

The Middle East: He will visit temples, churches and mosques in the land where three of the world’s major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — took root.

The Shanidar Cave in Iraq: The skeletons of Neanderthal men who lived 60,000 to 80,000 years ago were discovered here.

The Silk Road: He will follow Marco Polo’s route, which linked parts of Europe to China.

The Bering Strait: This body of water separates Russia and Alaska. Scholars think that humans first migrated from Asia to North America along a “land bridge” that was created here as glaciers formed and water levels dropped.

Tierra del Fuego: This archipelago, or group of islands, near the southernmost point of South America will be Salopek’s final destination. The Yaghan people settled here 10,000 years ago; today, only one person speaks their language.

Salopek will also explore fun and unexpected places.

— Kem Knapp Sawyer

Sawyer is a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which is supporting the walk’s educational mission.

Salopek is a National Geographic fellow. More information at www.outofedenwalk.com.

Inspirations for Salopek’s long walk

Herodotus: This ancient Greek historian was born in 484 B.C. and traveled to Persia (modern-day Iran), Babylon (a city in what is now Iraq), Egypt and Europe. As he wrote the history of his people, he remained open-minded and recorded different points of view.

Ibn Battuta: At age 25, he left his homeland of Morocco in 1325 on a hajj (a pilgrimage) to Mecca, the holy city of the Islam religion. He did not return for 24 years! During that time, he explored the Middle East, India, China and Europe.

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