Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic fellow who, at the age of 50, set out on foot to retrace the steps of the first human migrations out of Africa. The project, dubbed the “Out of Eden Walk,” began in Ethiopia in 2012 and will eventually take him to Tierra Del Fuego, a distance of some 24,000 miles.
Calling in just as he was about to arrive in Xi’an, he and Tyler discussed his very localized supply chain, why women make for better walking partners, the key to crossing deserts, the most difficult terrain to traverse, what he does for exercise, his information prep for each new region, how he’s kept the project funded, which cuisines he’s found most and least palatable, what he learned working the crime beat in Roswell, New Mexico, how this project challenges conventional journalism, his thoughts on the changing understanding of early human migration, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded October 13th, 2022
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I am chatting with Paul Salopek. Paul is not here with me. Paul, where are you?
PAUL SALOPEK: I am in Shaanxi Province in western China.
COWEN: Paul is undertaking one of the most remarkable feats I have heard of. First of all, he’s an extremely well-known journalist, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. You may have read his articles in the National Geographic, the Atlantic, and many other publications.
Since 2013, he has been embarking on what is called the Out of Eden Walk, which is roughly a 15-year project, 24,000 miles. I call it walking around the world, but it is starting in East Africa, the cradle of mankind, and it will finish in Tierra del Fuego. And as stated, Paul currently is in western China. Paul, welcome.
SALOPEK: Tyler, it’s good to be here with you.
COWEN: First question: How do you take care of your feet?
SALOPEK: I think I drew a lucky card on the genetics end on feet. The feet more or less take care of me. I think I’ve gotten one or two blisters over the last nine or so years. Pretty hardy feet — I don’t know where that came from. So, in the foot department, I’m okay. I don’t really pay too much attention to my feet, to be honest.
COWEN: That’s amazing. Now, where do you think your supply chain is most vulnerable? I travel a great deal. Sometimes I run out of things, or they break. Then I have to get a new one. What’s the biggest supply chain problem you have?
SALOPEK: I try, Tyler, to live off the local economy as much as possible, not out of any sense of intellectual virtue or economic virtue, but simply because I have to. I’m walking, and everything that I need to use, I have to carry on my back. My supply chain — I keep it as short as possible. It’s the local market. That includes everything from notepads to socks and everything in between.
Probably the most tenuous line of supply would be, maybe, electronics for me to do my job. A decent lightweight laptop that has a lifespan of a few years, given the bangs that it gets in a backpack while walking across continents, electronics configured to do media work would be the most dicey cargo that I carry. But pretty much 99 percent of the rest is local economy.
COWEN: You do all this with a single backpack?
SALOPEK: Yes. It’s a rucksack. It’s an old canvas bag. It’s just one single canvas bag with some straps on it. I keep it simple.
COWEN: What kind of shoes do you use?
SALOPEK: If I can get them — that’s another thing — I wear Merrell walking shoes. Here’s a free plug for the Merrell company. But the honest answer is I wear whatever is available, anything from leather sandals to plastic galoshes that are made all over — Turkish ones, Chinese ones, you name it, sneakers, pretty much everything.
COWEN: Why do you write a goodbye essay to each country when you’re leaving it?
SALOPEK: I don’t know how that really started, and I don’t do it for every country. It’s more using borders as a milestone — an emotional milestone even more than a geographical or political one. I look back over the shoulder or glance back at the people that I met before I move on into a new polity. These are small summing-ups along the way on a journey where, my word, there’s just so much to sum up. It’s complicated.
COWEN: On a given day, you’re taking notes? Or you remember it all until the end? How do you operate with assembling and collecting information?
SALOPEK: Yes, that’s actually the hardest part of the project. The walking, you can get used to. The walking, you can train your body to become adept at plotting out 25 or 30 kilometers a day. Recording the experiences and recording the encounters with the people that I meet, recording the personalities and the issues raised by my walking partners, which is crucial to the project, is where the real heavy lifting happens, and it happens in real time.
I always carry a notepad either on a string around my neck, in a shirt pocket, or tucked in a cargo pants pocket. I jot things down all the time. I, of course, record interviews as well. I’m old-fashioned. I’m an analog guy. I still take hand notes. Then there are book journals where I jot summary thoughts in the evenings before going to bed. It’s a layered recording experience.
COWEN: These are not uploaded to the cloud? They’re just physical items that you carry?
SALOPEK: Alas, yes, I’m carrying about two and a half kilos of notebooks right now because I generally want to get to a big-enough logistical hub that has reliable express delivery services, and I do upload them to the cloud. But the notepads themselves are artifacts of the Walk. They’re very precious. I also take thousands of photographs and many, many hours of videos on my phone. It’s a multimedia project. That material gets uploaded in the cloud instantaneously.
COWEN: How do you choose your walking partners?
SALOPEK: Complicated. Often, word of mouth. There might be somebody in Kazakhstan who I’ve made friends with, who’s walked across western Kazakhstan with me, who might know somebody who knows somebody over the border in Uzbekistan. That’s generally how it works. Only once have I actually had to go out on the open market and post a job opening, if you will, for a walking partner, say, in a chat room.
Most of it is connections with the people that I’m already walking with. In that sense, it’s quite nice because it forms links in a chain of relationships that touch each other all the way across continents. It’s kind of nice.
COWEN: These are other walkers, so to speak, typically, or it could be anyone? It could be a carpenter or a dentist. Or they’re people who have their own walking projects?
SALOPEK: Very rarely, people who have their own walking projects. When I do bump into people like that, it’s wonderful because we speak the same language. I walked with a young man in India who is walking out Indian rivers. He’s walked more than 5,000 kilometers up the Ganga, and he’s formed a nonprofit to get young Indians to walk the rivers of India for documentary purposes.
But most of the time, they’re not people who are in my biz. I do walk with journalists. I do walk with photographers who produce their own work, which, again, is crucial to this project. It’s a medley; it’s not a solo project.
But the most surprising partners are often the most wonderful — people who may not have thought before of rambling through home, to take time off from work, take a leave of absence from the family, and go walking for several weeks through a place that they think they know but soon discover, on foot, that they don’t know that well at all.
COWEN: How is walking with women different from walking with men?
SALOPEK: Well, you’ve probably interviewed journalists before. The truth is, women have access to a wider range of the human experience by virtue of accessing women’s world, especially in cultures where that might be difficult for a man, especially a stranger walking in over the horizon, an unknown person. So, walking with women opens up storytelling for me in ways that are really important.
Right now, in China, just by chance — I’m not actively out looking for women to walk with, but just by chance — maybe there’s some self-selection here, adventurous women, curious women — probably more than half the partners through China so far have been women, and it’s been wonderful.
COWEN: What’s the meaning of Homer’s Odyssey to you?
SALOPEK: It’s one of many literary touchstones that go back to even my childhood, the reading that probably informed this project since I was able to read. I grew up in Central Mexico, and books were scarce. When I got my hands on them, I generally tended to read them cover to cover. Greek mythology, some canonical works that were brought down from the US across the border informed my thinking very early on, even science fiction — Jules Verne, things like that, boyish interests.
Homer, as I’ve discovered — starting out, of course, he’s an Olympian character in the landscape of epic poetry. But I’ve learned of others walking across the world, the Mahabharata, and faith-based epics in South Asia or the Epic of Manas in Kyrgyzstan, which is longer than Homer and which used to be recited Homerically, verbally, until very recently. That’s one of the great joys of the project, bumping into other majestic world poetry.
COWEN: Have you ever read Thomas Coryat, the 17th-century Englishman?
SALOPEK: No. Should I?
COWEN: He walked to India. He’s believed to be the first Englishman to have been a tourist in India, and he went to India by walking there. I believe it took him seven years. He spent a lot of time in Italy and then in the Ottoman Empire. There’s a good biography of him and his own book. I think you can even get it on Kindle, but that’s C-O-R-Y-A-T, Thomas Coryat.
SALOPEK: I’ll look for it.
COWEN: When I heard about your endeavor, that’s what came to mind immediately.
SALOPEK: Yes, that sounds like a kindred spirit. Foot wanderers — it’s remarkable. Not even callings. Pilgrims, of course, come to mind, too — these vast, extraordinary pilgrimages from throughout the Middle East to Mecca, walking the old Tarik-al-Hajj roads to Mecca that are still worn into the bedrock of the Hejaz Desert. Those are epic journeys made by many, many, many people through time, whose stories are never told.
There are also many, many great wanderers across many societies, and I’ve tried to bring their stories to the fore as well. Again, we’re a restless, wandering breed, and pretty much every society reflects that, at least the ones that I’ve encountered on foot on my trail.
COWEN: Relative to the time before you started, what is it you no longer care about, or it seems petty to you now but back then seemed important?
SALOPEK: That’s a good question. Nothing immediately springs to mind of a nonbanal nature. I’ve never been a person obsessed with equipment. I’ve never been somebody who is cued into careerist prospects. My career trajectory, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody, has been very erratic, veering from fishing boats into newsrooms and into gold mines in Western Australia and cattle ranches in Chihuahua and everywhere else in between.
What I remind my readers who ask similar questions is that I started this when I was 50, a pretty well-formed personality. I knew where I’d come from. I didn’t know where I’m going, like everybody else, but had a methodology down already. I was doing a lot of what I’m doing on this project already through my journalism career. I had wonderful editors at the Chicago Tribune, who, when they saw an idea that merited it, gave me the freedom to spend months and months wandering through these stories, particularly in Africa.
As I’ve described before, the Out Eden Walk is more of an arrival than a departure. I don’t know if that answers your question or if it’s a disappointing answer, but that’s the truth.
COWEN: What’s true is true. How is it that you crossed the desert? You’ve been through some of the Gulf States, I think.
SALOPEK: Yes, I’ve been through several deserts. The first was the Afar Desert in north Ethiopia, one of the hottest deserts in the world, and then the Hejaz in western Saudi Arabia, and then some big deserts in Central Asia, the Kyzyl Kum in Uzbekistan.
You cross deserts with a great attentiveness. You seem to want to speed up to get through them as quickly as possible, but often, they require slowing down, and that seems counterintuitive. You have to walk when the temperatures are congenial to your survival. Sometimes that means walking at night as opposed to the day. It means maybe not covering the distances that you would in more moderate climates.
Deserts are like a prickly friend. You approach them with care, but if you invest the time, they’re pretty inspiring and remarkable. There are reasons why old hermits go out into the deserts to seek visions. I was born in a desert. I was born in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, so I’m partial to them, maybe even by birth.
COWEN: Do you find deserts to be the most difficult terrain to cross?
SALOPEK: No, I find alpine mountains to be far trickier. Deserts can be fickle. Deserts can kill you if you’re not careful. Of course, water is the most limiting factor for survival.
But alpine mountain weather is so unpredictable, and a very sunny afternoon can turn into a very stormy late afternoon in a very quick time period. Threats like rock falls, like avalanches, blizzards — those, for me, are far more difficult to navigate than deserts. Also, I guess having been born in the subtropics, I don’t weather the cold as well, so there’s that bias thrown in.
COWEN: What do you do for exercise?
SALOPEK: [laughs] Try to meet deadline, mostly. But when I’m parked in an urban area to do work, which happens regularly — this project is taking more than twice as long as originally envisioned — I try to do what you do. I try to go jogging. I do push-ups and sit-ups in the room that I’m working in.
On very rare occasions, I’ve actually gone to a gym. In Bishkek, with a bunch of Russian bodybuilders, I stood out, the skinny American guy of a certain age — to keep in condition, especially for rugged topography. In that case, it was getting over the Pamir Mountains in the Hindu Kush.
Mostly, when I’m in motion, the beauty of walking, as you know, is that it keeps you trim. It keeps your cardiovascular system in good nick, keeps you toned, and it’s relatively low-impact, right? You can do a lot of steps. You eventually do, I’m told, wear out cartilage. I don’t know where that’s going to happen, but so far so good. Yes, so far so good.
COWEN: If someone is thinking of doing a version of your project but maybe much smaller — say they want to walk across New Jersey — what is it you would caution them about or tell them? “Well, you may not have thought about this problem, but you need to worry about this.” What would that be?
SALOPEK: Tyler, I wouldn’t have a clue because I can’t imagine giving somebody advice to do what I’m doing. My needs and predilections probably don’t match anybody else walking across New Jersey or down to the local convenience store. Look up. Don’t always look down at your feet, which is a tendency to do when you’re walking, right? Take a look around now and then and don’t walk too fast. [laughs]
COWEN: Do you ever just look at your phone when you’re walking, the way you would see in, say, a North American city? So many young people, they’re just staring — or older people — just staring at their phones.
SALOPEK: Yes, sometimes I have to. I’ve got to say that I’m not an agent of virtue on the use of the phone. I use it for navigation when I can get a signal. I sometimes have to communicate with logistics while I’m on the move, but I try to turn the phone off when I’m walking. I generally put it on airplane mode in a pocket somewhere so that I can focus on what I’m doing.
It’s an amazing tool. Can you imagine trying to do this with paper maps? I love paper maps. As a kid, I loved maps, like a lot of boys did. I still do, but the ability to call up satellite imagery on this little device and stare at where you are and try to find a safe way over a glacial moraine is pretty unbeatable. It’s something that I thank heavens I’ve got over Marco Polo.
COWEN: What kind of reading or prep do you do for each region? Or how do you choose what to consume? How does that process work?
SALOPEK: It starts pretty much the way foreign correspondents do their reading. You read other foreign correspondents’ work, mostly in your own language. I can read in Spanish, too, but the vast bulk of what I read is in English. I read reporters’ books, which lead to going to more specialized reading on everything, from climate to human rights to geology to biodiversity to language extinction. It’s just endless.
In a way, all the years that I’ve been working as an international correspondent have kind of been prep work. The way I would approach a big story in Africa back when I was based in Johannesburg is pretty much the way I continue to approach research on this project, the difference being that now, because I’ve slowed down and taken more time, I can access more indigenous systems of knowledge that I didn’t have the time to do before.
That involves everything from talking to a farmer who can instruct me on how gophers might predict weather by the shape of the berms that they push out of their holes in the morning — whether rain is coming or not — to talking to scientists from the regions that I’m walking to, talking to archeologists, talking to agronomists, talking to road-builders, talking to engineers, talking to the guys digging the ditch and putting a gas pipeline in, which just happened two days ago, and watching in wonder as they’re laying PVC pipe next to a river in western China, a fascinating, amazing technology that makes you both alarmed to be human but also proud to be human. We’re clever creatures.
COWEN: How do you fund the whole venture? How does that work?
SALOPEK: It’s funded by other philanthropies. The National Geographic Society is our main partner, and me and my walking partners provide them with editorial content and also work with them on educational fronts, but there’s a changing caravan of philanthropic partners. Some come in for a year or two and then drop out, and then they’re replaced by others.
It’s pretty remarkable, I’ve got to say. It’s such a long project. I don’t know too many projects like this that are longitudinally so far over the horizon, and I’ve been blessed to have partners who have that kind of over-the-horizon vision and who’ve stuck with me, such as National Geographic.
COWEN: Do you have to raise new money as you go on, or is it all taken care of?
SALOPEK: [laughs] No, I do have to raise money. We also crowdfund. We love it that our readers help keep this project going, so we have a crowdfunder every year. It’s not easy, but it’s part of what we do. It’s necessary.
COWEN: Where’s the best food you’ve had?
SALOPEK: Food, huh?
COWEN: Your favorite. I love the food in southwest China, by the way. I’m sure you enjoy that.
SALOPEK: Oh my gosh, yes. Just the ingredients that go into Yunnanese food is a whole miracle in itself. The cornucopia, what gets grown in Yunnan.
COWEN: The mushrooms, right?
SALOPEK: Wild mushrooms, the fresh veggies, the dairy products, the stuff that hangs in the trees, the stuff that grows in the fields in autumn. I walked through western Yunnan in the harvest season in October, and it was glorious. It’s this edible landscape. I’ve said this to my Chinese friends. I don’t think I’ve been through such a physically exhilarating landscape on foot as Yunnan.
Yunnan just blew my socks off and made my eyes pop out. It is one of these places that people live in and have worked in for so long — working the land — that there’s this remarkable interaction between people and landscape. We’re talking fields in the hillsides that have been farmed for thousands of years, and they have these rounded slopes, the way human shoulders are rounded.
The land itself seems anthropomorphic. To use a new-agey description, there’s this kind of harmony. The landscape in the human-built landscape is still human-scaled. The villages are made of stone, and the roads between them are designed for human bodies that walk or horses that walk. It was remarkable. It was wonderful.
The food — I could make a long list. Turkey — incredible garden vegetables in Anatolia, and yogurts. In the Caucasus, khachapuri, and in Central Asia — plov in Uzbekistan. India — I hope people realize, when they go to an Indian restaurant outside of India, that they are being exposed to one fractal of a kaleidoscopic cosmos of flavors that is so diverse, even within small regions of India.
I’d never been to India before this project, so it was a revelation to me. And now China — China, as you know, is a nation of foodies. Everybody’s concerned with food here, so it’s been amazing.
COWEN: Yunnan may be my favorite part of the world.
Why is India such a good place to walk? Because Indians will certainly tell you that it is.
SALOPEK: Yes. People are still on foot by the million, whether it’s on pilgrimage or getting to work and back or getting to the fields. I was always in walking company in India. I walked how far? I think close to 3,800 kilometers across India and spent 17 months doing it because it was just so fascinating. I was stopping all the time through northern India, which is its own India, very different from southern India.
But yes, there were walkers every day. You could ask somebody — and this is important if you’re walking horizon to horizon — for directions, and the directions would be accurate because the teller of the directions had paced off part of those landscapes.
Whereas in motorized societies — and I’ve written about this — it’s pointless to talk to somebody in a car — if you’re on foot — about directions because the scale of their sense of landscape is limited to these strips of asphalt that are a few meters wide that wheeled vehicles can go on. Beyond that, it’s just this moving tableau that’s an abstraction.
In India, people can tell you shortcuts. They can tell you where the best tree is to take a break, where the best temple is to sleep at night, where the next jug of water waiting the foot traveler lies ahead. India was marvelous. I felt among a brotherhood and sisterhood of walkers there.
COWEN: Where has been the worst food of your journey?
SALOPEK: [laughs] Oh gosh, how to be diplomatic? It was wonderful, but meat-consuming societies, pastoral societies that rely on a large intake of both dairy products and meat is fantastic and delicious, but I have trouble eating it day after day after day. Parts of Central Asia were probably the most challenging for me.
That said, I will happily eat anything at all. That’s a necessity of maybe doing this kind of thing — you can’t be picky, and you certainly don’t want to turn your nose up at food that’s offered as a blessing to you, sometimes from people who don’t have much themselves. I try. Whereas I love food, Tyler, I’m not a foodie myself. I’m very happy with whatever is shared.
COWEN: Where did you get the most sick?
SALOPEK: I got sick in two places over the last nine years, and this might be a testament to how walking keeps you healthy. I caught a walking pneumonia in Palestine after coming out of the sterile deserts of Saudi Arabia for months and months. I think my resistance was low. Then I walked into a very population-dense corner of that part of the world and picked up a bug while walking in the rain and had to stop the Walk because I got pretty sick.
Then in the second place, I had some waterborne sickness in Lahore in Pakistan. No doubt — I don’t know where I got it, but wherever I got it from, I’m sure I enjoyed it because the food was also quite extraordinary in Pakistan.
COWEN: During earlier COVID times, you were just stuck in Myanmar. Is that correct? You couldn’t cross into China?
SALOPEK: Yes, that’s right. At first, COVID was locking down the borders and making it very difficult to proceed on to China. I planned to walk north through northern Myanmar, through Kachin to the Ruili border, crossing into Yunnan, and then in February — as you know — of last year, there was a coup, and that sealed the door closed, for sure.
I had to break the Walk for the first time and get on a plane and fly ahead — which I’d never done before, since 2013 — to go into China and then backtrack to the nearest place at the border of Myanmar to then proceed. Whereas that is unfortunate, it’s also part of the story. It’s also part of the journey, of what it’s like to walk around the world, early in this century, through a pandemic and a coup.
COWEN: The times when you’ve gotten in trouble — and here, I’m not even talking necessarily about the Walk, but your whole career as a journalist — what is it that has happened or led you to get into those kinds of trouble? And are you able to talk about those instances? Sudan, Pakistan.
SALOPEK: Yes. I’m happy to talk about them, Tyler, in a general way. But also — and I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish — but the focus of journalists on the trouble that they get into seems to me maybe a little bit unsavory, given the circumstances of the people who you’re covering in those scrapes. Whatever happened to me, and I genuinely believe this — this is not a cop-out to not tell the story — whatever happened to me in Africa or elsewhere, or the tough times I got into, I volunteered to go into those situations.
I went into them open-eyed, whereas almost every other human being around me, who I was ostensibly writing about, did not. It was thrust on them. The hardships that I endured in those places — it seems just a bit unsavory to dwell on them, given what everybody else was suffering at the time.
COWEN: How do you think of your work as a kind of rethink of journalism or what journalism can be or should be?
SALOPEK: Yes, there’s a dichotomy here. On the one hand, the Out of Eden Walk is most definitely envisioned as a laboratory, a studio of experimentation for immersive journalism, a kind of reportage that’s been around for a long time. You can call it slow journalism, but it really is just immersive journalism, right?
If you’re going to do a story about the oil industry, and you’re going to spend seven months working at a gas station in the Midwest of the United States to find out where petroleum flows are coming from around the world through that one gas station, and you’re going to dedicate yourself to it by working as a clerk at that gas station as well as getting documents to show that you can actually trace where that gasoline comes from — that, I suppose, can be called slow journalism, too, and I’ve been doing that for years.
I think the Walk’s difference, though, is — as opposed to one-off projects, even weighty projects, projects that ran really deep that I could spend a year on, whatever, following a Russian gunrunner through Africa or whatnot for months and months — the difference with the Walk, and it is really a significant one, is there’s an interconnectedness between the stories that appear before me and my walking partners.
They’re not atomized. They’re not happening in little boxes called environmental story, culture story, political story, economic story. These artificial constructs that journalism creates — understandably, because the world’s complicated, and part of the job is trying to make it comprehensible, and you build a frame around it. But we all know that frame is artificial or, to some degree, arbitrary because the economic story is, in fact, attached to the health story, which is attached to a conflict story, which is attached to . . .
The way I’ve put it before is that you pull on one story. You tug on one story a little bit. You find that it’s connected to another story that’s connected to another story that’s connected to another story all the way over the horizon, and the Walk is a perfect instrument to show that. The interconnectedness of critical issues that face us all today in the world are highlighted and showcased when you take a journey through them, when you’re literally walking through these headlines and showing that they merge into each other.
There’s no boundary. There’s no wall. There’s no white space on a page in a magazine or on a webpage. The text just smears into the next story. The Walk has been marvelous at doing that — these diagonal connections, not rectilinear ones, not X and Y axes, but something that cuts across, cuts the onion in a diagonal that shows how these stories are overlapping and touch on each other and touch on us. That’s Out of Eden Walk’s — to date — meta takeaway, the one that I share, say, with students when I talk to them about things like writing and reportage.
COWEN: How did your early police reporting job shape what you’re doing now? That’s a kind of slow journalism, or it can be, right?
SALOPEK: It’s counterintuitive because it’s often fast. The most concrete kind of way it informed me is by training me to stay up all night. I can pull all-nighters, because if you’re a cop reporter, you don’t have a nine-to-five gig. You’re up at 3:30 in the morning, whenever you get some sort of notice that something’s going down downtown, and you’d better be there.
So, it’s fast, to be honest. Cop reporting, at least the police reporting that I did at a small-town newspaper, is you’re writing the police blotter, and you’re picking the two or three big crimes or stories of the day, and you’re writing them short and tight. You’re doing an awful lot of zipping around on a motorbike between crime scenes and trying to make sense of it.
What it does tell you, what it does inform in my reporting later is just how’s this — there’s this subterranean world below the veneer of normalcy. I worked in a small town called Roswell, New Mexico. I think it had a few tens of thousands of people. Its newspaper, when it had a paper newspaper —
COWEN: We all know Roswell, right?
SALOPEK: Yes, this is before it became the alien capital of America, though. This was back before it jumped on that shtick. It was just a cow and natural gas town, out on the Llano Estacado of New Mexico. If you drove through it, it looked like any other kind of rural town in the semi-arid Southwest. But what police reporting shows is all the tensions, the ethnic tensions, and the stringency of the social mores in a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business. It puts enormous pressure on people so that sometimes they react with bad behavior, right?
It comes out through police reporting. That, to me, as a young guy on his first job — I was like 24. I didn’t know anything about journalism, and they just gave me that. Tyler, it’s the entry-level job in most newspapers. You do the cop beat. It was really illuminating about the invisibility of the story, that the invisible stories are often sometimes the most telling when you’re writing about societies, number one, and number two, developing connections and contacts with everybody — not just the police, but with the people who are breaking the law.
COWEN: How did working on scalloping boats shape your current project?
SALOPEK: Again, another great job to develop endurance for sleeplessness, working shifts on a scalloper out of New Bedford where you, basically, are switched on 20 hours a day, day after day after day at sea. I’ve never made these. These are good questions. Clearly, they have informed my work throughout. The thing that I like to do — and I can’t always do it, but if I have the opportunity — is join people in work.
If you can get into somebody’s workshop, if you can get into somebody’s field, if you can get onto somebody’s canoe, somebody’s boat, if you can join them pushing sheep across the Anatolian Plain, you are going to be admitted into that person’s world. And you’re going to be able to see that person’s identity in a way — self-identity, how they self-identify. People identify themselves by the work they do in ways that many, many long interviews, sitting in a newsroom, will just not get.
Working on scallopers and in all these other manual jobs that I did when I was younger helped me comprehend that fact, that there’s a really quick way into somebody’s head and heart, picking up the tools that they’re using and working alongside them.
COWEN: How did growing up in Central Mexico help shape this project? As you know, there’s a long-standing Central Mexican tradition of walking porters. In pre-Conquest times, they carried salt around, I think, even through the late 18th century.
SALOPEK: Salt and guacamaya feathers, and you name it. Well, that’s maybe when this project really started, right? You can make the argument that that’s when my journey began, was when my parents took me across my first international border. I was five and a half, pulled out of kindergarten in Southern California and thrust into Mexican public schools from one day to the next.
Growing up in a small community on the edge of a big, sprawling, exploding city — Guadalajara — back when I was growing up in this place, it was called Zapopan. There were corn fields, and all my friends, my Mexican playmates, were the sons and daughters of farmers. If I went back today, I would not be able to find my old home because it’s been completely absorbed by urbanization.
I think that gift that my parents gave me and my brothers and sisters was the primordial key to the storytelling that I’m still doing. In a sense, I’m still walking back to Mexico, right?
COWEN: Sure. When you’re doing your walking, what kind of very local media coverage do you get? There are, obviously, articles about you in, say, US periodicals, but I mean coverage in the places where you’re at.
SALOPEK: Yes. You name it: radio, TV, online digital news pages, all along the route.
COWEN: You’ll do interviews with them? If they ask for an interview, you’ll typically do it?
SALOPEK: Typically, I will because that’s part of the mission, to work with colleagues and to interact with colleagues. I also give workshops when I can. Yes, it’s very, very cooperative.
COWEN: How do you teach journalism differently than other people do?
SALOPEK: The model that I’ve been using involves walking. We set up a workspace in somebody’s house in downtown old-city Kolkata. We invite colleagues to come spend a week with us there, and we say, “We want you to go out on foot and find a story within one kilometer of here.” And you go find it on foot, and you report it on foot.
That’s a mechanism to slow people down, to get them off staring at their phones, grazing the internet for information, which is part of the process, but I think we rely on it too much. Start using your body as one of the main instruments for information-gathering. Yes, spoke and wheel, have a hub, and send people out radially to go find their stories, and then work with them throughout the days to deepen and sharpen their vision of what they’re writing about.
COWEN: Do you ever worry that you’ll be somehow overwhelmed by local publicity, like townspeople will start following you? There’ll be a troupe or horde with you everywhere you go, you won’t be able to look at things peacefully anymore, you’ll be too scrutinized. Or is that not in danger of happening?
SALOPEK: Tyler, I was wondering about that early on, the first year or so, but it hasn’t happened yet. I think the project is just too low-key, honestly. I think the project is just maybe too slow, right? It’ll capture passing attention, but we’re living in a digital age when there’s just this tidal wave of media, and it’s just 1 or 20 stories about the Walk. I don’t know. The Kyrgyz press is going to be there for a few days, but then it’s gone.
So no, I’ve never really had to concern myself with, what would you call it? What was this American film with Tom Hanks, the guy who was the “Life is like a box of chocolates” guy? I forget the name of it, but basically, I’m not too concerned with having a coterie of people following along. It hasn’t happened yet.
COWEN: Given all the walking you’ve done, the work you’ve done, as you know, there’s an extensive literature on early human origins and how quickly we got around the globe, mostly on foot. Has any of your own work revised your views on that, like, it’s easier than people think, harder than people think, they must have taken boats? Do you have views on those questions?
SALOPEK: [laughs] Yes, I do every day, and they’re often at loggerheads. Walking long distances is not easy. It can wear you down physically. You have to be careful. You have to give yourself enough recovery time. Pounding the soles of your feet on hard surfaces 30,000 or 40,000 times a day puts stress on your joints.
But the thing is that our ancestors, the original Homo sapiens, who trickled out of Africa at various times in the past, never walked like I do. They’re not out, basically, pacing off gigantic landscapes. They were hunters and gatherers, so they moved much more methodically, looking for resources 5, 6 miles a day, often in a loop, going back to the same shelter that they were camping and sleeping in, moving in groups of a dozen, up to 40 people, a communal experience.
The science, as I remind readers — because, as you might imagine, over the last nine years, the science of ancient human dispersals and origins has changed a lot as new information comes in, and readers write me and say, “Wait, isn’t your hypothesis dated?” I say, “Yes, thank God because science is living.”
Science is a living thing, and it’s a good thing that it keeps changing. The basic consensus that we all came out of Africa is still there, but the time frames have changed a lot. When I left Ethiopia, the consensus was maybe 60,000 to 70,000 years ago — what they called something in the third-wave pulse, the big one that led to the peopling of the world — has been displaced by archeological and fossil finds that are much older, that suggest that people were moving out much, much earlier, more than 100,000 years ago.
That’s fine by me. I’m not going to go back and re-walk parts of continents to reflect that change. It’s all part of the record, as it were. The ease of walking across vast landscapes strikes me maybe because of what I do, because I look at human landscapes, in particular, through the prism of storytelling, and it’s endlessly fascinating and engaging, and it keeps tugging me along. I find it quite easy, and I never find it boring, ever.
But does that match what our ancestors felt? I doubt it. Who knows what they were thinking? We’re talking of huge time frames relative to the human lifespan, and all we can do is speculate about what was going through their imaginations and minds as they were clearing one mountain pass and then the next.
I would tend to think, given the time that I’ve spent with hunter-gatherers, is that their attention was much more closely focused, again, on what was available to eat within 20 meters away, not that snowy mountain peak that the camera pans up to with operatic background music.
COWEN: The increasingly popular view that the New World was settled by multiple waves of arrivals — do you have an opinion on that?
SALOPEK: Yes, I think that’s exciting.
COWEN: It was less contingent than it seemed, right? It would’ve happened anyway, no matter what, is, I think, an implication.
SALOPEK: Yes, and complicated. The fact that they’re now making discoveries — undersea discoveries, especially. for the New World that’s pushing back the time frame — is amazing and extraordinary. The resilience of human beings — again, whether you’re hunter-gatherers coming down the western seaboard of North America in canoes or walking across Shaanxi Province — is a source of hope. It’s one of the things that keeps me going.
COWEN: What was your biggest surprise when you visited the gorillas in Rwanda?
SALOPEK: That was before this project, you realize.
COWEN: I know, of course. Yes, absolutely, but you’ve written about it, and it sounded amazing. What shocked you?
SALOPEK: I was sent there to do . . . It’s been ages since I’ve thought about this. Looking back from the distance of today, when was that? That was like mid-’90s, so we’re talking more than 25 years ago.
What sticks still was being sent there to write about mountain gorillas — which is absolutely a valid decision to make, given the rarity of that species and what our relationship with wild animals has to teach us about being human — versus what was happening in the aftermath of this horrific genocide that had just happened in Rwanda.
I felt myself to be very torn when I went there as a young reporter on my first assignment for National Geographic. I didn’t want to blow it, and yet, at the same time, having spent so many years in Africa as a hardcore conflict reporter, dealing with focusing on wildlife when there were 750,000 refugees living on lava fields just across the border in the Congo. Some of these refugees were not exactly innocent bystanders to the genocide. They were actually the perpetrators of the killings.
I don’t even remember exactly how I handled that, but I think I tried to merge those two stories in a way that was maybe more about us than about mountain gorillas. I don’t recall if that was successful.
COWEN: What did you like best about Johannesburg?
SALOPEK: So many things about Jozi.
COWEN: It has a bad reputation with tourists, right?
SALOPEK: Yes, it does.
COWEN: People say it’s too dangerous.
SALOPEK: Yes. I’ve got to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve been there, and I’d be curious to know how things are going. I think I’ve been away from Johannesburg since 2009, so that’s a ways back, but it was the unbeautiful sibling of Cape Town. Cape Town was the San Francisco of South Africa, the place that the tourists flock to, and Johannesburg the place they avoided.
But the grit of Johannesburg, the very toughness of it, the very hardiness of it — it was one of these places that you admire because it is real. It’s not boutiquefied, was what made me love my years there. That said, I used it, Tyler, as a base, so I was often away. I would come back to Johannesburg to recharge, but I was often away, maybe half the time of every year — if not more — traveling in Africa, covering other stories.
COWEN: Eventually, to get to Tierra del Fuego, how exactly will you cross into the New World?
SALOPEK: I don’t know. It’s a big question, and this is something that doesn’t have a resolution in the short term. Assuming I can get into Russia, how far north can I walk? The plan is to walk from the Chinese border north to Magadan and then to take a ship from there to Alaska.
When I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, I met some people who were operating a schooner, a sailing ship, on the Aleutians, bringing bulk cargo to the indigenous communities of the Aleutians as a way to break the monopoly of airplane cargo, which was so expensive. They’re basically a group of young anarchists, and they offered to come to Magadan and pick me up and sail back. Gosh, if that offer is still on the table, if I can step into Magadan eventually, that would be an interesting way to go.
Other than that, I haven’t given it much thought. These big logistical questions are hard to contemplate so far in advance because I’ve got so many decisions to make every day — tomorrow — about logistics and what to do and where to go.
COWEN: The last two questions. First, more proximately, where are you walking to next?
SALOPEK: I am walking to Xi’an, which, boy, isn’t that a great sentence to utter?
COWEN: Oh, wonderful city, yes. Amazing cherries there. Don’t neglect those.
SALOPEK: Oh, I’ll look for them.
COWEN: It may not be season, actually.
SALOPEK: Yes, well, it’s October. I’m not sure when they would be harvesting. They’re harvesting.
COWEN: It depends how fast you get there.
SALOPEK: Yes. I have about a week to 10 days to cross over the Qinling Mountains. I’m on the southern foothills, having just crossed over from Sichuan into Shaanxi. Me and my walking partners, Li Huipu and Geng Kun, have a big climb ahead of us, I think up above 3,000 meters. Then we’ll come down into the basin where Xi’an is. This is legendary. For me, it still shines with the golden atmosphere of fables and literature.
What’ll be really nice, in my case, is that I’ve been walking towards Xi’an for two to three years, coming across Central Asia, following the Silk Road corridors. I can finally say that I’ve arrived at one of the poles of the Silk Road that I’ve been steering towards for many years.
COWEN: Last question: What kind of final product or output or book or videos or movies — what will result from the trip other than the trip itself and its direct ramifications? If I say, “Oh, I want to buy Paul’s book or see Paul’s movie,” what is it we can look forward to?
SALOPEK: I don’t know, a line of gimme caps? The legacy is layered, so there’s my own work, which is into the hundreds of thousands of words already — I think half a million — 99 percent of it digital. Increasingly, there is the work of walking partners, these extraordinary people who add their amazing talents — photographers, writers, scientists, activists, environmentalists, educators — who just deeply enrich the whole mission of the Walk, to be frank.
The Walk is now theirs, and I’m almost, in some ways, a spectator in my own journey. It’ll be their work. It’ll be my work. There’ll be educational programming that hopefully goes on as legacy work. There’ll be exhibitions, perhaps, books. It’s a lot.
COWEN: Maybe you’ll endorse a pair of sneakers, too.
SALOPEK: [laughs] I might have to get to that point. Yes, I might have to get to that point. It’s just a rare privilege to be able to even wake up every morning in this small town of 1.5 million in northern Shaanxi — Chingu, it’s called — and know that I’ve got some trail ahead of me, and there’ll be some stories waiting along it that I don’t know. To be able to do that every day is really very motivating. Yes, very motivating. What happens after Tierra del Fuego — as I’ve said before, I have no plans. I don’t know. Grow tomatoes like Candide, I don’t know.
COWEN: Paul Salopek, thank you very much.
SALOPEK: Thank you, Tyler. It’s been great to chat with you.
Photo credit: Matthieu Chazal