I’m walking 24,000 miles across the world. Lately, this fact has got me to thinking about animals emerging from ice.
You may have heard of them. Over the past year, the melting Arctic permafrost has yielded up a well-preserved 18,000-year-old wolf pup near Yakutsk in far north Russia. An Ice Age woolly rhino poked up from the sodden ground in the same region. A huge, long-extinct cave bear, its black nose still glistening, surfaced on an island in the East Siberian Sea. Spirits from the deep past, it seems, are returning to deliver us a warning. And it’s not simply about today’s dire climate crisis. To me, is seems even more existential: It’s about adapting, as a vainglorious species, to catastrophic change.
Eight years ago this week, I stepped away from a human fossil site called Herto Bouri in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, one of the antique boneyards in Africa where humankind is believed to have evolved. After trekking roughly 11,000 miles onward through the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, I’ve paused my storytelling journey, called the Out of Eden Walk, in Myanmar to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve spent most of the past year in a remote hill town called Putao at the southern rim of the Himalayas. I’ve sat in a mildewed room to write a book. (Northern Myanmar gets 13 feet of rain a year.) I’ve joined my ethnic Lisu and Rawang neighbors in planting rice. And when languid Internet connections have permitted, I read, agog, of a planet convulsed by historic reckonings. A mortal coronavirus. Reeling economies. Apocalyptic wildfires, floods, and hurricanes—both natural and political.
And all this has made me cast a glance backward, across some 2,800 days of walked memory, to the people I’ve encountered who seemed to best survive—if not master—lives of profound uncertainty. This seems a worthwhile human quality to cultivate these days.
While plodding up the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, for example, I watched closely as my Afar pastoralist partners paced off the yellow thorn barrens. Barely lifting their feet, the soles of their cheap plastic sandals always seemed to clear the uneven desert surface by a single micron: a shuffling, low-energy gait built for eternal horizons. Even deep in conversation, or while tending our cargo camels, my friends Ahmed Elema, Mohamed Adahis, and Kader Yarri would swivel their eyes constantly as they scanned the skies for a flimsy wisp of cloud. The distinctly frail rainy seasons known to the Afar—Konayto, Datrob, Debaba, Deda’e, Segum, Karma, Gilal and Hagaya—were growing yearly more fickle. Clouds meant water. Water meant grass. So be ready to pivot.
Almost 2,000 miles away, across the briny Red Sea, I met Syrian refugees encamped in donated tents along the Jordan River valley. The brutal army of Assad had emptied their home city, Hamah. They survived by picking—and eating—tomatoes.
“There is no meat,” our host, who didn’t want to be named, apologized. “Here, we only dream of chicken.”
The Syrians shared what they had: stewed tomatoes, raw tomatoes, pickled tomatoes, and a corner of sandy canvas on which to sleep. Some cried retelling their stories. All of them laughed when one man described once having to eat grass from hunger. My walking partner, a tough Bedouin named Hamoudi Enwaje’ al Bedul, gave the tent dwellers our food. We walked away, stunned to silence for miles by the Syrians’ generosity. I have rarely felt richer in my life than those nights.
Refugees and pastoralists navigate cataclysmic change with their feet. Movement is humankind’s oldest survival strategy. The Stone Age people I follow on my project’s transcontinental route—I’m retracing the pathways of the first Homo sapiens who dispersed out of Africa to South America—all escaped famines, disease, competition, and resource depletion by hoofing it through landscapes.
But what about the rest of us today? The majority who stay put? Who are sedentary?
How will we ride out our own era of historic tumult—a brutal pandemic, cracked climates, eroding economies, anti-democratic revolts—when we’re encumbered with the sweet weight of a place we call home: the beloved faces, the lifelong routines, the comfort of belongings?
This question tumbles me backward to a stroll I took in the winter of 2012, on the crowded sidewalks of Greenwich Village, in New York, before launching my multiyear trek. The writer Tony Hiss was showing me his streets. “Each thing I looked at seemed now to have a story curled inside it,” Hiss had written of the benefits of slowing down to experience “deep travel,” a concept elucidated in his book In Motion.
What were the biggest questions—I asked him—to confront on my lunatic hike through the dizzily accelerating 21st century?
“Anticipatory loss,” Hiss said.
He meant the anxious feeling held by those who currently control power—land, wealth, jobs, and other measures of status that grow from settled hierarchies, from staying in one place—when this power is ebbing inexorably away. This fear seems like a good description of the latest news reports I’m reading about mayhem in Washington, D.C.
And the solution?
Eight years after leaving behind my house keys and lacing up my boots at Herto Bouri, I can only pass on what I’ve seen.
Tread lightly upon the Earth. Share what little you have with strangers. Scan the horizons for rain. And then maybe, if we pay close attention, and if it’s not too late—and to be sure, if we’re lucky—our descendants will look upon us with more compassion than contempt when it’s our turn to melt out of the ice.