Paul Salopek is nearly halfway through the most improbable hike imaginable: He is taking a 24,000-mile walk around the world, retracing our ancient ancestors’ journey out of Africa to the tip of South America. So far, he’s been on the road for nearly nine years, trying to see what might be learned about our frenetic world by experiencing it one step at a time.
“My aim has been simple,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner explains in this issue. “To foot-brake my life, to slow down my thinking, my work, my hours. Unfortunately, the world has had other ideas. Apocalyptic climate crises. Widespread extinctions. Forced human migrations. Populist revolts. A mortal coronavirus.” And earlier this year, in addition to all that, he walked into Myanmar—and straight into a coup.
The National Geographic Society has been the principal funder since the start of what Paul named the Out of Eden Walk. This issue’s essay is the 10th feature by Paul that the magazine has published during the walk, along with his hundreds of dispatches for NationalGeographic.com.
Paul has written repeatedly about battlements and fortresses he has passed, vestiges of history’s wars. They may have been strong enough to block out enemies, he notes—but they also locked in “intolerance, anti-rational purges, and, ultimately, stagnation.”
Paul paints everyday scenes in moving detail. At a truck stop in Djibouti where Somalis offered red tea, “I was surely the most privileged walker within a thousand miles,” he recalls. “Yet these men, who had left comrades dead of thirst in the desert, spooned my sugar for me as if I were the starveling.”
And he writes of refugees—refugees everywhere, of all nationalities, an army of the displaced. In Jordan, he talks with families picking tomatoes that they share with him. At every turn he sees Syrians—no surprise, given that some 6.6 million have fled their strife-torn country.
I glimpsed the refugee crisis, briefly but unforgettably, when I met up with Paul on the walk for a few days in 2014. In Şanlıurfa, in southern Turkey, distraught Syrians told us of their longing for their homeland and their certainty they would never see it again.
Often in the company of our extraordinary photographer John Stanmeyer, Paul Salopek is documenting the planet in a way no other journalist has. We’re proud to publish his work and to share his insights about how we can navigate through our troubled century.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.