Paul Salopek has been out for a walk—a very long walk—since 2013. His route stretches from Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley to the very southern tip of South America, tracing the path of humanity from its African origins, across deserts and mountains.
PBS NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan caught up with the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent in the former Soviet republic of Georgia to discuss his journey so far.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, journalist Paul Salopek spent his career covering the news overseas and jetting around the globe, until he realized that walking around the world might just give him the deeper insights he was searching for.
Hari Sreenivasan met up with Salopek for a stroll.
PAUL SALOPEK, Journalist/National Geographic Fellow: There is something not in your brain, but almost in your backbone, about the rhythm of walking, this A/B, A/B. It’s the pace of a heartbeat.
HARI SREENIVASAN: On a high country cool morning, Paul Salopek is out for a walk. But his walk is unlike any you or I might take. On this morning, he is nearing mile 4,000 of a trek that began in January 2013 in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, the wellspring of ancient humankind.
PAUL SALOPEK: This whole project is about two things. It’s about the past and the future. And the past element is following our first ancestors who spread out of Africa during the Stone Age, so, following the footsteps of some very old and intrepid pioneers.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He calls this project the Out of Eden Walk, and he will end it some time in six or seven years at the very southern tip of South America, after logging 21,000 miles. That’s about 30 million footsteps, for those of you counting yours every day.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent was used to dropping into war zones and driving his way out as fast as possible. But so far on this trip, he’s walked through some of the conflict zones of the Middle East, now on an assignment that is his lifetime.
With support from the National Geographic Society, the Nieman and Knight Foundations and others, he has walked across deserts and mountains.
So, why do this?
PAUL SALOPEK: There has got to be a space to slow down, analyze and absorb more meaningful information. I don’t think we need more information. I think we need more meaning.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What kind of context are you able to get when you are walking vs. when we get there in cars and planes and trains?
PAUL SALOPEK: Walking has shown me that the boundaries between stories are permeable, in that one story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other. And so walking between stories shows me connections that didn’t — I didn’t used to see when I would parachute in.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are we saying? What is humanity telling you?
PAUL SALOPEK: The same stories over and over again. It’s the same classic stories of complaint, of joy, of aspiration, of hope, of hopes dashed. And I never get tired of them.
HARI SREENIVASAN: We caught up with him in Southern Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, near Armenia, where the walk was stopped late last fall at this destroyed Soviet-era building.
PAUL SALOPEK: Last November, we had just crossed the Turkish border, and it was very bad weather. It was snowing, it was sleeting, very cold both during the day and at night. We came down, and with frozen feet had to break through a frozen river, plunging in up to our thighs. And we were very afraid of hypothermia.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Salopek and three walking partners found this spotlight. One man set his gloves alight to start a fire and stay warm.
PAUL SALOPEK: On a November night a year ago, this was heaven. This was better than a five-star hotel.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Then he waited here in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, for a lot longer than he planned. He was stuck in what he calls a geopolitically-induced storm, waiting for visas that would determine the rest of his route.
A hundred thousand years ago, the problems were different here, in this land littered with volcanic boulders from ancient eruptions.
PAUL SALOPEK: When our ancestors, the first people who walked out of Africa, passed through this region, their big obstacles were glaciers and big animals that would eat them or droughts or famines. Today, mine is these ethnic fault lines and these imaginary walls, these imaginary glaciers called borders. And they have knocked me sideways, way off my intended track.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Months of back-and-forth talks with regional governments made it clear that his original plan to walk across Iran and points east wouldn’t work.
Finally, he set a route from Georgia that will pass through Azerbaijan, on to Kazakstan and beyond.
PAUL SALOPEK: This doesn’t look like much, but this ruin on the high plateau of Southern Georgia is the beginning of phase two of the Out of Eden Walk. So, this is the gateway to the Orient for me. From here, I’m leaving the Caucasus, going on the old silk roads to China.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So at mid-morning on October 20, Salopek set out, with the world revealed before him one step after the other, on this day up to a mountain pass at more than 9,000 feet.
Down the other side, Salopek and his walking partner spent the night in the small village of Mamishlari, a village of ethnic Azeris from Azerbaijan. They were taken in by the Nasibov family; 72-year-old Ziaudoin and his 70-year-old wife, Azmat, married as teenagers. It is a tough farm life, on the edge, really, of civilization.
PAUL SALOPEK: We came around the corner of this mountain river and here was this village that we didn’t even know existed.
The first reaction was curiosity. When I finally told him, well, actually, I have hiked all the way from Africa, that was the surprise moment, and there was laughter around that table. And there was a lively exchange about, oh, you have got to be crazy.
ZIAUDOIN NASIBOV, Farmer (through interpreter): I don’t think he is crazy. I actually thought he was quite enlightened, because they actually want to walk across the world and see what’s out there. You might not notice a place, but when you walk by on foot, you see it, and appreciate it for what it actually is.
PAUL SALOPEK:Ziaud also has basically joined the walk because he showed us the way.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All along his route, Salopek has been joined by walking partners, who function as guides, translators and companions. In Georgia, that partner was Dima Bit-Suleiman.
What is the reaction of most of the people you bump into when you tell them what he’s doing?
DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN, Salopek’s walking partner: They go like, yes, yes, yes, coming from Africa. On walk? What do you mean?
DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: That’s like, usually, they kind of don’t believe and they say, why is he doing it? What is he trying to find out?
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about when they figure out that he is trying to go to the end of the world?
DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: And then it’s even worse. And then they really ask, like, what is he searching for?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.
DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: Like, why is he doing that? I don’t think there is an easy answer.
HARI SREENIVASAN: After passing through boggy lowlands, where horsemen emerged from fairy tale fogs, Salopek arrived at a village, Ipnari.
Largely abandoned, it revealed a much deeper history, nearby, a Bronze Age wine store, 5,000-year-old fermentation vats sunken in the ground.
PAUL SALOPEK: You’re talking about the beginning of civilization. Georgians were already drinking.
PAUL SALOPEK: The walk has opened up the vista to me in both space and time, where I can see the connections between all of these stories and I see how history informs everything that’s happening today.
Time pools in certain valleys, and it runs like a river through certain canyon systems, certain plains. And every step you take could be in a different era. And so here we are coming up to another one, and I think that the task now is to kind of go slowly.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But, for now, his steps were taking him toward the village of Boslebi, Georgia. And as the evening gathered, Salopek explained one mind-boggling facet of this grand experiment.
More often than not, when he sets out each morning, he has little idea where he will sleep that night.
PAUL SALOPEK: We’re going to draw attention, obviously, and just start greeting people and start striking up conversations.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And it is this exact moment, first contact in a village, that Salopek was hesitant to have us film up close. It’s hard making a first impression with a camera crew in tow.
This day, five minutes after this scene and after meeting two other people in town, they both had a place to stay for the night.
You don’t plan out every step of the way, so to speak.
PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, it’s hard to explain to readers who think that I have got a team back in the States with a big map with blinking lights and computers plotting out my route.
They would laugh if they saw how seat-of-the-pants this is. This is truly sort of strolling across the world, and seeing how far I get before nightfall and then looking for shelter. The world is, by and large, a hospitable place.
Merab, this is my friend Hari from the United States.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Hari. Pleased to meet you.
Paul introduced me to his host for the night before I arrived, Merab Saaladze, a retired deputy governor of the local municipality.
You just invited him into your home. He’s a total stranger.
MERAB SAALADZE, Former Deputy Governor, Boslebi, Georgia (through interpreter): I asked him who he was, and he said he was from the U.S., so I immediately invited them in.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Is it common to be this hospitable, to take in a stranger?
MERAB SAALADZE: To me, it was the first time.
HARI SREENIVASAN: After tea and a bit more conversation, we set out for the next waypoint, the ancient village of Dmanisi about six miles away, which we will tell you more about in our next story.
MAN: So, basically, there is no shortcut. Merab said, well, yes, you have to cross the river.
PAUL SALOPEK: OK.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But, as we soon found out, even the most precise directions need updating, which we were given by a man with hands stained from a lifetime of gathering walnuts.
And that, says Salopek, is just part of the plan.
You have got GPS, you have got maps, you have got guides. You are still going the wrong way sometimes.
PAUL SALOPEK: Yes.
Being found is overrated. Being a little lost is good, because it keeps you alert, keeps you looking around. It keeps you scanning the horizons about to find your bearings, and you are not sleepwalking through the world.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how many pairs of shoes do you think you have gone through?
PAUL SALOPEK: This is the fourth. Somebody brought me these from the States, so they’re kind of special.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Do you get tired by the end of an average day, or has your body gotten used to this hiking pace?
PAUL SALOPEK: I do.
It depends on my physical condition. You know, look, the walk has kind of turned into my life, so it’s a complicated question to answer. It’s like you — you have good weeks and bad weeks.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.
PAUL SALOPEK: I think I’m in pretty good condition.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.
PAUL SALOPEK: But I get tired, and “my job” — in quotes — is to write, not just really to walk. So, at the end of the day, it takes a special effort to sit down and write a story.
My project, to walk across the world for seven years.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Those stories, dispatches from this ambling Eden, are being followed online by a growing group of digital companions.
Young people in particular, students, catch up with Salopek along the way. The tools of the trade are the heaviest thing he carries in his backpack: a laptop, cameras, notebooks and not more than a single change of clothes. He stops every 100 miles to record a milestone, a panoramic photo in this case that includes an exhausted NewsHour crew and a wayward pig, then some video, and a brief interview with the nearest person.
This one, number 29, after 2,800 air miles traveled, came outside a truck driver’s house near a Georgian mining town. And after a few questions and a handshake, Salopek is again on his way, the rhythm restored.
What makes a human want to go over the next ridge?
PAUL SALOPEK: Ah, the eternal question, the one that probably doesn’t have a rational answer through science.
The walk is part of that exploration, the impulse, not even rational to know what’s over the mountain. Why — why paddle into the sea? We have set out again and again, and nobody came back, and yet we still set out. And one scientist, geneticist said, we’re just crazy.
And I think that magical, wonderful craziness is part of the joy of this project. It’s something that also binds us together.
HARI SREENIVASAN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Southern Georgia.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Places we never get to see.