While getting teachers and students excited about journalist Paul Salopek's journey has never been a problem for us, one challenge we often face is getting these students, particularly young ones and those in urban areas and public schools, to actually, physically walk – in safe ways that parents and administrators are comfortable with, but are also educational and exploratory.
So when the opportunity came along to partner with the Philmont Scout Ranch, whose staff leads some 22,000 scouts through ten-day hiking journeys in the wilds of northern New Mexico every summer, we hopped right on the trail with them.
Salopek himself, a National Geographic fellow and Pulitzer Center grantee who is tracing on foot the ancient path of human migration from Ethiopia to Patagonia, worked with our education team to produce a video introducing the scouts to the Out of Eden Walk, which the Philmont staff screened for each group before they set out on their hikes. Salopek spoke directly to the scouts from his current post in the Republic of Georgia. He said he knew the terrain of New Mexico well, having lived there himself for many years.
"This [walking] project is not about earning special merit badges," Salopek explained. He gave the scouts some advice about recording "milestones," which would become a household word among the scouts and camp staff. Every hundred miles on his trail, the journalist stops to take a panoramic photograph, a photo of the sky, a photo of the land, and a sound recording.
"I urge you to do the same on your walk," Salopek said. "Stop now and then. Record a milestone. When you record a few of them, you get to see the earth unfold before you in a stop-motion fashion; you get to see the very small changes happening before your eyes."
Before hitting the trail, each scout was given a "Passport Journal," a small blank notebook in which to write or draw thoughts, scenes and memories – their own "milestones."
"You should write all the time," scout Kevin Diaz told filmmaker and Pulitzer Center staffer Evey Wilson when she traveled to Philmont to document the experience. "No matter what, even if you did nothing, you should write. Write about your experiences; write about what you think. Because when you come back to it, you can really see how much you changed or what you've done."
The scouts seemed to be in agreement that walking – even though they'd done enough of it to wonder incredulously how Salopek, who'd done much more, could still be on his feet – was, overall, a good idea.
"Slowing down makes you see a lot more," Julian Kay told Wilson. "If you're quiet and walking slow, you get to hear more of the things that interact around you. You could hear the water flowing, you could hear the trees blowing through the wind. It's pretty cool."
"You get to step back and just let your mind go through and work its gears," said Riley Metcalf. "So I guess you just get more emotional and attached, as unmanly as that sounds, and just stop and reflect more. It's kind of nice."
Salopek also made a video for scouts to watch once they'd concluded their hikes and were heading back to their homes all over the country. He encouraged them to take with them the lessons they learned at Philmont.
"Take a moment to think about where you are in the world," Salopek said. "Take a moment to pause. It's important to truly understand where you are in the context of your society and of your physical landscape. Every one of us living our lives today is living a life of rediscovery."
Many of the scouts spoke to Wilson about a feeling of considering themselves through a newfound sense of perspective.
"Once we got to the top [of the mountain] we watched as the sun rose the shadows just kind of pulled back from the landscape," Matthew Langsdale recalled. "And it was really an eye-opening moment for me that I'm not the biggest person in the world. You know, I'm this small thing. But I still matter. I still mean something because I climbed that mountain."
That's the kind of thoughtfulness and perspective the Out of Eden Walk encourages.
"Leading a thoughtful life means that you have to slow down enough to think about what you feel and experience and see," Salopek concluded. "So hopefully I'll see you out on the trail someday. Happy walking, and good luck."