Pulitzer Center Update

Philmont Scout Ranch Essay Contest Runners-Up


A Philmont Scout Ranch hiker writes in his Passport Journal

A hiker at the Philmont Scout Ranch pauses to record a milestone in his Passport Journal. Image by Evey Wilson. Cimarron, New Mexico, 2015.

What do you notice about a place when you slow down? This was the essay question the Pulitzer Center asked scouts and venturers hiking at Philmont this summer as part of a once-in-a-lifetime contest. The winner travels to Central Asia to hike with with journalist Paul Salopek as part of Out of Eden Walk, a decade-long project walking in the footsteps of early man from humanity's cradle in Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America. Below are the ten runner-up essays -- the winning entry will be announced in August.

Jackson Blay
Tallahassee, FL

All The Time In The World

For many people, life is more about the destination than the journey. Though the many awe-inspiring sights of our planet do serve as perfect destinations, many modern societies seem to have lost their connection to the journey. Motorized travel makes it all too easy to zip past half of the country at 70 miles per hour. By slowing down, however, we are able to see the sights of the world as they really are. The blur from the highway becomes a sea of unique cornstalks, the dots seen from 20,000 feet become mountains and landscapes to explore. Our senses were not made to function at 70 miles per hour. Slowing down allows us to experience the intoxicating vastness of our world as it was meant to be experienced. To walk slowly and take in the sight, sounds, and smells of our world is to truly be human.

Milestone 1: Coin

We trudge forward in the dead of night, carefully scanning the ground to avoid slipping and breaking an ankle. Something half buried in the dirt glints in the pale moonlight, catching my eye. I scoop it out of the soft dirt. A slightly tarnished coin, Korean no less, now rests in my palm. The only thing on it I understand is a date: 1994. How did a Korean coin end up in the woods of North Florida? If coins could talk, their stories would surely captivate us all.

Milestone 2: Wetumpka

The world is humidity. The sun beats down, reflecting off the sandy soil to strike my face despite my wide-brimmed hat. The trees around me bear strange v-shaped marks: the scars of a turpentine harvest. 150 years ago a small town made its living off of these trees. Now all that is left of the town is a few rusty nails that litter the ground. These trees were here well before I was born, and they will be here well after I die. The town and its inhabitants have been forgotten by humans, but the trees still bear their scars. The trees remember.

In the end, every person in the world is connected by a simple, uniquely human fear: running out of time. All animals fear death, but only humans seem to understand that, despite our best efforts, it will inevitably come for each and every one of us. This simple fact makes it enticing to rush around the world, to try to see its sights, to try to leave a legacy. But, as the ruined Wetumpka shows us, this is mostly in vain. Impressive as they are, the pyramids will eventually turn to dust. By slowing down, we allow ourselves to truly take in the sights of the world, and live life to its fullest.


T'ziah Courtney
Huntington Beach, CA

A Journey to Paradise

We move at the pace of satellites beaming from one spot to the next whether by radio waves, vehicles or airplanes, but not actually taking the time to sit back and think about how closely related our stories are to the people around us. We walk in the footprints of our ancestors every day but rarely take the time to fill the space between moments with meaning and substance. Through this journey I've begun to understand why walking at the pace of life is important and that walking with purpose is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It allows us to experience each moment not being anchored to what happened yesterday or anticipating what will be tomorrow but grounding ourselves in the here and now.

Milestone 1: On our 45-minute long ride to Forester Ridgeline Trail we sat in virtual silence with a beachy instrumental as our soundtrack. Watching life unfold on PCH at high shutter speed, barely in focus with just enough clarity to understand that the things worth understanding can't always be captured behind my camera lens.

The feel of loose earth under my trail boots, the sun beating down on my neck with a gentle salt flavored breeze gives me a glimpse of what the Juaneno people must have felt hundreds of years ago walking this same stretch of land before the Spanish and Ole Hanson settled this land. The Hawks fly above just out of reach and low enough for my dog to be jealous of their wings. We stumbled onto David just as I grab poison ivy in a vain attempt to reach my camera before it falls off its perch. He walks this trail daily far way from New York where he's from and he's going wherever adventure leads, as he proudly exclaims. The peak is beautiful; you can see where rolling hills meet sea from here but still hear the buzz of urban sprawl mixed with the rustling of lizards and the call of hawks at play.

Milestone 2: From hills to sea our next adventure takes us to Crystal Cove. With bluffs that seem to have been born of sea and sand. The day is cool with overcast that seems to loom overhead. Sarah and Jacob from Newport Beach are on their way to the tide pools. Their laughter lingers on the wind long after they're gone. The air tastes of all things nautical. The moist earth feels unnatural, as I'm used to it between my toes. Sea kisses land time and time again here.

I've realized that we spend so much time in front of screens that we miss life happening right in front of us. An epidemic of technology has proved to be both our savior and our biggest distraction from life. A life cannot be measured in photos liked or friends made on social media but on how fully we live life.


Zachary Englhardt
Palo Alto, CA

Milestones and Slow-Journalism

The modern mainstream media and the technology it employs has done wonders to both unite and inform individuals all over the world. However, this expansion of the availability of information comes at a cost. As we are exposed to more media, to more information about the political relationship between the United States and China, the potential exit of Britain from the E.U., we become more adsorbed than ever in this cyclical world of constant conflict which we seem to have inadvertently created for ourselves: we become strangely more oblivious to what is actually going on around us. Thus enters slow journalism. It is a different approach, focused not on the rapidly changing global geopolitical environment, but on individual moments, physical places, and real people. It provides an opportunity not only for the journalist, but also the reader to slow down and appreciate the simple, the small, and the unusual this world has to offer us.

Marathon (Athens, Greece):
It became quickly apparent change had struck things had changed somewhat since Philippides allegedly ran so many years ago. Beneath the sprawl of blocky concrete buildings, only the suggestion of the open, brushy plains remain from that ancient lore. Diesel fumes replace dust clouds. It has changed. At the same time, it hasn’t. Remnants of the past do exist, in statues, art, small plaques here and there, old men sitting in the square in the evening, running amber worry beads through their fingers. As I run down the path of the first marathon in the evening, I feel tugged back through time.

A Hill:
Between the 280 and the Expressway, there lies one, lone hill. Once-golden, it now stands brown and beaten by years of drought. While I stand at its peak, two worlds are visible. I look to the West, and see the rolling expanse of the Santa Cruz mountains, the canopies of the redwoods remaining as the last touches of green on the parched landscape. To the East is the San Francisco Bay, with its radiating tendrils of industry. Signs of expansion are everywhere. Freeways swelling, iron skeletons of buildings rising up, and all is moving Westward.

As I reflect on my “milestones,” I am initially struck by the differences between the places they represent. In Greece, technology is used, but only reluctantly allowed to enter daily life. In the San Francisco Bay Area, technology is hardly viewed with the same skepticism. In both places, however, technological “progress” poses difficult social questions. While those in Greece struggle balance their long-held cultural traditions and identity with modernization, the San Francisco area is faced with rapid population growth and urbanization as a result of the technology industry it plays such a key role in. However, despite these differences in the issues faced by these two societies, on an individual, personal level, people’s core motivations bear striking similarity. Both groups grapple with the inevitable challenge of, albeit through different means, coping with the ever-developing landscape of the modern world.


Connor Jenkins
Naples, FL

A Breath

What is the power of “slow journalism”? Surely, I thought, a slower pace wouldn’t necessarily improve my observational skills. Since beginning this project, speed has become to seem unnecessary- observational prowess has come through slowing my pace. My breathing. My worries. My constantly-darting eyes. My thoughts. Never before did I allow myself to relax my brisk stride and my fidgeting hands such that I could watch the world go by, instead of losing sleep to keep pace with it. Now I realize what a mistake such behavior was. Upon slowing down, I immediately gained a profound new appreciation for things I never would have noticed had I passed by faster. When walking, my attention is allocated to the world around me, not my destination. The destination is no longer the object. It is simply another detail. As such, details that would normally receive a sideways glance at best are now brought to me in crystal clarity, ripe for inspection and interpretation. My mind is free to wander and wonder, eventually carried through uninterrupted trains of unrestricted thought to a deeper understanding of the world.

This phenomenon was first brought to my attention some days after hearing about this opportunity. Generally, I bike to and from school, but circumstance had it that I was to walk the 1.44 miles home from school. My eyes were open to things I’d have biked right past: a man on his own bike rode by, saluting me with “Good evening” through a missing-toothed grin. He was elderly, rough looking, and wild-haired beneath a battered baseball cap with a handful of pens clipped to its bill. His eyes shined with carefree wanderlust. He was going on a grand journey of his own, with a lifetime of stories remembered by his bright eyes and sun-worn skin. “Where” did not matter to him; it was evident that his life was about adventure, not destination. He smiled; his eyes beamed. He was delighted to be alive, to smell the magnolias in bloom, to greet passers-by, to watch magnificent homes’ construction, to breathe clean air in the shade. As was I.

My second experience was a “proper” hike: 15 miles on Southwest Florida’s wooded trails. Again following the practices of slow journalism, I made myriad observations- the first, an alligator in the middle of the trail. I stood marveling at this living ancient. My group shuffled past it awkwardly, not knowing what to do in the presence of such a primal beast. I myself couldn’t tear my eyes from it. The veritable armor of its skin. The daggers hidden in its mouth. The deceptive lethargy that it could instantly shed. The unblinking stare. Pure power. During the trek, we saw many more of these alligators in our path: some slid into the water with our approach; some didn’t budge, jaded to human presence. Another observation struck me: the noted absence of much other life. There were gators aplenty, accompanied by occasional birdsong, but little else occupied the woods. Being so far removed from society, I had expected to be surrounded by wildlife, and was unnerved by its general absence. Another absence: water. In the 15-mile hike, the 6 liters I brought disappeared. I was so thirsty. If only I had more.

The insights from slow journalism surprised me: using my observations, I discussed with myself the world issues they represented. Water conservation was not just my problem; it is shared by everyone, especially those without a dependable source. Why are the woods empty? Encroaching humans are pushing natural life further into its quickly-disappearing refuges, and those creatures that do not retreat must acclimate themselves to human presence. The most important observation I made: the legitimate importance of slowing down. For the majority of human history, we have moved at no more than 3 miles an hour, using our own two feet to carry us. This pace has for millennia allowed us to observe our world, to learn, to wonder, to socialize, and to eventually conquer the globe. Today I breathe the same air as every human ancestor- a fact at which I marvel with every slow breath, and every slow step.


Stephen Largent
Midlothian, TX

Hiking Texas

I walk along a trail that I love very much. As I walk along the trail, I hear the beautiful caw of a crow warning others about an approaching danger. I smell the stale scent of snails that have come out due to the rain from the previous night. As I walk on the wet dirt that the earthworms are slithering in, I hear the sharp, deep call of the Blue Jay. This area is one that is protected from being destroyed by today's economy. Behind me, there are many children, between the ages of ten and twelve, on a school field trip. They are being very noisy and are easily distracted by their cell phones. I begin to wonder when these children become adults, what will happen to the beautiful birds and the rest of nature. Without taking a slow journalism approach, it would have been very easy not to notice all this beauty around me. It is so easy, especially in the modern age, to miss everything; the sounds, smells, and the beauty that surrounds us. When traveling in a motorized vehicle, it's hard to notice the world right under your nose. By slowing down, walking, and observing, we can begin to see everything we have missed.

I stood at the bottom of a vast, tree-covered hill some have even called a mountain. Worms thriving in the moist dirt. Birds chirping, warning others of my presence. The cool, sticky touch of the humid air. The spider webs glistened from the morning dew. Clouds covered the sun. It was very peaceful. Lying in the dirt, harming the environment, was a candy bar wrapper. A lady saw the trash and disposed of it. I am glad that someone cares.

I stopped on the sand dunes of West Texas. A dry heat and a gentle breeze that was warm, yet cool at the same time. The hot sun, shining without obstruction from the clouds, was blinding. The sand beneath my bare feet was very warm. As I looked off into the distance, the dunes seemed to get bigger. I had an astounding realization that there was a vast emptiness. Certain animals that once thrived here are struggling to survive.

In my community and the world, I see a huge problem with pollution, littering, and people not respecting wildlife. As humans, we tend to act without thinking. People keeping animals in captivity and destruction of habitats have caused certain animal populations to decline. Pollution and littering have created many environmental issues. Sadly, before we notice and take action, it may be too late to resolve the problem. When recording my milestones, I became more conscious of the impact pollution and carelessness have on my community and the world.


Jonathan James McCutcheon
San Antonio, TX

Deliberation in a Gilded Age

“Journalism largely consists of saying, “Lord Jones is Dead” to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive” –Gilbert K. Chesterton

In the emerging, expeditious lifestyle we’re becoming accustomed to, journalism has truly deteriorated as an expressive medium. In the great haste of the 21st century, “news” is lodged ever more aggressively into the throats of what are becoming “consumers” rather than readers. Journalism has become centered on relating events rather than telling stories. Sure, it’s faster, more descriptive, more relevant than ever before. But brevity and particularity come at the loss of the story itself. “Slow journalism,” coined by Paul Salopek, offers a promising alternative. By forcing oneself to slow down, the result is a more deliberate, meaningful piece. It’s introspective and humbling, writing with the feet, walking with the hands. Crawling along, the smallest objects can become monumental. Slow journalism emphasizes accuracy and sentiment over speed and efficiency, a smooth transition away from mechanization. It’s like shooting analog. Sure, a digital camera is convenient, but the hours spent in the darkroom force a degree of meticulousness lost in the ease of computerization.

But what is the essence of “slow journalism”? Perhaps it rests in relaying an experience, painting a picture. Perhaps it’s the deafening murmur of the brook, hushed by the silent vociferation of a leafy green canopy. A glimmer, transitory and wavering, darts beneath the surface of the shimmering water. Languid, enervated, the stream erupts with animated vitality. The little paradoxes missed in haste, the chaos of the seemingly mundane. Perhaps this is journalism, the minuteness of detail, the sleight of expression. But there are haughty pretensions in exact recall. Instead, perhaps journalism is a matter of perspective. Perhaps it stems from an understanding that recall isn’t equivocal to memory. Perhaps it can be found in the murky runoff of a flood plain. Horizontal trees stacked with roots protruding every which way. Mud. Omnipresent, caking. Thousands of tiny articles littered along the putrid water. Convenience store bags, torn and dilapidated. Lighter. Cigarette. A passport, faded at the edges and illegible to any extent. Cups by the hundreds, Styrofoam vessels. The runoff, the dregs of our society, so incongruous with the subtle smell of the earthy tones. A half-sunken rock buried in mud. But the passport. Discarded and abandoned, cast aside and carried away with the inundation of other garbage. The navy edges peer dejectedly into the wasteland. The gilded derelict of an eagle murmurs, “How about that trip to Kapiolani?” or, just as easily, “But I haven’t seen them in fifteen years: we must go,” all while resting beside chain-smoked cigarettes and the worn shards of a rusty lighter.

In an ever-globalizing world, the United States’ inhabitants are showing an increasing trend towards localization. More than 60% have never left the country, and 75% cannot hold a conversation in more than one language. The desire to explore, to understand other cultures, is gradually fading. While the passion to engage and connect with others is being swept away with technological expansion, consumerism, and materialism, perhaps “slow journalism” may serve to revive the tattered corners of the discarded passport.


Denali Spring Sanders
Bremerton, WA

The Bigger Picture

Sometimes I think about my ancestors, the pioneers who trekked from the Midwest all the way to Oregon Country. Imagine how they felt to see the familiar prairies disappear and be replaced with the rich, fertile places of the Pacific Northwest! I love where my ancestors decided to live. I love backpacking in the mountains here, the Olympic peaks in my backyard and the Cascades rising in the east. When I’m in nature, I feel healed. When I slow down, I regain the perspective that I’ve lost in my daily race.

Our family hikes our favorite trail, where we see ten waterfalls in nine miles. We wonder why there is no word in English for the smell of the mist that blows up from a waterfall, too fragrant and alive to be called only “sweet”. My ten-year-old brother leans precariously over the low stone wall that runs behind the waterfall and begs my mom to let him climb down the muddy cliff to the bottom. The mist sprays our faces and shirts and makes us smell like wet rocks and ferns. As we hear the roar of the second waterfall, I pull out my waterproof camera for some more great shots. We stand still and watch the frothing sheets of water spilling down the cliff’s ledge and frothing on boulders below. This tradition makes our family closer.
As we backpack by the river on Upper Quilcene in the Olympics, my Venturing crew is tired and quiet. This silence gives me a chance to think about the creations around me. I look and I see the deep turquoise of the river, the pure white patches of melting snow, and far above, the dark gray craggy mountain peaks. It seems that with every step I see a color that I’ve never seen before. Back at camp, I write my thoughts in my journal and feel grateful that I have friends willing to walk this path with me.

When I am rushing out the door at five o’clock in the morning for seminary, or speeding down the highway to my piano lessons, I often don’t even notice the beautiful towering evergreens beside me on the road. I don’t notice the heavy, ripe, indigo blackberries behind my school, the glittering ocean a short walk away, or the wet-soil smell of rain in the air. I’m blessed to live in a place where green nature is everywhere I look, but when I force myself into the routine of everyday life, I miss it.
When I slow down, it is a gift to see my home again through new eyes- to be surprised by our mossy floors and our pine cone ceilings. When I slow down, I feel the stress of my frantic routine melt away. I see the bigger picture. I see what matters. Grudges, quizzes, and bowing mistakes in orchestra aren’t important. Family, friends, faith, kindness, and learning … those are the things that matter most.


Andrew Schmid
Santa Ana, CA

The Speed of Life

Earth, the rock beneath our feet and the title for our home. The Earth never sleeps. Even at night, satellite pictures show that the world continues to buzz and the lights never go off. And yet we fail to see everything that goes by us, we are too focused looking at the ground and directly in front of us instead of to the sides and up to the sky. In automobiles, trains, planes, even bikes, we are whizzing past everything and everyone else at the speed of industry. Walking is the best way to slow down not only our body, but our brain, and absorb more information and activity around us. The only way to truly notice and understand the buzzing world, is to look with the intent of learning from what you see and comprehending life’s motion. This is what “Slow Journalism” is about, looking at the small things to understand the bigger picture, like how details make the plot seamless in a novel. All of us should take the time, every once in awhile, to stop, slow down and take in the world around us, and we should do this to understand why, what, and how humans interact and face the conflicts of Earth.

I walk from from my home, in a quiet neighborhood with few passersby, down the black, warm asphalt to the park. People were there. Walking, playing, gathering. A trail began at the back of the park, the gate open. The wildlife was almost completely absent, replaced by the intruding humans, making homes in the bamboo, and tainting nature with graffiti and trash. The occasional flowering plant was sad and droopy, the only sounds to be heard were those of the freeway, and a few buzzing flies or bees. The riverbed filled with trash, rocks, and spray paint.

Winding up the mountain side to the top, with views of the whole southern section. Shuffling back down, away, through a tunnel, across a parking lot to the trailhead. Shifting my pack and starting down, almost missing the first switchback and scraping along bushes and overgrown shrubs, crawling underneath a fallen tree. We headed West, speaking with the passing couple, inquiring the remaining distance. Making a solitary dash up the hill and steep stairs, to lie on a table and soak up the sun as the group trickled in, sweating, moaning, and aching.

These milestones show on a small scale the invasion of humans into natural and beautiful wildlife, eliminating what was there before, plants and animals alike removed from their home. The tree I had to wriggle under, fell after a fire swept the mountains; humanity’s action getting in its own way. We think, as a species, we have accomplished so much and made so many innovations, but sometimes we have only accomplished lighting a fire beneath our feet and building a tower to stand above it; we keep building higher as the fire climbs the structure, but eventually we will run out of wood.


Colin Henry Stevens
South Boston, VA

Places Not Quite Hidden

When I was younger, I was connected to every friend I knew through a cellphone. I still am to some degree, but I have learned to put down the phone, to talk to people around me. I have seen the value of human interaction and the deeper bond it holds. In the same way that human interaction relates to texting, slow journalism also relates to modern horse race coverage. Slow journalism connects readers to the story, and often it is a story that would otherwise never have been revealed. I am impressed by the way people and places simply open up to a person who spends more than five minutes passing through. Many of the areas where Paul Salopek hiked have been reduced to three names: Africa, the middle east, and Asia. Reporters say, “War in the middle east,” and never know the vast spectrum of lives that makes up the geography. Slow journalism teaches us. Modern journalism only tells us. Even in our own lives, there are places people never truly see. They are my milestones.

The first milestone is a place I run often. Today I slowed myself.

An overpass, one of thousands in America, is nothing special. Whenever a truck hurtles under, the bridge roars to accompany it. I like this spot because here, of all places I run, the shoulder of the road is nearly a lane unto itself. Exhaust bites at the nostrils, and sometimes fluids trickle down the tiny clefts that regularly corrugate the road. This is the backbone of our modern highway system. No one ever talks about an overpass. Who would care about an overpass?

The second milestone steps off a beaten path and looks out over a low, lily-choked lake, nearly a marsh. A bullfrog bellows from somewhere across it, and in the trees behind a smaller amphibian is making the sound of a wind-up toy. An enunciated thudding is a woodpecker. Other birds’ chirping warbles draw audible curlicues in the air above. It is cooler than one would expect for late May, but the air still hangs muggy, a wet shirt. Everything smells of the musky rain approaching. To think this is only a mile from asphalt and urbanity!

These milestones tell the story of our environment. On my hikes I crossed train tracks and paved roads numerous times, yet I live in an area considered to be rather rural. The trash that littered these places was too much to carry out, though I did manage to take some. Here, a tire rises monolithic in the woods; there, rain washes an acrylic rainbow into a creek. However; by slowing down I saw more wildlife than almost any other time I have hiked. Though polluted, these places are also hopeful reflections of what can be. Like Paul’s work, these milestones illustrate something globally important—in this case our environment— that most people would have simply skipped over.


Aidan Schoff
Ripon, WI

Out of Eden Walk: Essay Contest Submission

When we slow down, only then can we process our surroundings and think in a manner that yields benefit. We no longer need to act objectively; our goal is solely to experience and connect. Nature provides the outlet for this endeavour and it is our distinct pleasure to encounter the enlightening sensations it provides. The minute movements, foreign textures, and faint scents and sounds hold immeasurable gravity. With the overwhelming historical presence there is to discover while slowing down, it would be truly irresponsible leave any rock unturned, any sight unseen. “Slow Journalism” uncovers endless knowledge and through it we can embrace our roots and preserve our future.

Milestone 1: Baird Creek
A daunting silence, then it pours. Sloping banks have been ravaged by recent and torrential precipitation. The wave of erosion resurfacing history. I spot a misshapen rock, both oblong and sharpened; an arrowhead perchance of the proud Oneida nation. I can feel the ancestral heartbeat of the hunter securing his quarry.

Milestone 2: South Woods
The slotted sun paints the downed leaves that shelter the forest floor. I walk in relative silence as they cushion my footsteps, yet my ears are filled with avian cries; the ambiance doesn’t echo, though it refrains from fading in the dense wood. Two bright-eyed children scurry over a cresting hill and regress upon spotting me. They reemerge with their mother momentarily. I sip and savor the crisp, morning air. As I emerge through the treeline, my encounter reminds me that the aspiration of solitude is waning.

I have witnessed humanities effect on our shared habitat. We have spread across the earth, populated all the viable land we can access, and in turn, decimated countless natural wonders. The South Woods, shy of five acres, remains a gem among stones, but represents a harsh reality. As the preserved area sits amongst farm fields and neighborhoods, it is lonely in it’s existence. The once vast forest, gone. It is a trend of the human sense of entitlement engulfing the livelihood of mother nature. Erosion and natural decimation of the land is accelerated by our habits of consumption and again leaves nature at a disadvantage. I further realize that advocacy is her principal hope and my voice, in writing or otherwise, an essential piece.