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Story Publication logo July 27, 2013

Paul Salopek Follows Man’s First Footsteps


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As Paul Salopek journeys around the world on foot, he will follow the migration pathways of our...


Paul Salopek is an adventurer and a dreamer. And he's an old-fashioned trekker — setting out on foot to circle the world. No Ford Mustang for him.

Salopek is also a modern-day explorer. In addition to a few clothes, a small first-aid kit and notebooks, he is carrying an audio recorder, a camcorder, a small computer and a satellite phone — a telephone that connects to a satellite and can be used in many places where cellphones don't work. (A few fellow trekkers help carry supplies and keep him company.)

The journey is long: 21,000 miles! That's more than seven times the distance between New York and San Francisco.

It will take seven years to complete his journey.

Salopek was born in California and spent his childhood in Mexico. He says he has always liked to travel and doesn't like to rush. At age 14, he climbed Mount Whitney in California and crossed the state's Sierra Nevada mountains by himself. At 15, he walked the length of Death Valley. He once rode a mule 2,000 miles through mountains in Mexico.

A longtime journalist, Salopek has reported from Africa, Asia and Mexico. Now 51 years old, he plans to keep writing. As he travels around the world, he is writing stories about the people he meets and the way they live. He looks for how people find local solutions to big problems such as food shortages and lack of water. He also records the sounds he hears and takes photos of the sky and the Earth's surface.

The long walk started in January in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia in East Africa. Many consider East Africa to be home to the first humans, who lived 160,000 years ago. It is here that the oldest fossils (traces of living things) of human ancestors have been found. The people who lived in the valley were hunter-gatherers who obtained all of their food by catching wild animals and gathering edible plants.

Many of these hunter-gatherers left Ethiopia about 60,000 years ago and crossed over to the Arabian Peninsula when the water in the Red Sea was so low that a chain of islands was formed to connect the two pieces of land.

Salopek is retracing the paths our ancestors took as they left Africa and settled in parts of the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Americas. As Salopek walks, he is learning more about himself — and all of humankind.

Where will Paul Salopek go, and what will he find?

The Middle East: He will visit temples, churches and mosques in the land where three of the world's major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — took root.

The Shanidar Cave in Iraq: The skeletons of Neanderthal men who lived 60,000 to 80,000 years ago were discovered here.

The Silk Road: He will follow Marco Polo's route, which linked parts of Europe to China.

The Bering Strait: This body of water separates Russia and Alaska. Scholars think that humans first migrated from Asia to North America along a "land bridge" that was created here as glaciers formed and water levels dropped.

Tierra del Fuego: This archipelago, or group of islands, near the southernmost point of South America will be Salopek's final destination. The Yaghan people settled here 10,000 years ago; today, only one person speaks their language.

Salopek will also explore fun and unexpected places.

Inspirations for Salopek's long walk

Herodotus: This ancient Greek historian was born in 484 B.C. and traveled to Persia (modern-day Iran), Babylon (a city in what is now Iraq), Egypt and Europe. As he wrote the history of his people, he remained open-minded and recorded different points of view.

Ibn Battuta: At age 25, he left his homeland of Morocco in 1325 on a hajj (a pilgrimage) to Mecca, the holy city of the Islam religion. He did not return for 24 years! During that time, he explored the Middle East, India, China and Europe.

Ethiopian children go to school on the move

The Afar people
At the start of his journey in Ethi­o­pia, Paul Salopek met many Afar people. The Afar are cattle-herding nomads, people who move from place to place. Writer Kem Knapp Sawyer e-mailed Salopek questions about Afar children.

How are schools in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia different from schools in the United States?

One school in Ethiopia was built entirely of sticks. Light shot through thousands of cracks in the walls. It looked like a strong wind would blow the classrooms down. This was intentional: It was a temporary structure designed for the children of the Afar. The teachers sometimes strapped a chalkboard to a camel and followed the roving families to different pastures, teaching on the hoof.

A school of sticks, a school of concrete and glass: It doesn't matter. The biggest differences I see are motivational. The Ethiopian kids would give almost anything to finish their schooling. They are driven. They perform schoolwork for long hours.

Do girls face challenges that boys don't?

Girls face many challenges in rural societies around the globe. They often perform a lot of the domestic chores, and their parents hesitate to send them to school. So many girls don't have the same educational opportunities as boys. This is a mistake on the parents' part: Educating young girls is a time-tested way to climb out of poverty. Many countries now realize this: Educating the whole population (instead of just half) is an engine for prosperity.

What games do children play?

Kids make their own soccer balls out of plastic bags, rags, twine. Animals tend to be playmates, too — baby goats are carried around. Work is often incorporated into pure play — boys and girls goof off as they herd their animals across the desert, poking sticks into lizard holes, throwing stones.

The nomads of the Rift Valley love their livestock — one might even say they adore their animals. Songs are composed to favorite camels or cows. But the type of relationships with pets seen in the richer north of the world — cats, dogs — is rarely seen.

Take part in Paul Salopek's journey

Do the math, win a prize

Answer these math problems correctly and you could win KidsPost prizes. The first three entrants with correct answers by 5 p.m. Sunday will win a prize. (Details below.)

●Paul Salopek will walk 21,000 miles in seven years. He plans to walk for six months of each year and write, rest and recuperate during the other months. What is the average number of miles he will walk in a day? (Round to the nearest whole number.)

●Salopek walks an average of 1,430 paces (or steps) per mile. If his journey is 21,000 miles long, how many paces will he walk?

Send a question

Kids ages 6 to 13 were invited to enter our contest and/or submit a question. See here for the Q & A in KidsPost.

— Kem Knapp Sawyer

Sawyer is a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which is supporting the walk's educational mission. Salopek is a National Geographic fellow. More information at

The text for this story was revised on July 29, 2013.



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