It’s tempting to envy Paul Salopek. While the rest of us were dealing with Donald Trump, he was walking across Central Asia.
Yet Salopek has, of late, had second thoughts.
“I’ll be candid,” the former Chicago Tribune correspondent wrote last month, in an e-mail alerting supporters to his latest crowd-funding campaign. “Accounts of one of the ugliest and most divisive elections in modern American history reached me while I was trekking through Uzbekistan.” He was also hearing about “rising terror-stoked isolationism and anti-migrant xenophobia in places like Europe.” He thought about ending his walk. “In such times of woe, I wondered if my energies weren’t better spent returning to investigative reporting.”
Fortunately, Salopek thought twice. He calls his trek from Ethiopia across Asia, and, after a boat ride to the New World, down the coast of South America to Tierra del Fuego, the Out of Eden Walk. Begun in 2013, it’s designed to take him through 2022. And, perhaps in the worst of times, it could do its greatest good.
“I came to accept that this project, fragile as it is, provides readers at least one small outlet to a wider horizon,” Salopek wrote, “and maybe even empathy for The Other.”
Money for Salopek’s walk has always been tight, despite support from the Knight Foundation, National Geographic, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Harvard’s Project Zero, and the Abundance Foundation.
“While all this sounds high-minded, it’s also pretty fragile,” Salopek would later tell me. Hence the appeal for support. With it came a progress report: “More than 175,000 words of literary reportage written, thousands of photos shared, and more than 40,000 school students engaged along the pathways that our Stone Age ancestors took out of Africa during the first discovery of the Earth.”
At his invitation, I e-mailed Salopek several questions. He responded from Bishkeck, capital of Kyrgyzstan, where he was waiting out the worst of winter. He’s in a part of the world that would never be described as a cradle of democracy, and I wondered how Central Asia sized up Trump.
Salopek suggested he might be the wrong person to ask.
“I’ve never viewed my storytelling through a political prism,” he said. “The questions that confront, say, a Saudi fire healer or a Djiboutian shipping agent, or a Georgian mother, are what power my work. I reckon other folks have got the kings and presidents covered. On this journey, which has a 60,000-year backstory, very few people I’ve met along the walking route have been following the US election. Many weren’t even aware of it.”
Yet when I later apologized to Salopek for being tardy getting back to him—I said I’d been distracted by the first week of the Trump presidency—he responded extravagantly:
“My heart goes out to you,” he wrote. “Truly. Truly. It’s always difficult to appreciate wells of human fear, rage and anxiety from afar. You have to be plunged inside them. But I can empathize completely, with utter familiarity, about the overwhelming ‘muchness’ of living in such crises, of being steeped in them, and of being unable, at important levels, to communicate their terribleness. It’s demoralizing.”
He was comparing Trump, as Trump registers on the other side of the world, to the other side of the world, as its miseries have registered on us.
“I covered Africa during a decade when the continent was as seething with wars: not just political upheaval, but mass violence,” he continued. “And the disconnect with readers at home was psychically crushing. Oddly, America may be experiencing some of this parochial stovepiping treatment right now, from the rest of the world. And this speaks to why we have to tell better stories.”
Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes during his 13 years at theTribune, few of which he spent in Chicago. And in 2006, on leave from the Tribune to write a story for National Geographic on drought in the Sahel, he flew into Sudan’s North Darfur state—then on the brink of civil war—and was immediately arrested and accused of entering Sudan without a visa (true), of writing “false news,” and of espionage (false). He was a prisoner more than a month.
In 2009 the Tribune dropped its foreign service and Salopek left the paper.
“I get stopped a lot by police,” Salopek wrote me. “This is normal. Walking across countries is an unusual vocation in our motorized age and it tends to draw the attention of local security forces. I’ve been stopped close to a hundred times. These encounters vary from a friendly stop by patrolmen asking if I need anything—they may take the opportunity to check my documents—to more serious detentions where my passport is taken away and I am placed in a patrol car or taken to a station. I’ve had my cargo camels impounded in Ethiopia. I’ve been nearly shot by pro-government militia in eastern Turkey. I was ambushed by frightened Kurds who were acting as security auxiliaries in the same region.”
But that said, “my passport and other credentials protect in me in ways that no genuine migrant—say, a seasonal construction worker crossing borders in Central Asia—could ever dream of.”
I asked him about the solitude I thought he might find almost unbearable. He replied that “it’s been the least solitary time of of my entire life. When you’re out walking an inhabited landscape, you are walking a gigantic stage. You’re on display. You must be switched on. You can’t hibernate between walls. You can’t hide in the steel-and-glass bubble of a car. I’ve said before that this project isn’t so much a decade-long walk as a decade-long conversation at a rather large dinner table called Earth, with a rotating cast of hosts who plunk down their phones, scythes, fishing poles, Kalashnikovs, worn paperbacks, mosque keys, hardhats, and shepherds’ staffs next to their soup.”
He went on:
“Writers and poets over the ages have made the connection between walking and thinking—between walking and creativity—explicit for millennia. (Solvitur ambulando.) Walking is not some magic elixir, of course. I have my bad days on the trail, just like everyone else. You can’t outwalk your grief. But there is something about being simultaneously liberated and yet constrained by the space that your legs can caliper in a day—that is your unit of measurement for finding solutions—that bestows an abiding acceptance of reality, a sort of somatic equanimity . . .
“One day, glaciers are going to sweep all our glittering cities into colossal moraines of rebar and concrete, asphalt and toppled bronze housemen, to a latitude somewhere south of your office. And that’s OK. It’s a tonic against hubris.”
Last year Nick Fahy, a Boy Scout who’d won a contest sponsored by the Pulitzer Center, joined Salopek for two days in Uzbekistan. Mark Schulte, the center’s education director, was also along, and saw both the sublime and the ridiculous.
“The Out of Eden Walk is so daunting it can almost seem like a joke,” he reported last October on the center’s website. “To many on the trail, like perhaps his current Uzbek host, it doubtless is . . . Here we were in the unlikeliest of spots, the backyard of an utterly random tea house, readying the donkeys for a hot day of travel, observed with amusement by the tea house’s servers and some kids from the neighborhood who rode up three-deep on a dirt bike.”
Yet to Salopek the trek “is a kind of calling,” Schulte wrote, and Schulte could hear the call. “Paul and others like him walk the earth to bear witness, record and interpret,” Schulte concluded. “Through their work we all walk along, together.”
But is there anyone like Salopek? More than an exemplar of journalism’s highest virtue—the duty to see and tell—he’s the epitome. He’s walked 6,000 miles already. If another reporter of similar grit and perspicacity had started trekking through the Rust Belt in 2013 and kept at it, the U.S. might have just inaugurated a different president.