NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - OUR GREATEST JOURNEY
To Walk the World - FREE Feature Download
Journalist Paul Salopek embarks on a seven-year global trek from Africa to Tierra Del Fuego, following in the footsteps of our restless forebears.
Walking is falling forward.
Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.
I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races. We know so little about them. They straddled the strait called Bab el Mandeb—the “gate of grief” that cleaves Africa from Arabia—and then exploded, in just 2,500 generations, a geological heartbeat, to the remotest habitable fringe of the globe.
Millennia behind, I follow.
Using fossil evidence and the burgeoning science of “genography”—a field that sifts the DNA of living populations for mutations useful in tracking ancient diasporas—I will walk north from Africa into the Middle East. From there my antique route leads eastward across the vast gravel plains of Asia to China, then north again into the mint blue shadows of Siberia. From Russia I will hop a ship to Alaska and inch down the western coast of the New World to wind-smeared Tierra del Fuego, our species’ last new continental horizon. I will walk 21,000 miles.
If you ask, I will tell you that I have embarked on this project, which I’m calling the Out of Eden Walk, for many reasons: to relearn the contours of our planet at the human pace of three miles an hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as a form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness. I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.
The trails scuffed through the Ethiopian desert are possibly the oldest human marks in the world. People walk them still: the hungry, the poor, the climate stricken, men and women sleepwalking away from war. Nearly a billion people are on the move today across the Earth. We are living through the greatest mass migration our species has ever known. As always, the final destination remains unclear. In Djibouti city, the African migrants stood waving cell phones on trash-strewed beaches at night. They were capturing a cheap signal from neighboring Somalia. I heard them murmur: Oslo, Melbourne, Minnesota. It was eerie and sad and strangely beautiful. After 600 centuries we were still seeking guidance, even rescue, from those who had walked before.
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Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His first book based on this journey, A Walk Through Time, will be published by Random House in 2016. John Stanmeyer, a founding member of VII Photo Agency, has received the Robert Capa and the Magazine Photographer of the Year awards.
THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.