Paul Salopek is already a well-traveled journalist — a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has spent most of the past two decades roaming across Africa, Asia, the Balkans and Latin America.
This, apparently, has not sated his wanderlust. So now he's in a dusty village in Ethiopia's Rift Valley, ready to launch a seven-year, 21,000-mile journey on foot that will take him from Africa, across the Middle East and through Asia, over to Alaska and down the Western edge of the Americas until he hits the southern tip of Chile.
"The short version is I'm interested in narrative, I'm interested in storytelling," Salopek, speaking by satellite phone, tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. "After jetting around the world as a foreign correspondent, after flying into stories, after driving into them, helicoptering in, even, I thought about what it would be like to walk between stories. Not just to see the stories we were missing by flying over them, but to understand the connective tissue of all the major stories of our day."
Salopek said he chose his route based on the migration out of Africa by early humans. But, he said, it's more a journey about the future than the past.
"I don't want this to be misperceived as a journey about the past," he says. "I'm using the past as a road map. I'm using what scientists are telling us are the closest approximations of how we dispersed out of the mother continent, Africa, about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago."
But, he adds, "it's very much about the present day. It's about how we've changed the world, and how the world is being radically altered in our view by such things as the Internet. I'm starting out this walk with about 35 percent of the world wired. By the time I reach Patagonia in 2020, about 80 to 90 percent will be wired."
Salopek noted that he was among the rural Afar people in Ethiopia, and some of the men sport a dagger on their traditional belts — along with a cellphone.
Salopek is a National Geographic fellow who has written frequently for National Geographic magazine. He will be sending dispatches from his journey and you can follow him at www.OutOfEdenWalk.com.
Here are some of the interview highlights:
On obstacles he will face
"There will be challenges along the way. Often, they'll be challenges I'm not even thinking of. My personal experience in these regions is that, the first impulse, even in turbulent areas, is not one of hostility, it's one of generosity. That's not to say you can't get in a lot of trouble very fast; I have been in the past. But generally, the first reaction to people has been one of generosity."
On getting through turbulent parts of the Middle East
"It is a bottleneck ... I know northern Iraq pretty well. I've worked there a long time, I have friends there. That's not going to be the most serious concern. I think the most serious concern is what will Syria be like when I reach there 18 months from now, and what will our relations be with Iran six months later."
On taking occasional breaks
"The idea is not to turn it into a Herculean wilderness traverse. These areas are going to be challenging enough, so if I'm faced with the ... desert and an inhabited fringe to the right, my choice is going to be pretty obvious. I'll go where the people are, because I'll be living on local economies ... the idea is to be with people most of the time."
On what one packs for a seven-year trip
"The main thing that will not change though all the climates I will be walking through is basically how to get the story out. So I'll be taking an ultralight laptop, a satellite phone, a local cellphone and a camera and a digital recorder — so basically the kit any traveling writer or foreign correspondent would carry around the world. And I'm getting the lightest possible stuff I can buy. And the beauty is the technology is moving in my direction, getting smaller and smaller. And the cool part of the story is that it will be changing as I go. And the stuff I'm carrying now will seem ancient when I reach Tierra del Fuego in 2020."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Paul Salopek is a foreign correspondent who has traveled the world but has never traveled quite like this.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
He's now a National Geographic fellow, beginning a journey that will cover some 21,000 miles and takes seven years. He's calling it "Out of Eden."
INSKEEP: He calls it that because he's going to be tracing what anthropologists believe to be the path of ancient human migration. He starts in Africa, he's moving across Asia and then down through North and South America.
MONTAGNE: And except for that short leap over water, at the Behring Strait, he's hoping to make the entire journey on foot.
INSKEEP: Right now, he's in Ethiopia near the starting point.
Mr. Salopek, welcome to the program.
PAUL SALOPEK: Thank you for having me on.
INSKEEP: And where exactly are you in Ethiopia?
SALOPEK: I'm at an early man site called Herto Bouri, where some of the earliest archaic humans have been found, about 160,000 years old. So I thought this would be a good place to begin walking.
INSKEEP: You're in or near the Rift Valley?
SALOPEK: Yeah, I'm on the western side of the Rift, in a very dusty, little village right now. And the goats are coming in. The nomads are bringing in their camels. It's quite noisy here.
INSKEEP: And when you say Rift Valley, I mean that's one of them more evocative places names on the map of Africa. But give me a picture of it. What's the landscape like?
SALOPEK: It's parched. There are grasslands that are (unintelligible) yellow, stretching over to a flat horizon - and big, dusty blue volcanoes jutting up into the sky. Quite a beautiful desert.
INSKEEP: And you intend to walk from there, across several continents, on your way to South America?
SALOPEK: That's the plan, taking it one step at a time, northward into the Middle East and then across Eurasia; planning it basically year-by-year. On a seven-year journey, it's very hard to plan for year six. You've got to plan for year one and year two.
INSKEEP: You know, there's so many questions raised by this. But the first is why? Why do this?
SALOPEK: Short version is, I'm interested in narrative. I'm interested in storytelling. After jetting around the world as a foreign correspondent, after flying into stories, after driving into them, I thought - what would it be like to walk between stories? Not just to see about the stories that we're missing by flying over them, but to understand the connective tissue between all the major stories of our day. And so, I got this notion of going to stories at about three miles an hour; learning about them more thoroughly, perhaps bringing a deeper meaning to them.
INSKEEP: So you are following this ancient, ancient path of migration. But you are thinking about the present day as you go. You want to meet people along the way now.
SALOPEK: Correct, I don't want this to be misperceived as a journey about the past. I'm using the past as a roadmap. It's about how we've changed the world, and how the world is being radically altered, in our view, by such things as the Internet.
I'm starting out this walk with about 35 percent of the world is wired. By the time I reach Patagonia in 2020, about 80 to 90 percent of the world will be wired. These are fundamental changes in the way we view life here on the planet. And I'm very interested in exploring them, slowly.
INSKEEP: You mentioned people being wired. Does everybody have a cell phone there?
SALOPEK: You know, you would be surprised. The nomads here, the pastoralists are the Afar. And they wear these webbing belts with a big Jile, a big dagger in it - a traditional dagger, and many of them, next to their dagger, do indeed carry a cell phone.
INSKEEP: So people have these cell phones and that is something that's transforms a lot of people's lives in ways that they may not even realize. Do you see signs that the revolution in communications is transforming the lives of the nomads you're meeting?
SALOPEK: It's extraordinary, actually, connections beyond the immediate horizon that was people's lives for many, many generations. Being able to plan ahead, being able to call colleagues over the horizon to see about rain patterns and pasturage - this is happening all up and down the Rift Valley, not just here in Ethiopia but down in Kenya, as well.
INSKEEP: Mr. Salopek, since you're a veteran foreign correspondent, I don't have to tell you that your walk would take you through quite a number of troubled countries.
SALOPEK: Yeah, there will be challenges along the way. And often, they'll be challenges that I'm not even thinking of. My personal experience in these regions is that, the first impulse, even in turbulent areas, is not one of hostility - it's one of generosity. That's not to say that you can't get in a lot of trouble very fast; I have been in the past. But generally, the first reaction to people has been one of generosity
INSKEEP: People are excited to be a foreigner. They welcome you, don't they?
SALOPEK: Yeah, I think there is a natural curiosity that goes on. There's also this notion of being sacred clown. I'm this very odd person who shows up, inching over the horizon and it raises a lot more questions - even more than I could possibly answer in moving slowly. But people are very forgiving. And there will be difficulties. I'll be stymied. I'll find obstacles. I'll run into borders that are closed. That's part of the journey, improvising my way across the world. After all, our ancestors did the same 50 to 70,000 years ago.
INSKEEP: Although, as I look at the map, pretty early on it looks like you can't go anywhere unless you are able to walk across either Iraq or Syria. And then you have to get through Iran. That sounds pretty tough.
SALOPEK: Yeah, that's a - it is a bottleneck. And I know northern Iraq pretty well. I've worked there a long time. I have friends there. That's not going to be the most serious concern. I think the serious concern is what will Syria be like when I reach there 18 months from now. And what will our relations be with Iran, you know, six months later? It's hard to say.
I will try and improvises as I go. I'll try to plan. I'll be stopping along the way for months, not just to rest and recuperate, but to actually plan the next leg of the journey.
INSKEEP: Aren't there also a lot of climate dangers? I mean there are deserts to walk across. There are really high mountains to climb or circumvent.
SALOPEK: Yeah, the idea is not to turn it into a Herculean wilderness traverse. The journey is going to be challenging enough, so I don't - you know, if I'm faced with the Taklamakan Desert ahead of me, and an inhabited fringe to the right, my choice is going to be pretty obvious. I'll go where the people are, because I'll be living on local economies.
INSKEEP: I don't want to get to personal here. But do you have a family at home? And if so, what do they think of you setting off on a seven-year trip?
SALOPEK: I'm trying to protect them and not get in too much detail. But, Steven, what I will say on record is that they've been supportive of the idea. And my wife knew who she was marrying.
INSKEEP: Is she going to come and walk along with you part of the time?
SALOPEK: Yeah, where it's doable. She's not a journalist. She's not a writer. She's a visual artist. And Linda will be joining me in places where she can do her work. So she will pick a spot where she can perhaps sketch or paint. And I will walk to her.
INSKEEP: You'll walk to her, that's kind of romantic.
SALOPEK: Well, yeah. It is, isn't it?
INSKEEP: It gives you a target in any event.
SALOPEK: That's right.
INSKEEP: Paul Salopek is a journalist who is beginning a walk along the path of human settlement, from Africa across Asia and down the Americas.
Thanks very much. Good luck. I hope to check in with you again, as you go.
SALOPEK: Thanks, Steven. I look forward to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: I'm looking at a map of his projected route. You can find it at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.