by Bill Katovsky.
National Geographic Magazine contributor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek has turned his back on time through a very old-fashioned way: by walking. His pre-modern goal is to walk across seven continents (21,000 Miles) in a bipedal attempt to cover the same ground as the early humans who first began what he calls the “colonizing” of our planet 50,000 years ago.
In early 2013, Salopek started his journey in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, where homo sapiens fossils were found, and plans to complete his trek in Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America. So far, he’s logged 1,700 miles on what he calls the “Out of Eden Walk.” He hopes to make it to Chile in 2020.
He writes, in his first dispatch for the New York Times that was published last week: “At the walk’s start in the Horn of Africa, one of the last habitable places on earth where automobiles remain scarce, Ethiopia musters perhaps two or three motor vehicles per 1,000 people — walking was a near-universal activity. The Rift Valley desert and people’s relationship to it are still shaped by the human foot. Trails unspool everywhere. Everyone functions as a competent walking guide — even small children.”
Going paleo means sharing roads with vehicles. Once he crossed the Red Sea on a camel boat, the roads suddenly weren’t so empty of cars and trucks. The density of car ownership jumped to 300 per 1,000 inhabitants. (In the U.S, that auto number is 800.) This dependency on motorized transportation leads to a phenomenon that he labels “car brain.” And those who are trapped and afflicted by the cocoon-like influence of car brain, he claims, “have lost all knowledge of human interactions on foot.”
Make no mistake about it. Salopek enjoys the experience of traveling across the planet at such a slow, unhurried pace. He averages just three miles per hour — “the speed at which we were biologically designed to move.”
Sadly, humans, for the most part, have artificially sped up at the expense of their DNA, and thus ignore critical parts of our ancient past, and these are the “natural, limbic connections that reach back to the basement of time — ones that Car Brains rarely experience.”
One African tribe, the Hadza people of Tanzania, who are one of the few remaining people that still live by hunting and gathering, don’t suffer from Car Brain. He explains: “Anthropologists have strapped G.P.S. devices to the Hadza, among the last hunter-gatherers left on earth, and discovered that the men walk on average seven miles a day in pursuit of game. (Women a little less.) This adds up to 2,500 miles annually, or tramping from New York to Los Angeles every year. Given that this ancient economy is one that dominated 95 percent of human history, walking that distance is our norm. Sitting down is what’s radical.”
Let’s hope that Salopek is ultimately successful in his bravely ambitious attempt to cover the globe by foot. After heading north into the Middle East, he will venture northeast across the steppes of Central Asia to China; then go by sea from Siberia to Alaska –at one time, a land bridge existed there, but when the last Ice Age ended, the melted ice created a new sea; and then walk down the lengthy spine of the Americas all the way to Patagonia. (One of the most dangerous places on Earth is the Darien Gap, a 99-mile stretch of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama and Colombia; this missing link of the Pan American Highway is home to drug traffickers and armed Marxist rebels from Colombia).
According to the two chief sponsors of Salopek’s Out of Eden journey, he’s really not walking alone, but regularly allowing the rest of us to accompany him as virtual companions. “The goal of the world walk is to slow readers down and allow them to reflect on current events as a form of pilgrimage. By using the history of our migration as a backdrop for international news, Salopek will examine the most important global stories of our day from ground level…walking into stories as diverse as human conflict and local innovations, mass migration and the Internet revolution, climate change and cultural survival. A worldwide audience is invited to ‘walk along’ via quality Web reportage that includes articles, video, audio and blogs.”
Now, we come to the final question: what is Salopek wearing on his feet? Did opt to go Paleo, and is traveling across the planet barefoot? Judging from the selfies that he’s been taking of his feet along the way (should these photos be called “footsies?”), he’s wearing Merrell lightweight hiking boots.