Eight and a half years ago, Paul Salopek set out on a long hike: 21,000 miles across four continents. He’s still walking.
His aim was to recreate as much as possible the migration route that led early humans from Africa to Asia and to America.
The journey took our species perhaps 50,000 years. Salopek, a California born journalist, thought he could do it in seven.
He’s in China now, about halfway there. He estimates that it will take him another six years to reach his goal: Tierra del Fuego, at the top of South America.
“And that’s okay,” he told me in a call from Shanghai. “This project has become my life. That’s me now. I have the privilege to be able to do it. “
The reward is the encounter with other people of almost infinite diversity: cattle breeder nomads in Ethiopia, farmers in Pakistan, a shoemaker in Afghanistan, an ox cart farmer in Myanmar.
Paul Salopek with a family of ox cart farmers in northern Myanmar.
(Except Eden Walk)
And migrants, millions of migrants – some driven by war or unrest; others through economic crisis or climate change.
“Movement is mankind’s oldest survival strategy,” he wrote in one of his articles on the road for National Geographic.
“Seating” – that is, settling down in one place – “is relatively new,” he told me. “Wandering is in our limbic memory.”
Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which officially closed borders around the world, did not end informal migration. “The idea that you can block migrants with a wall is silly,” he said. “It is an Iron Age answer to a 21st century problem.”
On his travels he experienced five wars – in Ethiopia, the West Bank, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan – and a military coup in Myanmar. He was ambushed twice and stopped by police or soldiers more than 100 times.
Yet he has drawn positive lessons so far: most of the world is at peace and most people are good.
Paul Salopek with a bearded policeman at a checkpoint in northern Pakistan.
(Except Eden Walk)
“Five wars is a lot of wars to go through, but there’s an awful lot of peace in between,” he said. “That’ll sound Pollyanna, I know.”
Salopek has a tip for travelers (beyond investing in good footwear): pack good reading material.
“I need to have over 200 books on my Kindle,” he said. He has just reread the “Chernobyl Prayer” by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, a collection of interviews with survivors of the 1986 nuclear accident.
“Breathtaking,” he said.
Salopek is perhaps one of the most loyal practitioners of “slow journalism” worldwide: the conviction that slower, more detailed reporting and long writing can produce better and more accurate descriptions of the world, even in the Internet age.
Especially in the internet age.
“There is a standard media construct that compresses reality and produces stories that are digestible, and that’s understandable because there is so much information to absorb,” he said. “But that walk reminded me of how artificial it is.”
Paul Salopek walks with students in red sweaters while attending a school in Bihar, India. Salopek is on the road with hiking partner Bhavita Bhatia.
As a veteran of this standard media construct, I can agree with him. That is why, like Salopek, I often make room on my reading list for slow journalism, which is sometimes referred to by the less meaningful term “long form”.
Surprisingly, we are in the middle of a boom in long-form journalism – aided by the fact that the internet offers authors more opportunities to get their work published, even if it doesn’t always make it easier for them to make a living.
Like many serious readers, Salopek is a fan of the Atlantic and the New Yorker, venerable magazines (founded in 1857 and 1925, respectively) that have succeeded in the digital age by reinventing themselves and still relying on quality.
Traditional newspapers like this one have also learned that long form journalism is an integral part of their franchise – because readers want it. Column One, the regular long version of the Los Angeles Times, was revived in early 2019 after two dismal years of absence.
If you’re looking for summer non-fiction books, you’re in luck. Not only is long-form journalism booming; There is a boom in newsletters helping readers get the best work out there.
I have a penchant for Sunday Long Read, a weekly round-up produced by journalists and guest editors that has a chatty, personalized atmosphere. It’s also worth checking out Longreads, which features items from an eclectic mix of mainstream, not entirely mainstream, and downright obscure sources. For something more sophisticated there is the browser, an intelligent British aggregator that draws on sources from the English-speaking world.
There’s still enough summer to improve your reading list. Have fun browsing.
Paul Salopek in a salt mine in Rajasthan, India.
(Except Eden Walk)