National Geographic : 2013 Dec
out of eden 37 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 des- ert 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 migra- tion our species has ever known. As always, the final destination remains unclear. In Dji- bouti city, the African migrants stood waving cell phones on trash-strewed beaches at night. They were capturing a cheap signal from neigh- boring 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. Herto Bouri, Ethiopia “Where are you walking?” the Afar pastoralists ask. “North. To Djibouti.” (We do not say Tierra del Fuego. It is much too far—it is meaningless.) “Are you crazy? Are you sick?” In reply, Mohamed Elema Hessan—wiry and energetic, the ultimate go-to man, a charming rogue, my guide and protector through the blis- tering Afar Triangle—doubles over and laughs. He leads our micro-caravan: two skinny camels. I have listened to his guffaw many times already. This project is, to him, a punch line—a cosmic joke. To walk for seven years! Across three conti- nents! Enduring hardship, loneliness, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion, confusion—all for a rucksack’s worth of ideas, palaver, scientific and literary con- ceits. He enjoys the absurdity of it. This is fitting. Especially given our ridiculous launch. I awoke before dawn and saw snow: thick, dense, choking, blinding. Like plankton suspended at the bottom of a sunless sea, swirling white in the beam of my headlamp. It was the dust. Hun- dreds of animals in Elema’s village had churned up a cloud as fine as talc. Goats, sheep, and cam- els—but, sadly, not our camels. The cargo animals I had requisitioned months before (a key arrangement in a project that has consumed thousands of hours of planning) were nowhere to be found. Their drivers, two nomads named Mohamed Aidahis and Kader Yarri, were absent too. They never showed up. So we sat in the dust, waiting. The sun rose. It began to grow hot. Flies buzzed. To the east, across the Rift, our first border, Djibouti, was receding at the rate of three-quarters of an inch every year—the speed at which Arabia is drifting away from Africa. Are you crazy? Are you sick? Yes? No? Maybe? The Afar Triangle in northeast Ethiopia is dreaded as a waterless moonscape. Tempera- tures of 120°F. Salt pans so bright they burn out the eyes. Yet today it rained. Elema and I have no waterproof tents. We have an Ethiopian flag, which Elema wraps himself in as he walks. We have found and rented two camels. We plod across an acacia plain darkened to the color of chocolate by the warm raindrops. We tread on a photographic negative: The camels’ moccasin- like feet pull up the frail crust of moisture, leav- ing behind ellipses of pale dust. After a dozen miles, Elema already asks to turn back. He forgot his new walking shoes from Amer- ica. And his flashlight. And his hat—and the cell phone. So he hitches a ride from our first camp to his village to retrieve these vital items. And now he has jogged all the way back to catch up. He complains, laughing, of crotch rash. This absentmindedness is understandable. It is 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.