"Are you crazy? Are you sick?"
These are questions Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is going to have to get used to hearing. After all, he is just 11 months into a seven-year, 21,000-mile trek around the globe to trace the theory of human migration out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. Salopek named the project 'Out of Eden,' a nod to the "greatest voyage" human beings ever took, from the cradle of the African desert to eventually cover the rest of the globe.
Keep in mind, human ancestors did not undertake the journey from Ethiopia to Chile all at once, as Salopek is doing today. The global dispersal occurred over the course of thousands of years, with small groups branching off to settle in regions along the way.
What might have once been considered a compelling, if fantastical, story of how human beings arrived at different corners of the earth, the 'Out of Africa' theory is now practically fact. Genetic testing, DNA sampling and archaeological excavations have yielded not only a compelling but nearly incontrovertible picture of the original human dispersal from the African continent.
Salopek's journey began in Herto Bouri, the site in the Ethiopian Rift Valley where archaeologists have excavated some of the oldest human fossils -- million-year-old bipeds from whom modern humans almost certainly descend.
'Out of Eden' is part journalistic experiment, part anthropological inquiry, part scientific exploration and part personal journey.
Salopek writes in the December issue of National Geographic:
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.
For Salopek, too, the trek will not be without its trials, even if it is in a way self-selected and voluntary. There will be days filled with fatigue and loneliness; and there will be days filled with exploration and discovery.
Either way, it is already shaping up to be the journey of a lifetime.
Take a look at Paul Salopek's photos from his 'Out of Eden' project in the slideshow below.