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NM son on an epic walk talks of time, pace of life

Paul Salopek, famed journalist and former New Mexican, is making his way around the world on foot.

In the third year of a seven-year project with National Geographic called “Out of Eden,” Salopek is walking across continents tracing the journey of the human species out of Africa and chronicling the stories he finds (slowly) along the way.

He started in Ethiopia in 2013. He is now ambling around the Caucasus, waiting for the weather to cool to avoid passing through the Turkmenistan desert during the scorching summer. His destination? The tip of South America in 2020.

Salopek has lived in New Mexico off and on since the 1980s, he says. Although he told me he “never owned a home anywhere,” Columbus still claims him as a resident on the village webpage. Another connection: Former Gov. Bill Richardson helped secure Salopek’s release in 2006 after Sudan held him on spying charges for entering the country without a visa.

Reading his dispatches recently, I became fascinated by the pace of his life. What is life like traveling every day on two feet, rather than four wheels?

Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner, offered this explanation in a January missive: “Walking, you learn each new landscape the way you might explore the face of a lover – up close, by grazing your fingertips over the features, without distraction, with a sort of doomed attentiveness, acutely aware that each mile sliding by is gone forever, knowing it won’t hold.”

(Full disclosure: I didn’t own a car for a decade before moving to New Mexico, thanks to the walkability of Mexico City and New York, and great public transit. I miss what it’s like to move through the day meeting everyone at eye level, instead of looking at isolated profiles through car windows.)

I wrote Salopek last month to ask about his journey, and he wrote back. Here’s an excerpt of our exchange:

Q: How has the pace of your walking life changed you, personally? Do you expect you may live your “regular” life differently after this seven-years-walking experience?

A: I don’t think it’s changed me too much because I did a lot of walking before. When you cover Africa for more than a decade, as I did, you walk a lot. Outside that continent’s cities, many people get around on foot still because infrastructure is lacking. So to understand and cover their stories in a truer, more meaningful way, you must get out and use your own body as they do. As for being alienated from a regular life, I’m not sure what you mean. I’d say that I am, in fact, living a pretty regular life now. At least it feels so to me.

Q: Does the passing of time feel different in any way to you on the road, or is it all relative? (Different cultures conceive of time differently, and I wonder if by slowing down the pace so dramatically, you still conceive of time as an American generally does – that time can be “wasted,” the importance of being “on time,” etc.)

A: I grew up in semi-rural Mexico, so my sense of time has never been terribly accelerated. In some senses, I grew up in the 19th century – kerosene lamps, horse plows, hand-dug wells, early death by curable disease. American journalism taught me that minutes do count. But foreign correspondence also taught me that there is almost nothing that cannot be resolved by waiting. This is a commodity that is as scarce as Astatine in the hurly burly global north: waiting. I’ve always found its absence – its negative value – in U.S. culture somewhat inhuman. “If one is patient … if you are careful, I think there is probably nothing that cannot be retrieved.” The writer Barry Lopez was onto this idea a long time ago.

Q: What do you miss about New Mexico? Any favorite walks in New Mexico you recommend?

A: What does one miss in a friend? It’s almost impossible to pinpoint. There are qualities. But it’s an amalgam. Places can be that way. I do connect more with the south, doubtless because of Mexico, but also because the south isn’t self-conscious the way the north is about its beauty. The north is too conventionally beautiful and unfortunately it knows it. It’s too precious, too easy. It’s for lazy aesthetes. I’ll take a walk down in the bootheel over Taos any day of the week.

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