The unexpected twists on a writer's 24,000-mile walk across the world

Journalist Paul Salopek's route is anything but direct as landscapes, politics, and unexpected encounters drain time and energy.

Published 19 Feb 2021, 19:43 GMT
Paul Salopek zigzags down a steep ridge in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia.

Paul Salopek zigzags down a steep ridge in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia.

Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a multiyear storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears.

What tales do our feet scribble?

The daily GPS tracks logged by the Out of Eden Walk, a 24,000-mile foot journey across the world along the pathways of our Stone Age ancestors, contain hidden stories in map form.

Ruler-straight segments of the walking trail, for example, suggest dull slogs along inhuman car roads. (No life-forms move in a brutal direct line.)

Sharp twists or curves, like kinks in a garden hose, usually indicate interesting encounters. Dense seesawing tracks hint at muscle-scorching trails up or down steep cliffs or mountain ranges. 

Abrupt right angles signal an encounter with a fence or a minefield. But what about densely tangled clumps of GPS data? Inexplicable dead-ends? Backtracks? The routing that resembles a clot of spaghetti?

Such doodles often pinpoint an unforeseen blip in the journey: a quirk of landscape (like the yo-yoing ridgelines of northeastern India), an alarming anecdote (being run out of a Kurdish village in Turkey), or a knot of utter confusion (looking for a stolen water cache in Uzbekistan). Hence: Welcome to the Kinks Map.

It works like this.

My antique walking path from Africa to South America is being accurately logged, for archival purposes, via a pocket-size GPS device that’s slung from my neck on a bootlace. This tiny machine receives a continuous stream of signals from satellites orbiting 22,236 miles above the Earth. Using a process called trilateration the GPS device converts these signals into exact latitude and longitude locations. This information gets poured into a digital map—a gigantic canvas—that is pored over by Harvard Centre for Geographic Analysis mapmaker Jeff Blossom. Jeff identifies curious kinks in my trail. (No easy task: I’ve covered about 11,000 miles so far, or more than 20 million footsteps through 18 countries.) And I dig back through my journals to try to identify the cause of each messy GPS doodle, erratic curve, sharp angle, or retreat.

So come join us. Take a virtual ramble along the squiggly global trail. We’ll be updating the Kinks Map periodically.

View the interactive Kinks Map.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.
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