I was lucky enough to live in Chicago when Salopek was on staff at the Tribune (back when it was a newspaper and not the shell that it is today). Even then the rules didn't apply to him. His editors seemed to understand that when somebody with that kind of crazy talent comes along, your job is to get out of the way and be incredibly grateful when he delivers another in a series of book-length, prize-fodder masterpieces—he has two Pulitzers among his stash. Notably, Salopek studied biology and not journalism. He is keen observer both of nature and by nature. He a writer by practice.
I remember sitting transfixed at the kitchen table one morning reading his series on the oil business (later published as a book, "Oil Safari: In Search of the Source of America's Fuel"). His reporting took him from Nigeria, Venezuela and Gulf of Mexico oil rigs to a suburban gas station, where he took a job for a while. A dozen years later, it is still riveting read, although in part to what's happened off the page in the interim.
Salopek continues to chart his own course, practicing journalism beyond the fray of fake news, click-bait and the mind-diminishing chatter of social media. A few years ago he set out on an epic journey to follow in the footsteps—literally— of the first human migrants out of Africa thousands of years ago. It is a 21,000 mile trek that will eventually take him to the tip of South America.
Recently he was in Pakistan walking 190 miles on the side the Grand Trunk Road—for millennia the preferred route to get from India-hither to Afghanistan-yon.
"...It howls with the din of mixed traffic: colorfully painted trucks, motorized rickshaws, donkey carts, motorcycles, cars, bicycles, horsemen, tractors, and thousands of dazed pedestrians. Each of these humans, animals, and conveyances jockey, in no discernable pattern, for every inch of space on the road’s narrow belt of asphalt. Life on the Grand Trunk, which ribbons away for thousands of miles east into India, hasn’t changed appreciably in the century since Kipling described it in Kim:
'All castes and kinds of men move here. Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters—all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.
This is why mere car commuters—as opposed to genuine travelers—avoid it today..."
The media buzz around Salopek's "slow news" journey faded away some time ago. The headline-friendly story of a bold and romantic quest has been replaced by gritty realities of the day-to-day. Yet each and every one his dispatches from the field is a detail-filled gem.
• Out Of Eden Project | website
• Paul Salopek | Wikipedia bio
• Paul Salopek discussing the upcoming Out o Eden project at the University of Chicago in 2012