Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is currently three years into a seven to nine year foot journey, tracing the route of human civilization from Ethiopia to the southern tip of Patagonia. (What a treat for us! An excellent writer on a fascinating journey! How did I not know about this?!). In this article, he answers the question of whether he is “tired” or rather, bored of walking. Although his journey involves much more variety and daily problem solving skills than hikes on pre-formed trails, his answer is the same as mine. Every day is different and unique in a life of walking!
BAKU, Azerbaijan — IT’S an odd feeling: being aware of the Earth rotating beneath your feet.
It happened to me near the Turkish city of Tarsus. The Anatolian countryside was an antique flag that fluttered under the summer sun: dusty green olive groves, soil as red as burgundy wine, cornflower blue lakes — the old hues of the Fertile Crescent. My boots scared up grasshoppers from the brittle grasses. Whirlwinds of swallows swooped to feed. And I felt it: The burning horizons were creaking up to meet me. I was walking, effortlessly, atop a gigantic ball.
I felt it also trekking the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and crossing the Caucasus range of Georgia. I feel it now all the time: a kind of hyper-attentive trance. When it overcomes me, I feel capable of walking to the edge of the world where the water falls off.
And yet, a London friend, an urbane world traveler, keeps emailing me this taunting message: “Aren’t you tired?”
She is referring to my project, the “Out of Eden Walk.” I’m a journalist. I’m three years into a seven-year (or eight-year — O.K., maybe nine-year) foot journey from Africa to South America. I’m reporting stories at boot level along the pathways of our species’ first Stone Age exploration of the Earth. What my friend actually means, though, is: “Aren’t you bored?”
I get a lot of this. Readers frequently ask what strolling across continents is really like — as if they’re secretly hoping to hear that plodding from horizon to horizon (I’ve clocked about 5,000 miles so far) is mind-numbingly dull. As if commuting by car or subway to a desk job wasn’t boring. As if gorging on the ersatz stimuli gushing from our hand-held devices wasn’t ultimately, at the end of each digitally bloated day, somehow tedious. From the global walking trail, my answer is an astonished, “No.”
Walking for weeks, months and years in the outdoors, calipering the vast physical and human stage called landscape with my legs, is the opposite of boring.
The land changes and challenges with each footstep. (Given my 30-inch stride, I take about 40,000 steps a day.) How do I hopscotch through a Turkish marsh? How do I approach an Azeri farmer and his snarling dog? How to scramble out of a spontaneous rock-and-rubber-bullet fight between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank? How do I alert authorities — and navigate the chambers of my own heart — when I stumble across the bodies of migrants killed by thirst in the Djiboutian desert? Where do I locate my next meal anywhere?
Every dawn I fling myself, bodily, into the world. One hundred puzzles, existential and prosaic, confront me throughout the walking day. None of these pedestrian dilemmas are repetitive. Each requires a novel solution. I am not so much pacing off time zones as problem solving — improvising — my way through them.
Psychologists define boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Brain studies suggest that boredom occurs whenever the taps for serotonin and dopamine, the pleasure and reward hormones, run dry. (Chronic boredom is associated with depression, addiction and attention deficit disorders.) How long have humans endured such listless mental doldrums? Long enough for regional inflections of boredom to emerge, from what the French melancholically call nausea to the German’s disappointed weltschmerz.
In “A Natural History of Human Emotions,” however, the cultural historian Stuart Walton argues that boredom, as a Western cultural trope, was basically invented yesterday. It dates, Mr. Walton says, from the mid-19th century, when the angsty concerns of the European leisured classes were immortalized in dissections of ennui such as “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary.” (One suspects the anonymous Industrial Revolution proles who supported this enervated elite grappled with their own debilitating variety of boredom, albeit inside the murky warehouses of soul-crushing, robotic labor.)
The classicist Peter Toohey digs deeper. In “Boredom: A Lively History,” Mr. Toohey cites a plaque unearthed near Naples that honors a Roman worthy named Tanonius Marcellinus for having “rescued the population from endless boredom,” probably by sponsoring gladiatorial games. (Our salvation from boredom has evolved from spilling real blood in sand arenas to spilling pixelated blood in Mortal Kombat. Let’s be charitable and call this progress.)
But what about way back when? What of the ancestors whose forgotten migrations I am following? The nomadic Pleistocene hunter-gatherers who populated 95 percent of human history and who conquered the planet for us? Life in the Stone Age was hard. It was short. But it probably didn’t lack for idle afternoons.
Many anthropologists note that hunter-gatherers spend far less time “at work” than we do. African nomads like the San of the Kalahari Desert devote between 12 and 19 hours a week to securing their basic needs for food and shelter, as opposed to a harried 40-hour-a-week American.
I happen to think the seeds of boredom were planted along with the first wild cereals sown, possibly somewhere in the Near East, around 12,000 years ago: with the rise of agriculture. Farming rooted us to one spot and locked us into the treadmill of circular, monotonous lives. But clearly, there is more to boredom than what clinicians and historians can tell us.
As I prepare to set out on the next phase of my long trek, into the colossal steppes of Central Asia, I think about my past 1,000 days on foot.
My “work,” such as it is, is simply this: to be awake. You can sleepwalk your way through a relationship or a soul-smothering job. (I have.) But you cannot sleepwalk your way across the scorched Hejaz dune fields of Saudi Arabia. Because if you do, you won’t come out the other side. Naturally, this doesn’t preclude states of reverie, wakeful dreaming, which are long associated with foot power and are anything but boring.
I take a step. And then another. Each is new. Each is a gamble. Each is a negotiation with the substantial world that occasions an immediate, irreversible and tangible reward: I do not fall. And I move forward. Or, should I fall, I must overcome the obstacle with the most primordial collaboration of all: between mind and body.
“The hunter is the alert man,” writes the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. The hunter knows, Ortega y Gasset adds, that “the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”
The walk is a hunt. It is a quality of alertness. There is something supple and deeply satisfying about this. Walking as a lifestyle is a moment-to-moment intellectual exercise that seems recollected, familiar. It electrifies the Stone Age brain that we all still carry with us: a restless brain, a brain that thirsts not just for change — our information age technology drenches us in novelty — but for tangible instead of symbolic progress. It is a brain that abhors routine. It is a brain that does not know boredom.
No, I’m not tired yet.