National Geographic

A Walk Is a Walk. A Car Is a Car.

Near Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, 22°7'33" N, 39°4'23" E

“In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Mohamad Banounah is in pain.

He lies jackknifed under his mosquito net, clutching at his sides. It is past 1:00 a.m. The sun stokes its boilers with hydrogen on the far side of the Earth. Overhead, the constellations burn cool like blue-green undersea things.

“Go back to sleep,” Banounah wheezes. He waves me off, feebly. “I am fine.”

But my Saudi walking partner is not fine. His eyes are glazed in my flashlight beam. He feels, he says, like he has been knifed. He can barely stand. So our logistician, Farhan Shaybani, fires up the support vehicle. We roust Awad Omran, our camel handler, from his blanket. (He must guard the camp.) And Farhan and I speed Banounah to hospital.

From the front seat I peer back at my friend: a bulldog of a man with a shaved skull sprawled atop hundreds of pounds of excess camping gear. There is a big rolled-up Persian carpet jammed in the car. There are extra sleeping bags. There are four or five folding safari chairs, a complete tea set, two superfluous tents, four mismatched camp stoves, a battery-powered fan that clamps to anything, and two large and mysterious trunks that might contain lead ingots or God-knows-what—in short, a Himalaya of kit that Banounah lugs with him everywhere in the desert. I catch him grinning even in his misery. (His face appears and disappears beneath the fireballs of orange highway lights.) Because he knows how much his baggage train irks me. Because I have argued hotly against using a support car at all. (This is a walk—I lectured him in Riyadh—not the Paris-to-Dakar rally.) And because now, his dinged-up GMC Yukon, which I deem an insult to the skill of my camels, ordering it to leave us alone for days, is whisking him to safety. To relief. To rescue. It might even be saving his life. Banounah is vindicated.

Banounah packs his car for the trip to the walk's starting line. The gilt frame stayed behind. But just barely. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In Riyadh, Banounah prepares to load his gear into his support vehicle. The gilt frame stayed behind, but only just. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We enter a night town. Empty streets. Closed shops. Banounah vomits beside the road. At the Red Crescent station I climb with him into an ambulance. Banounah bounces in the stretcher. Farhan’s headlights follow.

Why am I doing this? Why walk poor Banounah into grief?

For the usual knot of reasons. To transport my brain into the Pleistocene. (The mind-frame of the primordial African hunters whose footsteps I am retracing.) To tell stories. To see, to listen, to think, etc. But also, it must be conceded, because of peccadillos: odd notions absorbed from 19th-century Transcendentalists (Thoreau: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms.”) Or from dead walking poets. (Bashō: “With a young leaf/I would wipe the tears/from your eyes.”) Or from half-forgotten dreams rooted in childhood mornings spent under the glassy blue volcanoes of the central Mexican plateau. Stocked by happenstance, crammed with found objects, a ragbag of comforting junk, my head differs little from Banounah’s car.

The Sudanese doctor in the hospital ER squirts saline solution into Banounah’s veins. “Your friend,” he informs me reassuringly, “is only suffering from dehydration.” But I disagree. The problem is dissonant walking.

I am a discursive walker. I zigzag. I stop. I veer. I scribble with my feet. Banounah, by contrast, believes in missions—in beelines. He is an ex-soldier. He marches slowly but doggedly to objectives: toward a lemonade at a highway mini-mart, to a GPS coordinate. Under any circumstances, walking with a partner who does not match your essential rhythm, your basic stride, is no easy thing. Slower, faster—it hardly matters: forcing the will of a footstep saps both parties. After 30,000 or 40,000 such footfalls—the average in a 25-mile day—the friction between two gaits can be shattering. Tendons creak. Joints break down from unnatural strides. The body rebels. The best description of this effect comes in a story not about walking but about loggers in the forests of Montana a century ago. Pushing and pulling at opposite ends of six-foot saws, the workmen either coordinated their muscles precisely or were quickly exhausted, whipped:

“As to the big thing, sawing, it is something beautiful when you are working rhythmically together—at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when the sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness—maybe something even more deeply disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”

The fluorescent lights in the hospital waiting room are glacial. But I hear the Filipino nurses laughing. It is Banounah. His ribald jokes. He is a positive life force.

The author of the world’s only Arabic-language desert survival guide, Banounah is an amateur herpetologist, a collector of Bedouin folk tales, a lay archaeologist, and a gifted wildlife photographer. During the course of these pursuits, he has been bitten on the finger by a carpet viper (the snake that kills the most human beings in the world), stung by scorpions, broken both wrists falling off a mountain, and had a large area of his hide removed upon being dragged—while strapped into an old parachute—behind a car driven, obliviously, at high speed, through the desert, by the teenage son of a friend. He joined the Out of Eden Walk three months after major gall bladder surgery.

“Paul, you have a big problem here,” he told me when I first rang him from Africa, to discuss the logistics of walking through Saudi Arabia.

I paused, bracing myself.

“It is your name,” he went on. “In Arabic it means ‘urine.’”

He then proceeded to guffaw for nearly a full minute.

Walking is like language. It is like most ideology, theology, and cosmology: a locally conceived idea. Countless inflections, dialects, and variations of walking will appear and disappear along my route. How many such taxonomies must I navigate across the world? And will my own walk survive?

Banounah, who like 83 percent of Saudis lives in a city, cannot walk without a support car. So the grotesquely loaded Yukon, steered by his sidekick Farhan, will continue to follow along. I will continue to mutter and send it away for days at a time. And Banounah, walking far behind, will continue to flag down passing Bedouin in their dusty pickups and send them on delivery errands: They drive up hours later, at our midday camps, with plates of fast-food chicken and rice. Banounah will laugh his goaty laugh at my surprise. He is foraging. He is hunting and gathering. He closer to the Stone Age wanderers who first discovered the world than I.

Editors Note:
From late May to late July there was a lapse in our posting of your comments about Paul’s dispatches. Apologies for this. Your comments, and Paul’s responses, are now up to date again.

There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. bear call
    August 11, 2013

    Since there is already a car and you are taking still pics, why not use a videographer to document this adventure. It would be great teaching tool and a great record of humans.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 13, 2013

      Bear—I agree that moving images make powerful storytelling. But the presence of a video camera also tends to alter the atmosphere of human interactions in ways that a simple notepad and still camera don’t. There is a quality of intrusiveness associated with video that puts many people off their natural stride. (Video cameras either make people withdraw or perform.) For this reason, I’ll focus on the writing.

  2. Linda
    August 11, 2013

    Your writing touches my heart, expands my visions and takes me on a journey through time & space. Thank you again…love the quote of Thoreau!

  3. ellenceleste
    August 11, 2013

    I’ll be praying for Banounah’s speedy recovery. I love the idea of walking across the world, but am glad the car was there to help.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 13, 2013

      I am too, Ellen. Being a purist about any idea—even an ostensibly good one, like walking—makes one a deadly bore.

  4. Jean Carr
    August 12, 2013

    “He is foraging. He is hunting and gathering. He closer to the Stone Age wanderers who first discovered the world than I.”

    {Smile}

  5. m maza
    August 12, 2013

    Haha.. sounds like a fun guy. Drink more water Banounah .What a most excellent adventure.

  6. Pam Butterfield
    August 14, 2013

    I expect that sometime in the next decade all this will appear as a book, but I am so glad to be following your posts as they happen.There is something compelling about waiting to hear that Banounah has recovered and wondering just where you are right now – quite different from reading about a journey someone once made…. thank you

    • Paul Salopek
      August 16, 2013

      “Sometime in the next decade”—that phrase rings uneasily familiar. Editors tend to mutter it when I blow through deadlines. Thanks for walking along, Pam.

  7. Tamar Lieberman
    August 14, 2013

    Love your adventure. Did you read Last Ape Standing?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 16, 2013

      I’ve just squeezed it into the bulging e-book shelf inside my rucksack. Thanks for the recommendation, Tamar.

  8. Theresa
    August 15, 2013

    I am a follower of your blog and amazing walk. Periodically, I catch myself wondering where exactly you are now, and, in the same moment, hope you are safe. Looking forward to the next post.

  9. Judith Phipps
    August 16, 2013

    I appreciate this vicarious adventure.

  10. HikerBob
    August 16, 2013

    Looking forward to the news that noble Banounah is well and walking.

  11. F.K.
    August 17, 2013

    I am a medical doctor and I too believe walking is a language and is capable of conveying many things. Not just health problems and general conditions, but also unspoken stories about the walker him/herself, his/her journey, and the world seen from his/her perspective.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 19, 2013

      Yes. Aphorisms such as “walk a mile in a person’s shoes” resonate for a good reason. How we move our bodies telegraphs who we are. If you require the truth from someone, take them for a walk.

  12. Pat Reed
    August 20, 2013

    Farhan is your logistician?? Fantastic!! Give him my greetings. If he has an email address ask him to send it to me., please. Your journey is an incredible one, but you know that.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 21, 2013

      Hi Pat—A case of powerful memories reaasserting themselves through fast typing. My new Saudi logistician is Farhan Shaybani, not our old Kurdish friend Farhan Sharafani. The text has been corrected.

  13. Greg
    August 20, 2013

    Was the quoted description of sawing written by Norman Maclean?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 21, 2013

      Maclean it is, Greg—from “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal Jim’” in the transcendent story collection A River Runs Through It. One publisher rejected the book for having “too many trees.”

  14. Kathleen Scott
    August 20, 2013

    Thank-you for transporting me from my world back to having my feet on the sand.

  15. hattie sheehy
    August 20, 2013

    I hope you will tell us what the hospital visit found out, besides hydration. This man sounds like a gem. Travel together in peace and ignore the Yukon! Love the posts.

  16. Jan Dear
    August 20, 2013

    Hello, Paul!
    I loved this post – all of them actually! Banounah looks like he’s aged – lol!
    Recently, I found an African proverb:
    If you want to walk fast, walk alone
    If you want to walk far, walk together.

    And this morning, it made me think of you.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 21, 2013

      That’s a good one, Jan. I heard it in Djibouti. We’ll have to start an archive of multicultural walking aphorisms.

  17. Eva Maria Huschka
    August 21, 2013

    I am now 80 years old. I have walked a great deal in my life, being German we love the “Wanderlust”. Now I cannot walk so much any more, but my thoughts are walking with you. I have lived in Ethiopia and I always know where you are more
    or less. If I could, I would like to be your guardian angel, because you do what should be done by more people in this “mobile” world. Thank you.
    Eva

    • Paul Salopek
      August 25, 2013

      Thanks, Eva.

  18. Blanca Pinon
    August 21, 2013

    Insight-full and funny. Keep well and safe … am with you in spirit. From another walker.

  19. Margaret Mazzaferro
    August 21, 2013

    “Stocked by happenstance, crammed with found objects, a ragbag of comforting junk, my head differs little from Banounah’s car.” What an apt observation. We all carry a lot of baggage, don’t we?

  20. Kelly
    August 22, 2013

    I have had many truths from my daughter on our walks and hikes! Some things I wanted to hear and some things I didn’t want to hear! Keep on Trucking!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 25, 2013

      I know what you mean, Kelly. I’ve also ridden with cowboy friends who’ve launched into mountain-spanning monologues. Makes one wonder where the strong, silent stereotype got started.

  21. Annie Williams
    August 24, 2013

    I am very glad that there was a car to help you in a time of great need. Every person is essential to your journey.
    Blessings & Peace

  22. William Johnson
    September 13, 2013

    Just a change of email address

  23. mathea
    September 25, 2013

    this website is so cool!!!
    wishing you luck on your long journey (:

  24. pam wright
    September 27, 2013

    And how is Banounah now? I struggle with saving installments up, to savor them over a long ”read,” and gobbling
    them like a hearty meal. THANKS for doing what so many of us would do..had we the opportunity (and the youth.)

  25. carole fox
    September 27, 2013

    so glad you’ve included us in this journey of a lifetime…may you all be strong and healthy.

  26. Debbie Couillard
    January 6, 2014

    Banounah is a good friend of mine. Met him in the states over 20 yrs ago. Wonderful man and very much fun to be around. He just called at 2am and let me know about this site. Thank God he is ok. Blessings.

  27. Melissa Jenks
    February 27, 2014

    We had an adage on the Appalachian Trail: hike your own hike. It’s true that adjusting your own pace to another’s is torturous misery, and being able to go at your own can be close to bliss. I love the quote from the lumberjacks. How strange and how true. Here’s hoping your walk survives all the different paces.

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