National Geographic

Trail Notes: Tracks

Near Rabigh, Saudi Arabia, 23°11'43" N, 38°47'1" E

Dawn. A sun pale as honeycomb wax. The desert holds us in two dimensions. We walk it. We leave our mark. Our bodies draw their stories.

Awad Omran, the Sudanese cameleer, rocks atop the young bull Seema. He leaves behind him the flat, oval ellipses of camel prints. Glance up: The face of Africa stares back—watchful, skeptical, impassive as the nitrogen-blue sky behind it. Awad says little. He walks rarely. When he does dismount to stretch his bandy legs, he smacks his riding whip rhythmically upon the sand before him. He stencils the desert with chevrons:

/ \
/ \
/ \
/ \
/ \

. . . for miles.

Awad is 40. Maybe he’s 50. He’s from the Nubian Desert next to the Nile. He can live anywhere out of a cheap nylon duffle bag. He is at play.

Mohamad Banounah, my Saudi walking partner, leaves holes with a walking stick. But his tripedal prints are beside the point. Because it is his lungs that puncture the desert. He spills a trail of words behind him. Tales starring wild animals. Bawdy reminiscences. Songs. And a repertoire of Bedouin fables—few less than 30 minutes long—that have the blunt conclusions of hand-poured bullets. (Listen to one below.)

Mysterious divots pock the desert sand—marks left by windblown things. There are the tracks of birds. Of foxes. Of free-ranging cars. We sometimes follow these lonesome tire lines for hours. They remind me of the “zip” paintings of Barnett Newman.

Barnett Newman Stations of the Cross painting alongside tracks in the sand. First Station (detail), Magna on canvas, 1958. Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff.

The lines we make: a Bedouin’s tire track and an abstract expressionist’s bead of paint. First Station by Barnett Newman (detail), Magna on canvas, 1958. Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. Courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Newman thought that art was a force capable of changing the world. “Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one,” he wrote in an essay called “The First Man was an Artist.” Newman’s vision ripened during World War II. He had to think that way.

We walk into a featureless space. It is a vast blank expanse of sand.

I look around. I unclip the drinking tube plugged into the water bladder on my back. I suck on it. Out comes a gasp of moist air. It is empty. I am seized by an impulse to write on my skin.

There are 27 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. HikerBob
    August 16, 2013

    Thank you much for the audio tale.
    You write about Awad, “He can live anywhere out of a cheap nylon duffle bag. He is at play.” I admire that very much. His home is the planet.
    Tomorrow I will be in Columbus, walking to the border.
    Walking Bob

  2. HikerBob
    August 16, 2013

    Thanks also for reference to Barnett Newman, I read a good monograph on him just now, and Newman’s seminal Essay that the first men were artists invokes the creative tug in me to use the art of walking to experience life more deeply, to forge an experience of life in a more elemental way.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 19, 2013

      Have a great time walking the border, Bob.

  3. John Pint
    August 16, 2013

    That is a great example of a typical Bedu tale. I felt like I was there at the campfire (you have to add a bit of howling wind to the track). Let me share a nice story by another Bedu, Quiran al-Hajri. It’s at http://www.saudicaves.com/nokhula/index.htm . I hope you’ll later publish the best tales you heard while walking through Arabia.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 19, 2013

      Thanks for sharing, John.

  4. Pat Nathan
    August 17, 2013

    Fabulous work, I look forward to being with every day of your trek

  5. Linda Hoernke
    August 17, 2013

    Thank you so much for the Bedouin tale and introducing us to Awad. I so admire people that can adjust to their surroundings with what little they have~~

    • Paul Salopek
      August 19, 2013

      Awad adapts instantly to the changing lay of the land. He’s like a grub-line cowboy drifting ranch to ranch. We all have these muscles. We don’t often use them. But they’re there.

  6. Linda Hoernke
    August 17, 2013

    And thank you to John Pint for the link to the wonderful story :)

  7. Modesto Olivo
    August 18, 2013

    Listened to details of your adventure on PBS radio station KIOS in Omaha, Nebraska on Sunday, August 18th. Very bodacious undertaking to say the least. Good luck and God Speed.

  8. Robert Durkin
    August 19, 2013

    My Favorite Hafiz ….

    I know the voice of depression
    Still calls to you.
    I know those habits that can ruin your life
    Still send their invitations.
    But you are with the Friend now
    And look so much stronger.
    You can stay that way
    And even bloom!
    Learn to recognize the counterfeit coins
    That may buy you just a moment of pleasure,
    But then drag you for days
    Like a broken man
    Behind a farting camel…

    • Paul Salopek
      August 25, 2013

      Evergreen advice from the 14th-century. A fusion of Rumi and Mark Twain. I’ll have to add Hafiz to the digital bookshelf.

  9. Regina
    August 20, 2013

    Thank you and Mohamad for sharing the story of conquering fear with fear. Excellent.

  10. HikerBob
    August 20, 2013

    Made it to the border, one damn big wall. Easy cross to Palomas. Saw the old hotel across from the VFW and Linda’s pickup. Much metta to you folks. Deep bows. Proceeding to the meditation center being built at City of the Sun.

  11. DBD
    August 21, 2013

    Tattooing is also a very, very old human activity. We mark our places, our homes.

    I also wondered if you took a “before” picture of yourself, your feet and your legs. The trek will write the world upon you as well.

    I’m assuming that by now you know boots that work for you. Not to promote, but what kind are they? Keep all of the old pairs as they wear out. At least one pair should be Smithsonian bound. Keep the first pair for you, the last for the museum.

    Last question. Do you ever use a walking stick?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 25, 2013

      It would be interesting to study tattooing as a factor of living in austere, monochrome landscapes. Do desert tableaus spur the imagination to fill in the world’s missing details of our skins? I’m thinking: Inuit, Tuareg, Mohave. Even lavishly decorated Polynesians might be said to inhabit the margins of a desert-like surface: the sea.

      As for my boots, they lie yonder. And I’m too tired to get up and look.

  12. Krysik
    August 21, 2013

    Oh Margaret.

    • Paul Salopek
      September 2, 2013

      Indeed.

  13. Marjorie David
    August 23, 2013

    Thanks for the Barnett Newman excerpt. The two essays can be found in “Art in Theory: 1900-1990,” edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood.

  14. Shirley Goode
    August 28, 2013

    Your beautiful writing gives a vivid picture in my mind even before I see any photos…THANK YOU for sharing this amazing adventure! Sg

  15. Michael Reid
    August 29, 2013

    These posts are wonderfully illuminating. Thank you. I shall follow you to Patagonia and be wiser for the experience.

    By the way, did you know that your last two posts don’t show up as flags on the map?

    • Paul Salopek
      September 2, 2013

      Thanks for catching that mapping glitch, Michael. We’re working on it.

  16. Nadia Laribi
    September 4, 2013

    Marvelous journey! I lived in the Arabian Peninsula for over 20 years and loved it when we were sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes, the air was cold sometimes, but so pure. I come from Algeria where I used to enjoy much my trips to the desert as a young girl…Very special moods and times… Bon voyage, and thank you for taking us with you.

  17. Annie Williams
    September 6, 2013

    I enjoy your descriptions of each person traveling with you. They add color and art to your boundless days of encounters.

  18. ChampionOf TheSun
    February 6, 2014

    How big is your bouffant?

  19. Jenna L.
    March 4, 2014

    What an amazing story! Fear conquers fear. Mohamad Banounah has a lovely story telling voice.

  20. Melissa Jenks
    March 5, 2014

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Barnett Newman lately, too–what a great comparison between him and the footprints in the desert!
    I remember following other hikers’ footprints for days on the Pacific Crest Trail, knowing them only by the reversed imprint of their shoe, and being so curious about the rest of them. My favorite Newman quote: “We are in the process of making the world in our own image.”

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