National Geographic

The Desert Door

Near Aqaba, Jordan, 29°31'56" N, 34° 59' 52" E

“Those who go out in search of knowledge will be in the path of God until they return.” —Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, 39: 2. (In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination, edited by Taylor and Francis.)

We encountered human footprints recently in the desert. An astonishing sight.

We were inching slowly north toward Haql, to the brow of the Levant, traversing an oceanic white plain that burned at the edge of a true sea—the Gulf of Aqaba. Nothing stirred but the wind. We trod on dust born at the origin of time. And then the track appeared: a human being walking east without camels, alone. Ali al Harbi, my translator, suggested I take a photograph. But to what end? The prints could have been anyone’s, even our own. They would vanish tomorrow. (As would ours—brushed away by the eternal broom of the northerlies sweeping down from Syria, from Palestine.) Yet the track’s power—its ability to arrest our attention—spoke to the paradox of Saudi Arabia. A famous desert once inhabited by a legendary people—the Bedouin—a fabled landscape now almost completely abandoned, stripped by the advent of cities, petroleum, cars. In 700 miles of trail, these were only the second footprints we had seen.

Walking through the Hejaz has been often like moving through a dream. Through a society convulsed and catapulted from the black goat hair tent to glass skyscrapers. The hallucination of neon-lit truck stops with Pizza Huts. (Saudis staring out, through window glass chilled by air conditioning, at an American leading two camels through blast-furnace heat.) The profound sense of isolation, apartness. The workaday ritual of lives steeped in faith. (“Excuse me, Mister Paul, while I go pray.”) The ache to be understood despite the walls and veils and visa restrictions. The mutual wonderment. The improbability of it all. The dizzying void of history.

On the day of the footprints we camped on the naked plain.

I stood atop a small rise, trying as I often do to capture a cell signal. And in the deepening dusk, which in the desert appears to seep up from the land itself and not descend from from the sky, I heard distant voices. From my campsite: Ali al Harbi, Awad Omran, and Hassan al Faidi, my walking team. And from somewhere out in the thickening gloom: the parked Coast Guard vehicle that had been shadowing us for miles. We had been under loose surveillance for weeks.

“Why are you following us?” I asked the soldiers.

“We are protecting you.”

“From what?”

“We are protecting you.”

In the West, it is the incessant babble of advertising, of television, of trivial information, text messages, and phone calls that mask what is truly important. In Saudi Arabia, old-fashioned silences still carry freight.

I descended to camp in a foul mood. But as I came closer to the hissing gas stove, to the tarp spread on the sand, I heard my friends laughing. The presence of soldiers did not disturb them. They were telling stories, lying on their elbows, sipping tea. And within perhaps 30 steps, my mood reversed. My heart had turned over. These fellow travelers were my Saudi Arabia. Not the desert. I was glad we were together. Even our watchers. We all were journeying together, as we always do.

Today I said goodbye to Ali, Awad, and Hassan, who will remain friends for life. I said goodbye to my logistician Saeed al Faidi, who will host the brave camels Fares and Seema at his desert farm outside Yanbu until their last pampered days. I said goodbye to the deputy governor of Haql, who permitted me to walk 500 yards across the international border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan—a trek, apparently, that has never been attempted before. I said goodbye to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saeed al Faidi, Hassan al Faidi, Ali al harbi and Awad Omran. The team that made the Hejaz trek possible. Haql border, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

At the Haql border post, the team that made my Hejaz trek possible: From left, Saeed al Faidi, Hassan al Faidi, Ali al Harbi, and Awad Omran. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Twenty-seven dry miles separate Haql from Aqaba, Jordan. My only fuel was one small bottle of guava juice.

I stepped from the desert doorway with nothing except the clothes on my back and a shoulder bag filled with notebooks—blue-lined paper pads bound together with rubber bands and stained with my sweat, with camel shit, by smears of my own blood. The pages crazed with jottings about devastating heat. The bearings for remote wells. Inked maps of pilgrim roads. The divinations of Bedouin fire cures. Mile upon mile of sentences from an austere kingdom still largely closed to the world. I walked along the concrete highway and spotted the first alcoholic artifacts I had seen in seven months (bottles, cans), past a large potash mine, and up the wrinkled coast to a tourist town. I saw women in colorful sarongs. Some drove cars. Nobody watched me. I floated out of a desert wadi like windblown trash. I found an ATM. I asked directions to a posh hotel with knockoff Mies van der Rohe tubular furniture in the lobby. Men gave camel rides to tourists outside.

First mile in Jordan. Near Aqaba. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Near Aqaba, the first mile in Jordan. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“And where”—asked the clerk, without the least curiosity, as I signed the paperwork—”are you coming from, Mr. Salopek?”

There are 75 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. barbara
    December 20, 2013

    reading you, so often feels like a prayer. blessings on your journey.

  2. Cheri
    December 20, 2013

    Although hot and weary, you–unlike the common man–are sheltered in your walk and protected by your mission and your sponsor. What a luxury, Paul.

    You are a master of “show, don’t tell” writing, a craft you have developed into sheer beauty.

  3. Barbara Quinn
    December 20, 2013

    Like you and probably others who travel with you through your posts, I have an “ache to understand”. This post is incredibly touching.

  4. Ramze Elzahrany
    December 20, 2013

    Thank you Paul for passing by. I hope your experience in Saudi Arabia was worth the walk! I am glad that I met Ali Al Harbi in Al-Madinah last week and chatted with him about “Out of Eden Walk”. Please come back again and remember that you have many friends of “Out of Eden Walk” that you have not met yet!
    Best wishes for rest of the walk.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      Thanks for your valuable input on the project in the Kingdom, Ramze. Your comments added nuance to the larger conversation. (And your corrections to the text were important.)

  5. Amy Bucci
    December 20, 2013

    Saeed al Faidi looks like a nice camel owner. I hope he often takes Seema and Fares for long walks and gives them yummy camel treats. I am glad he is going to take good care of them. If he ever wants to go on vacation or anything let him know I can “pet sit.”

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      You should hear Saeed baby-talk the camels, Amy. I’d post audio, but I don’t want to embarrass my friend.

  6. Cynthia
    December 20, 2013

    Another wonderful story. Can’t wait for the next installment. Thank you, Paul.

  7. Linda Timmins
    December 20, 2013

    Thanks you for the opportunity to make this journey through your eyes…away from the clutter of the “civilized” world!

  8. Dennis Holseybrook
    December 20, 2013

    I read your notes as one would read a poem. Each word, each phrase sang to my soul with echos of mystery’s long hidden in the folds of history and the relentless shifting sand. Thank you so very much and hoping you a very Merry Christmas.

  9. Tevan
    December 20, 2013

    Dear Paul, I read your journey’s story few times, every time. It captivates me and shed peace to my soul. Thanks so much for sharing and God be with you on this epic journey.

  10. Jackie Lamb
    December 20, 2013

    I just wanted to let you know that reading about your adventure is captivating. I appreciate your traveling and sense of adventure.

  11. Sylvain Pascal
    December 21, 2013

    Where do we come from? Where are we heading to? 2 frequent and essential questions. If only we knew. Keep it up Paul and thanks for having us with you

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      Yes, the pursuit of unanswerable questions. “Our task is to love that which we do not understand.” I think that’s from Rilke’s letters. I’ve always tried to use it as a guiding principle.

  12. Karen Winterholer
    December 21, 2013

    As always, reading your words filled me with emotions; my eyes misted at the part of the goodbyes to your team and the camels, but I look forward to your next post on this journey, and I thank you for sharing it . Blessings, Paul.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      Glad you’re still walking along, Karen.

      • Karen Winterholer
        December 24, 2013

        Paul, I hope your Christmas is a great one; it’s certainly a memorable one by any standards! Love and Light, Karen

  13. Sonja Kodric
    December 21, 2013

    This is such an exquisitely beautiful, poetic piece.
    Readers so recognize “the ache to understand.”
    The Desert Door: you are opening some kind of doors to mystery and real adventure – and letting us understand something about your experience.

  14. Jennifer Seely
    December 21, 2013

    Paul, I hope you are continuously protected by all those who are reading and experiencing your amazing journey through your riveting descriptions. Thank you for including us all!

  15. ASMA
    December 21, 2013

    I am confused that you said you walked to Jordan with only a shoulder bag. What happened to all the electronics? Did they take it away or did you send it by a car to meet you in the hotel. Also, how could you walk 27 miles with only a can of juice. The seemingly missing info made my reading feel a little incomplete. When I left Saudi Arabia for the last time, I literally had only a shoulder bag and yes I was being watched. Eerie!

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      I sometimes feel incomplete myself, Asma. I sent my books and camel bags ahead in a taxi. As for the juice and the miles, I cannot take credit. It’s my maternal grandfather’s genes. He was a miner and railroad man, thin as a pin and tougher than a two-penny nail.

  16. Linda Hoernke
    December 22, 2013

    How true on your statement of your fellow travelers being your Saudi Arabia! I love your writing. Good bye to Fares and Seema…I will miss them~~

  17. Russ Hutchins
    December 22, 2013

    Thanks for taking me on the awesome trip with your words! I am with you all the way! Blessings of all kind to you!

  18. Robin Emery
    December 22, 2013

    Paul, I am a subscriber to National Geographic because of stories and journeys like your 21,000 mile trek. I am excited for you, envious of you and praying for your insight and safety everyday! Thanks for taking us with you and I earnestly look forward to your next post. Have a Merry Christmas and an adventurous New Year!

  19. Pam Butterfield
    December 22, 2013

    Glad to read that Fares and Seema have pasture with Saeed al Faidi, because you will move on happy that they are cared for. Which gives your journey an extra twist … you become close to the people you travel with, and the livestock. Friends you will remember forever – that is a wonderful legacy for you . Thank you for sharing it with us, your armchair travellers ..you bring your friends (human and animal) alive for us with your writing, thank you.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      We miss animals in our city lives because we remember their antique presence as traveling companions for millennia—the reassuring thump of cows’ hoof-beats across the red Malian savanna, the bleat of sheep on the northern Afghan plateau.

  20. mohammad
    December 23, 2013

    Enjoy yourself dear paul.
    traveling to jordan is my uncanny dream! until now we,iranians are not allowed to go there!
    the walls and veils and visa restrictions!
    your resolute fallower,mohammad from IRAN

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      Thank you, Mohammad.

  21. christiane oudet
    December 23, 2013

    enjoy following your reports, writings so warm, clever and humorous, bring joy to my heart, smiles to my face. Thanks, I’ll pick up the trash around my house today, live on a busy street, don’t want the walkers to see that. Christiane

  22. yumma
    December 23, 2013

    good article. So are you walking around the world or …?

    • Paul Salopek
      December 24, 2013

      …riding? No. At least not yet, anyway.

  23. odile
    December 23, 2013

    Merry Christmas and a good and happy New Year. I will keep you in my prayers for a safe journey. Good luck too.

  24. Leo Calvo-Bado
    December 24, 2013

    Hope you have a great Christmas
    Keep going and keep updating the blog so we can see your movements

  25. Aaron_of_Portsmouth
    December 24, 2013

    Dear Paul, once again I am awed by the immensity of your journey. Your inner strength and courage to embark on this trek, which is still in it’s earliest phase, rekindles my desire to see the world and all its peoples to whom we all are intimately bound to. A dear friend of mine has such a fear of traveling to any area that doesn’t offer 4-star accommodations or “decent” food. Having traveled to some isolated regions of Nigeria and Liberia to visit my Baha’i “brothers & sisters” was done mostly with only the lighting from kerosene lamps at night, and rats making night raids on whatever food wasn’t properly put away, but the experience is one I hope to repeat there and elsewhere in the world. But you are doing it on foot—I salute you!!
    I still would be honored to take you out to a seafood restaurant here in Portsmouth, NH when you return.

  26. Karl Coates
    December 24, 2013

    Sorry for being so late to jump on board but just read your piece in Nat Geo, hats off to you Sir would be great to see a bit of video now and then on your You Tube Channel you can then post on Twitter and Facebook, best wishes and Merry Xmas.

  27. ASMA
    December 25, 2013

    Sorry if my post made me sound kinda stoopid! :-) I somehow seem to seek minute details and I know that is not wise, but its my genes too hahaha. I too have the walking genes (they fight my car-mind all the time, but the car keeps winning!) I would really love to walk with you if it is not going to be a problem. If I manage to meet you somewhere, would you want a companion or is it easier to just tend your task? I know there are possibly hundred wanting to join, but I thought I would ask. Godspeed.

  28. Subodh
    December 25, 2013

    Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
    Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
    And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
    I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

  29. Alex
    December 25, 2013

    I wonder where you might be this beautiful Christmas morning and wishing you and your fellow companions, be they sand, persons, rocks, a wonderful Christmas!

  30. Clara Kelly
    December 25, 2013

    Merry Christmas, Paul!

    A camel (made of wood) came to our neighborhood as part of a nativity scene and there is a lovely camel image on a Christmas stamp that arrived at our home. Hope you are well with the living, breathing camels, not sure if you will go on foot from Jordan or travel with more camels.

  31. Ana Paula Engler
    December 25, 2013

    Desert is something so strange for me as I live very far from them.

    By reading your posts, Paul, the desert, the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aqaba are becoming more familiar, getting nearer my tropical wolrd.

    And I am curious about Jordania.

    Marry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Ana Paula Engler

  32. chefbrucewest
    December 25, 2013

    Another rich story. I am excited to hear about what you experience in Jordan. Thank you Paul.

  33. mary
    December 26, 2013

    in your post THE DESERT DOOR- written as beautifully as poetry,I am following along with my atlas, keeping up, more and more enthralled to travel to exotic places with you. thank you , Paul.

  34. JOSE DE JESUS E.F.
    December 27, 2013

    Es muy emocionante seguir su viaje y sus comentarios de este apasionante viaje. Más aún es una gran aventura. He leído acerca del descubrimiento de los restos fósiles de los primeros seres humanos y sus ancestros, nuestros ancestros. Sin duda ha de ser muy emotivo, estar en la ruta de viaje de nuestros ancestros, en la conquista del mundo. Saludos. Happy new year.

  35. Felicity Grundlingh
    December 28, 2013

    ‘She has been sitting there, weaving with spidery fingers, since the beginning of time…’ Your article has moved me to do something I have never done before – highlighting lines so I can find them again when I want! Thank you for your beautiful article. Will be following your trek online. Merry Christmas!

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Thanks, Felicity. Most of the markups on my stories are in red—from my editor. So I’m glad someone is balancing out the literary karma.

  36. selene cañaveral
    December 28, 2013

    gracias por compartir su viaje. Es conmovedor. Lo acompaño desde un remoto lugar en suramerica. Que el dios de todos lo acompañe.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Gracias, Selene. Me gustan lugares remotos donde sea—incluso Sudamerica.

  37. Serene Lai
    December 28, 2013

    Dear Paul,
    I have been following your blog from the beginning. At this point when you are saying goodbye to all that you have grown familiar to on this journey and how you feel so alone inside – I completely understand. In so many ways, the walk is a physical metaphor of leaving behind the past and moving towards the future. It is the evolution of ourselves inside. Everyday, no matter where we are – walking an old pilgrimage route, or sitting in an office space, we are walking life’s journey. The future is always unfamiliar and maybe that’s what makes it evermore exciting. I did a pilgrimage this in Apr 2013 in Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I walked from the french/spanish border to Santiago, across the country to the the western edge of Spain. And everyday brought its challenges. And I thought to myself – thank goodness for it, because it made each day different, and special. I felt lonely too at times, and it made me treasure the little things that I had and the amazing company around me all the more. As we say to our fellow pilgrims, and from the bottom of my heart – BUEN CAMINO. I hope to one day join you on your walk.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Thanks for the thoughtful input, Serene.

  38. Loring Smith
    December 28, 2013

    Thank you for the multitude of ways in which you take the rest of us along on your journey. Every post is illuminating, educational, a consciousness-expanding adventure.

  39. Jerzy PL
    December 28, 2013

    Dear Paul,

    If I am not wrong you are getting close to project’s anniversary. As I remember you set off somewhere in January this year. You had far less work reading and answering comments back then. Article in Nat Geo brought larger audience to your journey. You are now inspiration for more of us. Thank you for that.

    Btw. Is this the point of journey you had expexted to be at a year ago?

    I wish you safe passage through the Middle East above all.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      It’s hard to measure impact in calendar time, Jerzy. The emotional topography is more visible in the stories I encounter. In that sense, you are probably the better judge, by simply perusing these scribblings. Thanks for walking along.

  40. Ruth Ann Jacobs
    December 28, 2013

    I’m enjoying the posts. You are a wonderful writer.

  41. Kim Rapczak
    December 29, 2013

    Wow! I just learned of your adventure from the Dec issue of NG. I have got to go back now and catch up with you from the beginning. To travel the path of the human race from its birthplace—what a moving, mind boggling undertaking. From the little I’ve read so far, the “cousins” you are encountering along the way are the experiential, living proof that we are all, indeed, related. DNA studies can tell us this, but experiencing it is another matter… Blessings and safety on your journey. I am eager to read more.

  42. Gary Boivin
    December 31, 2013

    You have already made history by becoming, probably, the first Westerner since Richard Halliburton to walk the Arabian Peninsula, and he did it in disguise. Hope your time in Jordan and Israel is safe and productive.

  43. John Bishop
    December 31, 2013

    Paul what an adventure. You must be tough. I am captured by your walk and look forward to your posts!

  44. Alejandro Castro de la Iglesia
    January 1, 2014

    Thank you Mr. Salopek and thank you NG for allowing me to dream off an unforgettable journey. I will follow your steps during these exciting 7 years. What a gorgeous idea and project!

  45. William Watson
    January 1, 2014

    Happy New Year Paul! Good luck!

  46. Karen Winterholer
    January 1, 2014

    Happy New Year, Paul! Love and Light from your NH kin!

  47. Sharon Brevik
    January 2, 2014

    Paul, Happy New Year…….Will you have a little free time in Amman to visit Jerash and Petra….? I hope so. Petra is one of the most fabulous places on earth…..I am enjoying your posts so much…..

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Hit Petra a few days ago, Sharon. I fit right in with the mule wranglers. The color of stone—it’s like the clean flesh of salmon. A beautiful place.

  48. Melissa
    January 3, 2014

    Thank you again Paul for your final writing of Saudi Arabia. I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts. My eyes welled up with tears with your goodbyes to your friends and companions (humans and animals) that have accompanied you on this leg of your journey. It reminded me of Banounah also and his journey with you. I hope that he is well and wish him and his family well. Your last post also made me realize that I will miss Saudi Arabia and its people. Your connection to the land and the people seemed like our only true connection. In our hustle and bustle in the west, we only get snippets – even as broad and expansive as “internet” and media information can pretend to provide – of what everyday life is like for the rest of our fellow humans in the rest of the world. We hear the bizarre and the horrible from news organizations which has a tendency to remove us from other cultures. Your writing has changed that for me and I appreciate you bringing us along on your journey. On a different note, because of your posts during the last few months and your journey into Jordan, I have rediscovered my interest and hobby research on the Hashemites. So I’ll be pulling out my old books and following along as you continue to bring us wonderful accounts of that area. Thank you so much and have a safe and enjoyable new year.

  49. Christy Costigan
    January 3, 2014

    Hi Paul,
    Happy New Year from Dublin Ireland. Thank you for sharing your journey with me and all who are following your fantastic journey.Love your updates :)

    • Paul Salopek
      January 15, 2014

      Thanks for following along, Christy.

  50. Jo Myers
    January 3, 2014

    Beautiful story, beautifully told.

  51. Kuldeep
    January 8, 2014

    Paul, God has send u down on this planet , to admire , & share His beauty full world , with fellow human beings. God Bless , & u achieve your path smilingly , fully satisfied , in your venture.

  52. Betsy Spiegel
    January 8, 2014

    Paul, your writing is inspiring almost like poetry. I’m a New Yorker and subject to the “slings and arrows” of sirens, bills, e-mails, jackhammers and unrelenting noise. How beautiful the silence of the desert seems. Keep walking and posting.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 15, 2014

      The desert silences are vanishing already, as I walk into the urbanized Middle East. It will be interesting to see what toll this assault on the senses will take week after week, month after month, at boot level.

  53. eva Maria Huschka
    January 15, 2014

    Paul, my belated wishes for a peaceful Christmas and an adventurous new year!
    Only yesterday I emerged from my internet-free world in the Bay of Naples and am back in Germany. I thought of your journey every day, wondering where you were and how you experienced the holidays.
    I was happy to be on the Mediterenean Sea, which seemed like an open space pointing towards the Levante, where we meet in thought without phone and internet.
    I love to share the way you communicate your everyday experiences in the here and now.It inspires me to become aware of my surroundings like you do in the descriptions of your posts.
    Eva-Maria

  54. Winifred Grace
    January 31, 2014

    Does one ever get used to all the goodbyes of this life?

  55. Linda Stepp
    February 6, 2014

    I am following you backwards having met you in Petra before you left Syria and now here I am when you entered the Desert Door; I guess I have become a type of time traveler by going through your older posts but I would not have wanted to miss one step, one picture, one sound or one word. You are a poet with many lyrical words to weave this tale of walking, seeing, hearing, feeling and you share it well. Peace be with you and many blessings follow you always -

  56. Stella Goings
    February 17, 2014

    Dear Paul: In his last years, my father was an “armchair traveler”. He spent hours looking a maps and imagining the places he would never see. Thank you for taking the millions of intrepid explorers who will never have the chance to spend time making the trek of a lifetime… for taking them along with you. God bless

  57. Mike Cohn
    March 23, 2014

    Your journey is the story of human kind, and one of great courage. So few would ever consider such a trek. Wish I could join you for a portion, but will limit my journey to reading your blog. Continued safe travels.

  58. Idayu
    July 20, 2014

    Out of Eden walk part two – love reading it, during this fasting month of Ramadan. Hope you find tranquillity in this beautiful journey. Waiting part three of your writing!

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