He was en route that day in April 2001 between Sierra Leone and South Africa-another journey in a nomadic, illustrious career that has twice netted him the top prize in American journalism and ranked him among the nation's most intrepid writers.
Today, Salopek is in a Sudanese jail, three weeks after pro-government forces detained him while on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine. Along with his Chadian interpreter and driver, the 44-year-old has been charged with espionage and two other criminal counts, which he and his supporters strenuously deny.
To friends, family and colleagues, he is what years of newspaper and magazine clippings convey: an extraordinary journalist who spends weeks living and laboring alongside the people he chronicles, a man of rare talent and empathy who also has worked as a farm laborer and commercial fisherman. He became a journalist only by accident, when his motorcycle broke down in a New Mexico town whose newspaper happened to be looking for a police reporter.
"I can tell you lots of things about his ability as a journalist, as a writer as a reporter, but I think what's important now is who he is as a human being," said Marcus Walton, a longtime friend who worked with Salopek at the Albuquerque Journal. "If anyone can get out of a situation like this, it's Paul, because of who he is."
To those who know him best, his journalism stems from a fundamental belief in the power of writing to stir compassion and connect distant human experiences-serving as "a passionate witness," in the words of National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns.
"It can be a war in Congo, or it can be an oil researcher in a gleaming skyscraper in Houston, and he approaches it with the same level of fairness and integrity that he would have for a fisherman in Nigeria," said his wife, Linda Lynch. "His interest is always very humane."
His writing is fueled by razor-sharp observation and a lyrical appreciation for the rhythms of language. For a May 8, 2003, dispatch from Hillah, Iraq, he wrote: "The dead are rising up in Iraq. They are emerging from bald soccer fields as well as bleak prison yards. They are rising from innocent-looking highway medians and jaunty carnival grounds.
"False teeth. Clumps of women's black hair. The twig-like rib cages of babies. The appearance of such heartbreaking relics represents the final, damning rebellion against Saddam Hussein's Iraq-an intifada of bones."
Since Salopek arrived at the Tribune in January 1996, debuting with a short feature on an African lion at the Lincoln Park Zoo, he has become one of a handful of U.S. newspaper writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for individual work. Quiet and unassuming, he shies from the spotlight and, until recently, his name drew little recognition beyond a corps of writers, photographers and editors focused on the world's roughest corners.
He has covered wars across Africa, Central America, the Balkans and the Middle East. He has worked among Pygmies and Zulus, Texans and Alaskans, suburban homeowners and Marxist tribesmen.
For a story, he once traveled 1,300 miles across Mexico with a donkey as a companion. For another, he rode a horse over the snow-covered Hindu Kush into war-torn Afghanistan to witness the Northern Alliance's final push to Kabul.He has a reputation for doggedness and precision, bordering on obsession, with little regard for physical obstacles. He tends to go unusually long periods without food or sleep, according to those who have worked with him. He is a minimalist, known for traveling with little more than what he carries on his back.
To his editors, he is a meticulous writer who agonizes over every word in writing and editing, a largely self-guided process that George Papajohn, the Tribune's associate managing editor/projects, admiringly calls "pathological revising."
"He's very, very intense," said Nancy Stone, a Tribune photographer who worked with Salopek in Africa in 1999. "He would sleep in the car as we were going from one place to another because he would be awake all night writing."
He has years of experience as a commercial fisherman and farmhand, and he often asks his subjects if he can work in their fields or on their boats. For his most recent Tribune story, a study of America's addiction to oil, he worked as a clerk at a gas station in South Elgin.
Part of his motivation, his friends said, is Salopek's belief that it is important to balance the mental exertion of writing with physical challenges.
"I've rarely come across anyone who takes so much time, care and effort with stories," said Carolyn Dempster, a BBC freelance journalist in Johannesburg, where Salopek served as Tribune bureau chief.
Alexandra Duvall Smith, a former correspondent for the British Independent newspaper who met Salopek while reporting in Africa said he had "the great quality of identifying totally with the subjects about whom he is reporting.
"You never found Paul with the other reporters," she said, "and when you did spot him, you followed him because you could be sure he was on to an angle that was different from everyone else's."
If Salopek often seems more at home laboring with farmers and fruit pickers than in a newsroom, perhaps it is because he did not set out to be a journalist.
He is the youngest of five children from a Croatian-American family in Barstow, Calif. When he was 6, his father retired early and moved the family to Mexico.
"I recall my mother and father sitting in the van at the border and my mother practicing Spanish," said his sister Debra Salopek. "They had no idea where they were going, and they just headed south."
In Mexico, Salopek and his siblings attended Spanish-language schools, and he speaks the language fluently.Even while young, his sister Debra recalls, Paul read voraciously; he cherished a copy of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
His parents consistently emphasized charity. They brought orphans to spend Christmas with the family, his sister recalls, and her father helped start a program in California to feed transient workers.
When the family returned to the U.S., Salopek was 12 and he spoke accented English. He had trouble readjusting, he said later. He dropped out of school at 16 and began a nomadic lifestyle, an urge he would later describe as "a terrible yearning to make sense of the world."
He headed for Australia and Papua New Guinea. As he later told author Peter Han for the 2005 book "Nobodies to Somebodies," a collection of extraordinary life stories, he harvested almonds and fruit, installed walk-in freezers, worked on shrimp boats and in a gold mine.
"I was basically trying to test my mettle and see what I could do with my hands and my head," he told Han.
After 18 months, he returned to California, earned a GED, and enrolled in junior college. He continued at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He paid for school by riding his motorcycle each summer to Alaska, where he worked in fish canneries.
He planned to get a doctorate with a focus on rainforest ecosystems. But as he headed for a shrimp-fishing job in the summer of 1985, his motorcycle died in the town of Roswell, N.M. He had $60 to his name.
Salopek told Han he rented a room from a woman who had worked for the Saturday Evening Post. She noticed his appetite for reading and writing and urged him to apply at the local newspaper. He got it.
After seven months, he moved to the Albuquerque Journal. He later worked as Gannett News Service's bureau chief in Mexico City and for the Times in El Paso, Texas, the city where he met his wife. They wed in 1996.In October 1992, he passed a writing test to become a caption writer at National Geographic.
"It was clear to all of us that Paul was just an incredibly gifted, poetic writer," said Don Belt, a senior editor who watched Salopek rise to major assignments for the magazine.
In 1996, Salopek joined the Tribune. Within two years, he had won his first Pulitzer for a series explaining the Human Genome Diversity Project. His 2001 Pulitzer for International Reporting recognized his work in Africa, particularly on the civil war in Congo. For those stories, he crossed perilous territory largely by canoe.
He has expressed to visitors his regret for crossing into Sudan's Darfur region without official permission-a civil offense often disregarded by foreign correspondents determined to get the story.
"One needs to get into situations that are difficult to cover," said the BBC's Dempster. "That you're determined to get in no matter what shouldn't be seen as a sign of being a criminal but an intrepid journalist."
Since his detention Aug. 6, he has spoken by phone with his family and editors to emphasize that, whatever happens in his case, he is most concerned about the fate of his two Chadian colleagues, interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa and driver Idriss Abdulraham Anu.
That has not surprised those who know him.
"He has an intrinsically unmovable integrity, and he always has," said his mother, Ruth.
His wife says ensuring the well-being of his companions has kept his spirits up.
"It is crucial that he know they are being cared for," she said. "He is doing well. And I hope that continues."
Tribune foreign correspondent Laurie Goering contributed to this report from Johannesburg.