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.
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."