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Ten Tales of Migrations, Long and Short

From haiku to epic, these works span space and time

By Paul Salopek | November 4, 2016
Kat Stan/Flickr
Kat Stan/Flickr


Homo sapiens are by design a footloose species. Anthropologists have attached GPS tracking devices to one of the last remaining hunter-gather societies in the world: the Hadza of Tanzania. They’ve discovered that these people ramble, on average, about seven miles a day. Movement, from ritualized walking on pilgrimages to taking an orbital space stroll, is a behavior steeped in our marrow. We are restless lot.

Lately, humans are engaging in migration on a historic scale, whether pulled by new transportation and information technologies, or pushed by old habits of violence and persecution. The United Nations estimates that 232 million people now march under the ambiguous flag of nomadism, as migrants, refugees, or exiles. No surprise, then, that one of the oldest narrative tropes across time and cultures—the journey story—remains urgently apropos. Here are 10 emblematic stories of migration, which wander the centuries and the continents of our 200,000-year-old human history.



A 4,100-year-old epic poem about the inescapable migration towards death.


The Bible, Koran, and Torah

Migratory and navigational guides with taproots in the Bronze Age.


The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

The migration from boyhood to manhood across layered frontiers, the most visible of which is the desolate U.S.-Mexico border.


Generations and other books of poetry by Pattiann Rogers

“When the great ice mountain split
its continent and became two, they were walking.
When smoke from the burning plains
blinded the western seas, they were walking.
They walked by dead reckoning on steel,
on ropes, over swales and fens, on pearls.”


In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

You read this book not to learn about Patagonia, but to tour the curiosity cabinet of Chatwin’s brain—a vagabond’s collection of tales about exile and homelessness written in cubist prose.


Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

A literate and entertaining jaunt through the natural history of human ambulation.


The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley

An understated and lyric voice of reason on our puny footsteps across the colossal stage of nature. Eiseley’s delicacy is not much in fashion these days, which makes him all the more a rarity.


The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski

On the surface, a poetic compendium of reporting on the wars and upheavals of the developing Global South—from Honduras and Nigeria to Palestine—by Poland’s preeminent foreign correspondent of the late 20th century. But really a meditation on how history shapes the individual journey.


The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler

Kunstler is an acid critic of urban and posturban migration in America. His provocations against suburban sprawl may be a little sharp in hindsight, but his observations on how the automobile reshaped our minds and communities—not simply our architecture—still ring true.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō

The old classic of migrations large and small, penned by a poet on an epic journey through Edo-era Japan.

“With every gust of wind,
the butterfly changes its place
on the willow.”

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