Interview With Ted Conover: Traveling ‘The Routes of Man’
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks the author about the role of roads in the world -- from Ladakh and the Peruvian Andes to the West Bank
03.02.10 | 11:39 AM ET
In a sense, Ted Conover has been on the road much of his writing life. For his first book, Rolling Nowhere, he rode the rails with hobos across America. For his second book, Coyotes, he spent a year crossing the southern border with people on their way into the U.S. looking for a better life. His next two books, Whiteout (about Aspen, Colorado) and Newjack (about Sing Sing prison) kept him settled. But in his latest book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today, he’s back on the move, exploring roads from East Africa to the West Bank, from the Andes to the Himalayas. I asked about it via email.
World Hum: You traveled on all kinds of roads for this book. Did anything along the way change how you saw them, or the ideas you had about them?
Ted Conover: One thing I had not expected was how differently people can feel about the same road. I was full of dread about a road being built through a spectacular, remote gorge in Ladakh. The teenagers I was walking with, on a frozen river below it, felt absolutely the opposite: The road was the solution to their isolation, a source of excitement and opportunity.
Or in the West Bank: A Palestinian student I traveled home with for the weekend said he felt “terrible” on the roads there. He hated being stopped, searched, and suspected by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers, for their part, viewed the road as a conduit for bombs. Only by controlling the traffic on it could they, at their extreme peril, prevent mayhem further on.
On the lighter, more personal side, take a straightaway—an unexpected stretch of open road. I’m the kind of driver who will relax on that. I think open road actually makes me slow down. But not Zhu, with whom I drove in China. For him an open stretch of road is an opportunity to see how long it will take his Hyundai Tucson to reach 100 miles an hour.
What was the worst road you’ve been on in your travels?
Well, that 60 Road in the West Bank was the worst in terms of enjoyment. That, and a short stretch of road I visited on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay. It curled back and forth like a piece of ribbon candy, to ensure that no vehicle could pick up enough speed to crash through the fence at Camp Delta without getting blasted to smithereens by nearby machine guns.
But in terms of exciting bad road, that would be in the Andes, in Peru, on a narrow muddy road made very slippery by torrential rains. I was a passenger in a fuel truck carrying about 20 people on top—a flammable bus, as I write. There was poor grading, no guard rails ... and yawning chasms everywhere. I think the term “bus plunge” was probably invented on that road.
In your book, you note that almost 1.5 percent of the U.S. is covered in “impermeable surfaces,” and that roads constitute the “largest human-made artifact on earth.” What do you think that says about us as a species?
It suggests that we are not, as a species, shy about asserting our dominion over the planet. What’s really interesting about our times is the growth of the countervailing idea that the planet might not sustain us if we don’t take better care of it.
So many things are transported along the roads you traveled: contraband lumber, AIDS, ambition. On balance do you think roads are a force for good or ill?
Well, we’d be nowhere without them. It’s nice to think of humanity all padding down footpaths with pack animals, of everyone in cozy eco-villages. But we’ve grown beyond that. Realistically you cannot have a thriving economy, cannot have civilization, without good roads.
Every road, as I write in the book, expresses a human desire—to connect, to get away, to move. The problem is the consequences that were unintended. I keep coming back to the idea that every road does bad as well as good; that connection cuts both ways.
You raise the question: Where are our roads taking us? Any thoughts on where that is?
Yes, many—so many that I had to write a whole book to answer it!