by Matthew Fleischer
"The best teacher is experience and not someone's distorted point of view," Jack Kerouac famously wrote in On The Road. If that's true, journalist and author Ted Conover is about as well-educated as they come. He's ridden freights with railroad tramps, crossed the border with and worked alongside undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and labored as a prison guard at Sing Sing for his book Newjack -- which made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Conover traces his adventurous spirit to growing up outside Denver, Colo., reading Kerouac and dreaming of hopping the same storied freight trains, rumbling past his neighborhood, as the Beat giant did. In his latest book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing The World and the Way We Live Today, Conover travels to six different roads across the developing world, offering his own meditations on the freedom (and consequences) of movement and the power of roads to both create and destroy. HCN writer Matthew Fleischer recently spoke with Conover.
HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Travel and adventure are recurring themes in your work. How did growing up out West play a role in the development of that wanderlust?
Ted Conover I'm sure it played a role. There's an emphasis on the outdoors that you have in the West more than other places -- the idea that the best times in your life can be had outdoors. Railroad tramps, for example, live life outdoors in the West, by and large. And that's one of the things that made the idea of living that way for a while seem adventuresome and exciting and a needed antidote to several years of college in New England. I've always had a love-hate relationship with higher education. It's helped me in various indispensable ways, but I think because I grew up in the West, I've never felt it was sufficient. Lived experience is another part of the equation. It applies to my book Coyotes, where I traveled with undocumented workers. An awful lot of their lives are lived outdoors. Of course that epic, defining event of undocumented migrants –– the crossing of the border –– is one of these mythic passages in American history and American life today.
HCN You traveled all over the world for The Routes of Man, studying roads and car culture. I'm curious if you see the imprint of the West impacting urban development worldwide?
Conover Things are heading more towards L.A. than New York, in terms of sprawl and automobile-oriented cities. But the larger point is that everywhere I've traveled, roads have a meaning particular to the place. I think as long as humans have traveled, roads have represented freedom and opportunity and the chance of a better place. But they have colorations beyond that. The beautiful boulevards of Paris were the routes the Nazis took when they occupied that city. It was the Romans' own fantastic road network that not only let them grow their empire, but led to their downfall when Visigoths and others used the same roads to attack them. In the West Bank, I met Palestinians who basically stopped traveling because they can't stand the humiliations of all the Israeli checkpoints. On the other hand, the Israelis associate those same roads with bombers and people coming to attack their country. And then you can find the ecstatic side of roads, which is closer to the American experience, in China right now. They see driving as a pleasure they were denied for generations, and can't get enough of it. Even though I was scared to death most of the time, as my driver went 90 miles per hour on the shoulder to pass big trucks, at the end of the day you were with people who were having the time of their lives.
HCN At the close of your book, you suggest it's time people start thinking about staying put and cleaning up their messes. Do you foresee an effort to take back the roads and undo our automobile culture in America?
Conover Roads are just as key to our economy as they are to economies everywhere. Are there alternative economic models that are more sustainable that we could head towards? Sure. And it's fantastic in American cities to see the ways bicycles and pedestrians are asserting their rights to safe use of the roads. We're reconsidering who and what roads are for. So that's hopeful. The other thing is air travel, which, until just recently, had this image of freedom and exploration attached to it. Now, with the enormous quantities of fossil fuel required to take a small number of people in a metal cylinder from one part of the country to another, it's slowly catching on that maybe we shouldn't do that for pleasure. Maybe we shouldn't go places just for the weekend. I think this is an area of my life I haven't resolved yet. I'm a huge carbon hog for having written my book. That's not a thought that I had before committing to the process. But maybe for the next book I think I need to give serious thought to staying closer to home. And I think a lot of people are now thinking that way.
HCN Is wanderlust as severe as yours curable?
Conover (laughs) Are there drugs? You may have information I don't have. Maybe middle age is a part of the cure. I don't know about that. I do still get awfully excited about the chance to go places. I think it's one of the coolest things in life. Which brings us back to the quandary.