Road warrior

Ted Conover talks about the West, wanderlust and the ethics of travel

  • Ted Conover

    Ralph Gabriner/Knopf
 

"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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...