For more than 25 years, Ted Conover has pushed immersion journalism to the highest levels. He rode the rails with hobos in Rolling Nowhere, smuggled himself across the U.S.-Mexico border in Coyotes, indulged in Aspen's high-end hedonism in Whiteout, and hired on as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison in Newjack. His latest, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (Knopf, $27), finds Conover traveling hard roads from Peru to East Africa. BRUCE BARCOTT caught up with him to discuss his latest adventure.
Why does the road hold such romance for us?
Most stories begin one of two ways: A stranger comes to town, or the hero leaves home. Either way, they tend to go by road. The road contains the excitement of the unexpected. There's a quote from Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring that I love: "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to." When you hit the road, you're worried about leaving comfort behind; you don't know if you're going to come back. There are monsters out there.
You write that "roads can bring unforeseen consequences." Like what?
In East and Central Africa, the roads I traveled were built to bring the benefits of development: to spread knowledge, spur the economy, deliver medicine. But viruses reach the wider world over those same roads. In Peru, better roads would escalate the illegal mahogany logging that's going on there. But I've been there during the rainy season and seen lines of trucks and people covered in mud and thought, Man, these people need a better road.
Do you ever find yourself arguing against roads?
I think you can reasonably argue against roads in natural areas, especially in the United States. I'm in favor of the roadless rule in national forests. I'm in favor of mass transit wherever practicable. But I'm not blind to the fact that we'd be nowhere as a nation without roads.
What's the worst road in the world?
Probably the road from Kabul to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, which I haven't had the pleasure to travel. In the early years of the war, the U.S. spent nearly $200 million to rebuild a 300-mile stretch of highway, but on the day it was dedicated it was too dangerous for the dignitaries to drive it. They had to be flown in for the ceremony. The strangest road I've ever traveled is connected, in a way, with that Afghan road: the 200-foot paved road leading to the front gate at Camp Delta, the prison at Guantánamo, Cuba. It's squished and curved like ribbon candy, presumably so terrorists can't get up speed to ram the gate. Even though I came in as an American journalist, I felt I could be shot at any moment.