Following the Trail

The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today, by Ted Conover ’80 (Knopf)

Reviewed by Sarah Auerbach ’96


[Nonfiction] During his career as a writer, Ted Conover has gone where few have, or will—to Sing Sing as a correctional officer, on a year-long ride with hoboes on freight trains, over the U.S. border with undocumented immigrants. In doing so, he has brought back word of subcultures that we’ve elected not to know, or decided to forget, and has reminded us that no matter how far we venture, we still find ourselves.

Now, in The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (go to our exclusive audio interview), Conover tells of his travels along six very different byways. In Peru, he follows mahogany out of the Amazonian jungle and across South America. He revisits the East African drivers whose sexual habits first showed up in the 1993 New Yorker article “Trucking Through the AIDS Belt.” In the West Bank, he travels through military checkpoints with both Israeli and Palestinian comrades. He follows a frozen riverbed out of the Himalayan region of Ladakh, a path taken by teenagers striking out for a more worldly life. He clings to the passenger seat of a Hyundai in China while his host barrels along on a “self-driving tour” of the countryside. And he rides an ambulance through the crime-ridden streets of Lagos, Nigeria.

What binds together the unrelated tales is a Big Idea: that roads are more than just paths that take us from point A to point B. Roads also allow one culture to penetrate into another, they change our economic opportunities, they provoke interactions that might not otherwise occur, and they put people in conflict with the environment. The long dreamed-of South American road connecting the Atlantic and Pacific would speed mahogany’s journey across the continent, but it would also hasten the demise of the remaining mahogany stands and expose even more indigenous cultures to outside influence. If the frozen river out of Ladakh yields to the road now being envisioned, the quiet life in the region will change forever.

The Routes of Man is uneven, sometimes marvelous in its detail and complexity, sometimes just a travel narrative. At times, I was hyper-conscious of the disconnectedness of the stories Conover had chosen to tell. The Big Idea didn’t always seem big enough to tie together such disparate experiences.

Always, though, just as I wondered where Conover was going, he’d show me something new, such as the sloth (perezoso) he encounters while dining outside the Wasai hotel in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

For some reason I’d thought a sloth would look like a bear, but the face reminded me more of a human child, a little bit like one with Down syndrome—gentle, vulnerable, a being that deserved some extra consideration.

The land adjacent to the Wasai, Conover writes, is destined to become part of the suspension bridge that would cross the Amazon, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Peru and Brazil.

And, while the Wasai’s perezoso might still make its way across the river, I didn’t think it could ever make it across that road.

That’s Conover’s gift. He can direct your attention towards something camouflaged in the trees, slow-moving, barely noticeable. You turn toward the new thing. And there, you find the thread—and yourself—again.

Auerbach, a freelance writer,  is a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine.