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West on Books: Ted’s Conover’s Routes of Man

Reviewed by Richard West

“Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms/Strong and content I travel the open road,” yawps Walt Whitman in his “Song of the Open Road.” After reading Ted Conover’s exhaustively-researched and earnestly-written The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today, I fantasize him musing, “Yep, verily, Uncle Walt,” and dashing out the door to be on the road again for several years, on several continents.
We are wandering critters: Ulysses, Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury, Don Quixote, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, our pioneer’s wagon trains, Dorothy’s yellow brick road, Jack Kerouac and the Beats crisscrossing the U.S. (Kerouackia?) in On The Road.

And as  Conover mentions in his introduction, we sing about it: the Grateful Dead’s Truckin, the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin Man. Rolling Stone magazine just named Bob Dylan’s  Like A Rolling Stone the best of 500 pop songs.

Conover travels six roads around the world noting progress and improved lives along with deathtinations and miseries brought by routes:” hauling Peruvian mahogany from the jungle; walking with  kids in isolated Ladakh along their “road”, a frozen river at 11,500 feet, to perhaps a better life; trucking with Kenyans along sections of the Kinshasha Highway that links Congo with East Africa, a path that already has cost an estimated ten million lives as a transmission of the AIDS virus; through checkpoints and daily dangers of roads in Israel’s West Bank, war commuting; a weekend holiday trip with some of China’s millions who now own autos; and surviving the daily carmageddan in Lagos, Africa’s largest city, as he rides with the Lagos State Ambulance Service.  His harrowing account brought to mind Nigerian novelist Ben Okri’s idea of the road as evil creature with its own power in his novel, The Famished Road.
Conover ruefully notes the many Rubiconscious roads to cross, truffling his accounts with fascinating asides: the almost-empty trucks returning to Kenya–many imports, few exports–revealing the state of East Africa’s economies; Lagos, soon to be the third largest city, has one ambulance per 666,000 people (typical ratio in Western cities, one per 18-20,000); China with 2.9 % of the world’s vehicles had 21% of the world’s road fatalities in 2009, road fatalities being the leading cause of death for men to age 45; Kenyan trucker slang for AIDS victims, “slow puncture.”

Conover’s Epilogue handily provides us a collection of the many road metaphors we can’t escape: fork in the road, road to ruin, long and winding road, up my alley, speed bumps, a rocky road that’s a straight shot. The road less traveled.

Finally, his last words are the same from the 12th-century Spanish philosopher, Ibn al-‘Arabi, that begin Cees Nooteboom’s fine collection of travel reporting, Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space:  “The origin of existence is movement. Immobility can have no part of it, for if existence were immobile, it would return to its source, which is the Void. That is why the voyaging never stops, in this world or the hereafter.”

Hit the road, Jack.

“The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing The World  And The Way We Live Today,” by Ted Conover, Knopf, $26.95.

RICHARD WEST spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

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