One great challenge in writing about roads, Ted Conover explains in the epilogue of his new road-themed nonfiction release The Routes of Man, is to avoid inadvertent use of the casual road metaphor.

“So essential a part of the human endeavor are roads,” he writes, “that road- and driving-related metaphors permeate our language. Who among us hasn’t come to a fork in the road or been tempted by the road to ruin? Speed bumps, in the newspapers, are faced by everyone from Middle East peace negotiators to baseball teams making their way to the playoffs. Leaders who are asleep at the wheel routinely send our enterprises into a ditch.” Point taken. But Conover’s not done. In fact he fills an entire page with turns of phrase — 37 clauses and as many clichés —rooted in the concept of the road.

In doing so, he lands on a crucial point: A road is not just a way of getting from one point to another. It means something more, not only in our everyday vernacular but also in our collective consciousness. The road is an instrument of entry and escape, a means to an end, a symbol of progress. And a winding foreground for drama. 

Conover’s past books narrate adventures into pockets of American culture: he has ridden the rails as a hobo, ventured across the U.S.-Mexico border with illegal immigrants, and, perhaps most famously, worked as a prison guard in New York’s Sing Sing prison. In The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Shaping the World and the Way We Live Today, he applies the same narrative nonfiction lens to the stories of six roads in six countries — six roads “that are reshaping the world.”

Conover begins in Peru, riding in a big-rig along the road that carries mahogany to global exporters — an unpaved and unpredictable mountain route that might eventually be put out of use by the building of the Interoceanic Highway that will link the Amazon basin with the Pacific Coast of Peru. From there he treks the frozen river chaddar, a forty-mile surface trail in Zanskar, India; then the Kinshasha Highway through Tanzania, Africa (along which the AIDS epidemic is said to have traveled and spread); the elevated 60 Road across the disputed land border in the West Bank in Palestine; the sleek, modern Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway in China; and lastly, the congested Apapa-Oworonshoki Expressway in Lagos, Nigeria.

For Conover, the story of a road is rooted in the story of those who travel it. He writes with gracious honesty and great interest about his travel companions — among them truckers, ambulance workers, road-trippers from China, teenage students from Zanskar, and Israeli paratroopers — and adeptly employs their individual narratives in the service of a greater concept: that of the road as a means of personal and cultural self-discovery. A road presents its traveler with ample opportunity for moments of revelation. Conover’s prose is simple and elegant in relating his own experience of such moments, as in the following passage about a steep descent through the Andes Mountains in Peru:

It was all downhill, with every turn seeming to bring a little more warmth, a little more humidity, plants and trees we hadn’t seen before. The view was still limited until one particular turn revealed the sudden vista, one of those spectacular places through which you come to understand the shape of the planet: the wrinkled green mountainsides spread out before us, dissolving suddenly in the vast, smooth green sameness of the Amazon basin, a flatness that stretches two thousand miles to the sea. Interrupting the mountainside below were little brown threads, glimpses into the same road we were on, a thread that writhes back and forth like an earthworm held by the tail.

This is the great promise of the road: the quick turn that affords you an unexpected view and, with it, a new perspective.

Of course, roads are not all romance and revelation. They present threats of pollution and danger, casualty and corruption, and the spread of disease. And there is also the more generalized threat of globalization, the eradication of local culture by the global market. Nowhere in Conover’s book does this threat seem more acute than in Zanskar, where teens who hope to further their education must leave the village for the first time by way of the chaddar, a trail across the slippery surface of a frozen river.

Through Conover’s eyes, the chaddar is certainly beautiful, even magical — but its route is also perilous, difficult to navigate and subject to the whims of the weather. In recent years, there has been talk of building an all-season road along the chaddar to give Zanskarians a simpler way out of the village — and, in turn, give outsiders a simpler way in. Conover notes that most Zanskarians seemed in favor of the road. Politically and economically, its construction makes sense. Zanskarian teacher Tenzin Choetop shared his feeling that an all-season road would “liberate” his students and provide them with an escape from the “small-mindedness” of their isolated upbringing.

Outsiders, however, are more likely to have a different view: that of the road as an intrusion upon a still-intact, indigenous culture, a Western bastardization of Shangri-La. Writes Conover, “I was not eager to see a road built through the chaddar … Bad things were bound to come in; life would change, and not always for the better. But Zanskar was not a museum … [and] Shangri-La was not a local idea. It was a Western idea, a symbol of what we lost when we advanced, a seductive nostalgia, a dream.”

Conover applies the same clean and comprehensive logic to all of the communities he encounters: from the recreational driving clubs in China, whose members flaunt driving as an inborn right, to the stopped-up go-slows (traffic jams) of Lagos that transform, organically, into open-air markets. These and other stories come together in The Routes of Man to create an enlightening and engaging chronicle of the way roads shape the people who travel them and the places where they live.

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