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Author Archive: "Ted Conover"

The Idea

A reader on my Facebook page, on hearing of my new book, asked simply, "Where did you get the idea?" I thought about trying to answer, but the space for replying is pretty small. But I give it a stab in the intro to The Routes of Man.

÷ ÷ ÷

I'd say it started with bicycle riding, and the wish to get away from home and see the world when I was still pre-drivers license. Friends and I in Colorado started taking overnight tours into the mountains. The summer I was 15, my parents me let and a buddy do a three-week tour through New England. Later I rode my bike across the country, the summer before college. (An account of the last hour of that trip, in Bicycling, is the first thing I ever published for money. It's called "Finishing.")

I left college a couple of times before finishing, once to ride the rails with hoboes. I try to explain why in the Introduction to Routes. While I have benefited enormously from formal education, I write, it has never seemed to me sufficient; it has repeatedly sparked in me a visceral longing for the lessons of life outside.


One of my favorite photographs of a road is by photographer Nicholas deVore III. Nicholas is one of those rare people of approximately my age or older who grew up in Aspen, Colorado, instead of immigrating there. That's where I met him, when I was researching my book Whiteout. Nicholas was extraordinarily smart and creative and funny and alarming. President of his class at Aspen High, he spent many years as a photographer for National Geographic, Fortune, Life, and Geo. He took his beautiful wife, Karinjo, and their son and daughter on one assignment through New England. They stopped in their red van to visit at my mother-in-law's country house in New Hampshire, where his toddler son, Nicky, promptly started swinging an antique toy elephant in the air by its tail. The tail soon separated from the elephant, spewing ancient sawdust around the room. Instead of being embarrassed (I never saw him embarrassed), Nicholas laughed and laughed. "Son," he tried to say with a grave tone, "how many times have I told you, never swing an elephant by its tail." Moments later, he complimented Margot, then my girlfriend, now my wife, on her "nice, round bottom."

Nicholas and I traveled together on a couple of great assignments. One was a journey from Toronto to Hawaii to Australia aboard a 747 cargo jet full of thoroughbred racehorses. Here we are in the cockpit (we did not actually fly the plane ourselves):

Cockpit Mac

Road Music

A lot of us work to music. I used to play music to help get me get going, to start the flow — mostly music without words, and especially guitar or piano. Once I got involved in the writing, the music would fade from consciousness (but maybe stay in subconsciousness). I'd know it worked when I stop for a break and notice I'd gotten to the end of the cassette or CD or playlist.

Lately music when I write has felt distracting. But music when I take a break, cook a meal, or drive feels essential .

The acknowledgments pages of The Routes of Man are full of people who helped me, in some way, to write the book. Since the first finished book arrived in my mailbox last week, I've been thinking about a musician whose name really should be in there, but isn't: Richard Shindell.

I listened to Shindell's music a lot (ask my kids!) during the writing of Routes. He's unusual in many ways — he lives in Argentina, he's a former Catholic seminarian (who's clearly not finished with religion), and — this one resonates a lot with me — his lyrics are frequently in the voice of a person you wouldn't expect. "Fishing," for example, is sung from the perspective of an immigration officer interrogating a Latino Indian. The singer/narrator of "Courier" performs that risky job for the British military in World War I. Shindell also stands apart from male singer-songwriters of his generation by virtue of not having many "road songs." I write in the Introduction to Routes about the road songs I grew up with in the '60s and '70s — "Gentle on My Mind" by John Hartford, "By The Time I Get to Phoenix" by Jimmy Webb, "Please Come to Boston," by Kenny Loggins, and endless country music songs.

Flat Tires and That “Sad Stretch of Road”

The car was feeling sluggish as I drove my son to school last Monday morning. Slow to back out of the driveway, slow to accelerate. Of course it was cold outside, and I myself am slow to accelerate on Mondays, so for a minute or two I thought maybe it was just me. But finally I pulled over and put it in PARK: "Check the tires on your side, will you?" I asked my son.

Sure enough, we had a flat.

I don't know about you, but having a flat tire makes me feel like a loser. There go all my neighbors, shooting to work in business attire, and here am I for all to see, working the jack and the tire iron in my sweatshirt and white socks and Crocs. A jogger was the only person to stop. "The week can only get better from here," he assured me. I hear you, brother.

My Driveway

My new book is about roads — roads as a powerful force that change the world, including the people on them. I traveled six transformative roads, in six countries, with people to whom they mean something.

Meanwhile, I tried hard not to think about the one piece of road I own — our driveway. It was in terrible shape. Already bad when my wife and I bought our house, some 15 years ago, it had only gotten worse. It's a short driveway, maybe 25 feet long, paved with asphalt. The asphalt long ago started breaking into pieces. It had two distinct channels, where cars' tires passed over it, and toward the bottom, close to the garage door, indentations where the previous owner's van must have sat when it wasn't in the garage. I picture the van there on hot days, indenting the asphalt. Shoveling snow from the driveway was a kind of nightmare, as every few inches the snow shovel would snag on something loose.

It was the worst driveway on the block, an embarrassment.

But paving is expensive, the kind of maintenance you can defer. More significantly, I'm afraid, for me: paving is a very heavy symbol. I write about the good and bad of roads in the book — they are absolutely key to commerce, to the economy, to progress. But every road, no matter how helpful, does something bad (more on this in tomorrow's post). And pavement is the symbol of this badness — of air pollution, the loss of nature, the death of plants and animals, the loss of ground that can soak up rain.

Sure, I could write about roads. But did I have it in me to pave?

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