by Ted Conover, February 12, 2010 12:15 PM
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
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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.
My book Rolling Nowhere is about that, as is Coyotes. But Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing most emphatically is not. It's about confinement. I tell about how one night I got to leave the prison on a transportation detail — another officer and I drove a gang member who'd been involved in fights to another prison upstate. En route, we stopped at a service area for fast food. He watched the big trucks go by as we ate. "That's what I want to do when my bid's done," he said. "Drive one of those things."
I felt exactly the same way.
Fast-forward a couple of years to a phone call from an editor at National Geographic, a magazine I'd always hoped to write for. Would I be interested in writing about a new highway that would link the east and west coasts of South America, she asked? I wanted to say I'd love to — but some part of me was worried about how to write such a piece. I'd never written about civil engineering; I didn't want to get involved in something dry. Then I thought, wait–I could write about the people on this road, the people near it, the lives (including those of plants and animals) of those affected. So the next day I called her back and said yes.
When I got back from Peru I had dinner with a writer friend, George Packer. I told him about the South America trip. "You've written a lot about roads," he observed. "I have?" I said. I could think of two other pieces. He could think of four. "I think you should write a book about roads," he said. We talked some more. It would be about specific roads but it would be about all roads, about the nature of roads. It would involve travel and it would involve reading and thinking.
I got started. Then, last week, I finished.
Hmmm… (c. 2002, when I started thinking about this
by Ted Conover, February 11, 2010 10:14 AM
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):
And here I am interviewing a wrangler:
And Nicholas and I were roommates on a trip to southern India. The occasion was a press tour organized by a company that hoped to promote mountain biking adventure tours; we rode from Mangalore to Bangalore with other writers and photographers. He liked to keep the bathtub full so our room would be more humid. He asked me to please keep the toilet seat down. Riding bikes one morning in Karnataka state, we found ourselves having to dodge giant Tarzan-sized vines that dangled over the shoulder from towering trees that lined the road. I was close behind Nicholas when the nearness of those vines became, apparently, irresistible: I saw him stand up on his pedals, grab a vine with both hands, and then hold on tight as he committed to the vine, his bicycle clattering away into the weeds at roads. His momentum carried him on a great arc across the shoulder and then back across the road, and back and forth, until he dropped off, delighted.
(According to this article on Wikipedia, "In 1972 DeVore caught the attention of Robert Gilka, the legendary photo director of National Geographic, with an amateur portfolio shot in the Galapagos Islands. Nicholas leapt from an Aspen chair lift to retrieve the editor’s dropped camera, and landed a career start as the Geographic’s youngest contributor.")
(As I understand it, the magazine began using him less following an incident in which he shot a pistol through the ceiling at a fancy party that he was photographing while on assignment.)
I have never met anybody remotely like Nicholas. His presence was quite kinetic, and so maybe it's not surprising that he seemed to understand intuitively that roads, though they sit still, are about motion. You can see how he captured that in this favorite photo of mine, below. I'm afraid there won't be more: Nicholas shot and killed himself in Jerome, Arizona, in 2003. There's a rumor that someone is writing his biography. I hope they finish soon. I'd like to read it.
photograph by Nicholas de Vore III, used by
by Ted Conover, February 10, 2010 11:31 AM
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.
Shindell is not much like the singers of those songs — not so glam, for one thing. But he stands apart for the poetry of his lyrics and the originality of his perspectives. Two of his best songs have to do with streets and driving. One is "Juggler Out in Traffic":
I'm a juggler out in traffic
just another clown
throwing fire at the sky
you are facing forward
heading out of town
just waiting for the light
here together in the street
the way it is, we never meet
red goes green and you go by
The other is "Last Fare of the Day." My favorite lines from it are his description of driving an elderly couple home to New Jersey from Manhattan at night, over the George Washington Bridge.
Up Amsterdam, the meter dark,
I turned off the radio
She said, "Thanks,
I could not bear another word."
Out the bridge, the traffic slowed
In the brakelights and the wash
Of all those truckers heading south
Into the stream, we pulled away
I know it well, this old ballet
Finding the flow, minding the sway
Catching green lights all the way
His most haunting song, to me, might have inspired Cormac McCarthy when he was conceiving his novel The Road. It's called "You Stay Here." The narrator is a man in a state of fear and privation, living outdoors, and speaking apparently to his wife.
You stay here
And I'll go look for wood
Do not fear
I'll be back soon enough
Do not let the fire die
Neither let it burn too bright
He keeps heading out:
You stay here
And I'll go look for coats
There may still be
Some out on the road
We'll wash them clean with melted snow
The kids don't ever have to know
I would quote more but I don't want to run afoul of fair use restrictions... and also because there's no substitute for hearing it yourself.
by Ted Conover, February 9, 2010 10:06 AM
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.
Part of what I was feeling was shame: the tires had a good 40,000 miles on them and probably should have been replaced already. You'd let your family drive on tires that old? I'd expected to get new ones when the next inspection time rolled around but had thought that, like the driveway, this was maintenance that could be deferred a while.
Well, no longer. I began calling around for prices on a new set of the same kind of Goodyears I had — they'd served me well till now. I checked Consumer Reports. And, during the football playoffs, I paid extra attention to the tire ads. This one, from Michelin, caught my eye:
Michelin claims this tire, the HydroEdge, will allow you to stop in a shorter distance than other tires, saving the lives of animals that might otherwise get squished. This consequence of driving happens to be something I've thought about a lot: In fact, there's a short chapter on road carnage in my new book. I don't deny my own reluctant role in the massacre — over the years I've kept a guilty private tally of my victims, the chipmunks, the frogs, the sparrows, the snakes. (Let's not even get started on arthropods, the moths and grasshoppers and flies, etc., etc.) And this is from a person who tries hard not to hit things. When you multiply my personal total by the millions of drivers out there, I sometimes think it's amazing there are any wild animals left near roads at all. Animal death is one of the great unintended consequences of road-making.
So being able to stop faster is of course a good thing. If you look at the ad, though, you begin to suspect that Michelin isn't really that concerned about the animals. Exhibit A: the humorous tire tracks imprinted on the carcasses of those that didn't get away on that "sad stretch of road." Thought up, perhaps, by the same kind of mind that brought you The Road Kill Cookbook, hardy har har. Even so, if I could buy a tire that would keep me from hitting animals, I would do it. I'm afraid, though, that I think even if the whole world drove on Michelin HydroEdge tires, it wouldn't save the animals. Instead, we'd all just drive that much faster, because we'd feel we could.
Do good intentions matter? Are we absolved from guilt in animal death because we didn't mean to? I don't think so, not really. Killing things is one of those risks inherent in the using roads, an unintended consequence of wanting to get from here to there just a little faster, of these ribbons of pavement we've tied around the
by Ted Conover, February 8, 2010 10:28 AM
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?
My passive neglect came to an end in December when the doorbell rang. It was a paving guy. He'd been driving down our street and, well...couldn't help but notice our driveway. I know, I said. How much? He'd have to measure, but thought he could come in at less than three grand, closer to $2,500. When? Well, how's today?
And so it happened.
While his guys paved, I watched and talked to Justin Lenihan. He had a paving company upstate but now there was snow on the ground there, so he had come down to the city and was trying to drum up a little business ("Do you know the neighbor on the other side, next block down?"). He had two red trucks. One was a dump truck that his four guys filled with the pieces of my old driveway. They didn't need a jackhammer or anything to break it up — they just scooped it into wheelbarrows.
The other held hot asphalt. There is art in its application, and I watched as Justin's guys spread it out zone by zone and tamped it smooth with shovels, a roller, "tamp shoes," and a gasoline-powered "vibratory plate tamper." The air was cold and filled with steam and the smell of the asphalt and of exhaust. They didn't have long to work: once the asphalt cooled, it couldn't be reshaped.
There was some hot asphalt left over, so Justin asked if I wanted anything else paved. I thought about the muddy path from the driveway to the woodpile area and, before I could stop myself, said, Yes — over there. They covered the mud as well as some flagstone; later I noticed they'd paved right up to the base of a wisteria vine that grows up the corner of the house. And still they had asphalt left over. Well, there's this little area by the garbage cans. Done — and they surrounded a couple of fenceposts I'd dug in last year, as well. How would I ever replace them, now, if I had to?
Justin asked if I thought the neighbors would appreciate him filling in some of the many winter potholes on our street with what remained of the asphalt. I said absolutely, and watched him leave my property with gratitude and as well as relief. Because here's the thing: paving had reminded me of shooting a gun. You feel really powerful when you do it — it's fun, even addicting. But there are so many potential downsides. You should do it only when you really have