Former Aspenite Ted Conover has taken the roads less traveled
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Asked to name some of his favorite roads, journalist Ted Conover put the old two-lane highway through Glenwood Canyon on the top of the list. Conover cited a personal memory for the selection: As a teenager in the ’70s, he recalls borrowing his father’s Porsche for the first time, heading out from Denver on a magnificent spring evening, and pulling into Aspen to rendezvous with an attractive date.
Last week’s incident in Glenwood Canyon, when the four-lane highway was closed for several days after boulders put holes in the pavement, didn’t strike Conover on a personal level. The writer left Colorado years ago, and lives now at the northern tip of New York City, where his day-to-day road concerns are traffic jams, not falling rocks.
But there is a poetry to his bringing up Glenwood Canyon at the moment, with a stretch of the highway down to two lanes for the near future and the Colorado Department of Transportation looking at spending millions of dollars to repair the damage. The current highway through the canyon is a blessing and a curse – beautiful and convenient on one hand, expensive and troublesome on the other – and the two-faced nature of the world’s byways – “the wonder and terror of roads,” as he put it – is the subject of Conover’s latest book.
“The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today,” published last month, explores a handful of paths Conover has traveled over the last decade or so. He walked a remote ice-way in the Himalayas; explored a river route in the Peruvian rain forest that might soon become a transcontinental highway; passed through the tense Israeli-controlled checkpoints in the West Bank; and experienced China’s new highways as part of a self-driving tour, a phenomenon in the recently car-crazed country. The people Conover met along the way – Peruvian mahogany cutters, a Palestinian doctor, nouveau riche Chinese businessmen – are warmly described. But his take on road-building, which he positions as one of humankind’s most ambitious and significant endeavors, is more ambivalent.
“I think of humankind’s building of roads as a two-steps-forward, one-step-back phenomenon,” Conover, who appears at 5:30 p.m. Saturday for a talk and book-signing at Explore Booksellers in Aspen. “Civilization couldn’t exist without roads – we need connections to bring food to markets, to act on the human imperative to explore. I think of every road as an intention, as a desire laid down in pavement, a desire to get somewhere more easily.”
“The Routes of Man,” though, makes clear that those benevolent desires are often swamped by tougher realities. A highway in East Africa begets a trail of AIDS, prostitution and violence. The Israeli army blocks roads to control both suicide bombers and Palestinians commuting to jobs; Palestinians respond by throwing rocks and worse at passing cars. In the chapter on China, you can practically feel the oncoming collision between the newfound romance with cars and the associated problems just over the hill.
Conover has demonstrated in the past an attraction to the less developed and more dangerous corners of the world: the border between Mexico and the U.S. in “Coyotes”; New York’s Sing Sing prison in the magnificent “Newjack,” which earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award. (An exception was 1991’s “Whiteout: Lost in Aspen,” which examined the town’s disparities between social classes.) And in “The Routes of Man,” he bypasses America and Europe to focus mainly on exotic and remote spots where road-building is in a relatively dynamic phase. Pounding the pavement in overcrowded Lagos, Nigeria; impoverished Peru and northern India; the West Bank and China, Conover doesn’t convey optimism that roads are going to make life significantly better. But he has a keen awareness that as an American who has benefited from relatively safe, convenient roads, he is in a precarious place if he tries to put a road-block on the highway-building dreams of developing countries.
“There’s so much to worry about if you think about the planet being paved,” he said. “But there’s so much excitement about the arrival in China of the automobile, so much excitement about roads and travel, and how they will lift people out of poverty. And I think they’re right. The question is, how much of this is sustainable?”
Conover avoids overt doom-and-gloom in “The Routes of Man.” But he can look down the road and perhaps see clearer than the Chinese businessman who is so caught up in his joy ride that he doesn’t feel the billion countrymen hoping to follow right on his tail.
“If you come from a more developed place, you might want to caution them to think twice before building this road,” he said. “On the other hand, good luck if that is your only message.”
Conover eventually circles back to Glenwood Canyon, which a few minutes earlier he had called his favorite road. After a brief discussion of the recent rock slide, he reconsidered that sweet memory in his dad’s Porsche from decades ago.
“I think roads can be beautiful. And for the most part, that one is,” he said. “But expensive and dangerous, too. You kind of want to get through there quickly.”
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