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A War You Can Commute To


May 1, 2010

Immersion journalist Ted Conover on how roads can be both a path to opportunity and a way bad things can arrive.

Ted Conover got the idea for his new book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today, in prison. He was working as a New York State corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. One day he found himself driving north on the New York State Thruway. At a truck stop, surrounded by idling big rigs, the prisoner he was transporting told him, “You know, CO, when I get out, that’s what I want to do… I want to drive one of those.” It made sense to Conover that the prisoner would envy the life of a truck driver. Conover’s own experience of prison that year, working undercover for a book, had included being punched in the head, seeing prisoners fling semen at female officers, and watching his marriage tested as he tried to juggle the demands of officer and writer, events which he recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated Newjack (2000). So the urgent appeal of getting out on the open road, of getting as far from prison as possible, hit him too at that truck stop.

conover300.jpgConover has explored and documented the American romance for the road in each of his five books of nonfiction. This includes the hobos of 1984’s Rolling Nowhere, with whom the then-twenty-two-year-old Conover hopped freight trains for several months to explore the dying subculture of the American tramp; the Mexican migrant laborers of 1987’s Coyotes, in which Conover hooked up with a group of undocumented immigrants and followed them across the border, in and out of work in the U.S. and Mexico for a year; the cab driver Conover became for 1991’s Whiteout, in which he got behind the wheel in Aspen, Colorado, in order to explore the roots of his home state and the underside of the glittery ski resort town. And, of course, there are the prisoners and prison guards of Newjack—not, on the surface, a book about travel, but about its opposite, lockdown and immobility. Yet Newjack makes sense given Conover’s concerns with travel and freedom. Sing Sing, where Conover was in charge of hundreds of prisoners and had to pass through twelve different locked gates each day to get to work, represented what you might find if you went the wrong direction on the road his protagonists were always running, whether it was an actual prison they were fleeing, or a Mexico without any jobs, or a dead-end hometown. The prison is the flipside to Conover’s peculiar brand of investigative travel writing, the id to the ego of the American wanderer.

In The Routes of Man, Conover explores life on the road beyond North America and finds a globe zigzagged with paths both perilous and promising. From the routes and checkpoints that stitch across Israel and Palestine and the citizens and soldiers who travel and police them, to Peru’s Interoceanic Highway that slashes through the jungle so that products like mahogany can be brought to the U.S., from China’s new superhighways and explosion of American-style car culture, to the infamous AIDS highway of Kenya, Conover proves himself to be both a carefully listening passenger and an excellent tour guide. The book describes the tremendous economic opportunity presented by new routes for the world’s poor, as well as the potential problems presented by these roads. Yet, as much as Routes is a journalistic account of these roads, it is also a travelogue and meditation on the symbolic meaning of travel today, one that connects to Conover’s previous work in North America.

Conover makes the connections explicit in a chapter from Routes, “A War You Can Commute To,” about Israel and Palestine. In Nablus, he’s met a young Palestinian named Sameh. Conover will later cross through checkpoints into East Jeresulum with Sameh, and end up visiting the squatted building where Sameh lives—but here they are at a restaurant discussing Sameh’s semi-weekly commute to work via these checkpoints:

I told him about the Mexicans who sneak into the United States, seeking better-paying work, but noted the different quality of that migration—it involved an international border and raised questions about national sovereignty. Here migration looked different: the soldiers weren’t keeping West Bankers out of Israel, they were merely keeping Palestinians from moving around too much. It reminded me of the way officers run a prison like Sing Sing: by dividing it up into discrete pieces, and forbidding or restricting movement between them. The twin goals of such a policy, I believe, are punishment… and self-preservation…. I asked Sameh if I could go with him when he returned to Jerusalem the next day. At first he laughed, but then he saw I was serious….

I met Conover in San Francisco this March at the Hotel Adagio for a conversation about Routes and his prior books. He is trim, brown-haired, and an athletic fifty-two; he wore red cross-trainer sneakers with his jeans and dress shirt. He is soft-spoken and polite. When he greeted me in the lobby for the interview, he said, “There’s a little bit of Muzack in here, I don’t know if it will be a problem.” In the hotel’s cafe he said, grinning, “Oh, there’s a different kind of Muzack in here.” Toward the end of our conversation he finished telling me the story of how he got the idea for Routes during that drive back to Sing Sing ten years ago.

Then he added this, as a rumination on the complexity of roads as both reality and symbol:

“One way to look at it,” he said, sipping his coffee, “is that roads make travel possible but they don’t guarantee that it can happen. Just because there’s a road doesn’t mean I can afford a car to travel on it. Just because there’s a bridge across the border doesn’t mean I can cross it. And just because there’s a straight away between my town and the next one doesn’t mean I can reach my destination without being stopped by police or slowed by congestion. Every road is a promise that may or may not be realized. It holds out a possibility that’s not always in reach. So, yeah, roads are a symbol of freedom, but they’re a complicated and interesting one. It’s freedom with caveats, and asterisks, and depending-ons. To me, that’s what made a book about roads worth writing. They’re about the possibility of something transformative that doesn’t always work out in the way we expect, the inadequacy of our own plans, the fallibility of our intentions.”

-Wes Enzinna for Guernica

Guernica: What was the most frightening experience you had while reporting Routes?

Ted Conover: There was a day in Nablus with a Palestinian hydrologist. He’d been walking me through the old part of town, and there was this guy selling knives. There are very few vendors left. There used to be Israelis and people from many nations who went through that city—it’s a beautiful city, medieval, very atmospheric. This guy came up and asked if I was interested in buying a knife, brandishing it at me, in a threatening kind of way. You know, kind of funny, kind of not. And my guy, Abdul-Latif, a big man, finally interposed himself between me and this guy, and told him to knock it off. There are all kinds of pathologies in the territories. Most people were hospitable and accommodating. But there really are a lot of extremists on both [the Israeli and Palestinian] sides. You’ve just never seen so many whack jobs in such a small space as I did there.

There was also an incident in Peru, when I was trying to take a picture of a Blue Morpho butterfly in the Andes. Taking photographs of nature is considered by certain politicized people as a bourgeois affectation and the Shining Path would, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China, want to stamp out that activity. So this guy in Peru says, “If you’d been here a few years ago you’d be hanging in that tree right now.” I didn’t really think I was about to be hanging in that tree. But I got the feeling he might have liked to make that happen.

I think the most dangerous thing about the trip is the kind of danger none of us can prepare for, the car accident you see coming approximately one second before it arrives.

In China, they’ve got lots of mass transit, they’re experimenting with alternative fuels, they have a far smaller carbon footprint per person than we do, and they make half of the stuff we use. When you are there you feel your ability to criticize is limited by our enjoyment of the things they make.

Guernica: What were the environmental issues you saw while reporting the book? Obviously, cars—especially in China—are a big part of that story.

Ted Conover: Being with the driving club I traveled with in China was like being a teenager again, with a group of middle-aged men acting like teenagers. It’s an infectious excitement and I enjoyed it. But always lurking in the background of this is my own experience of growing up in Denver in the nineteen-seventies, where the city had a terrible problem with smog. Wherever you came into the city from the Rockies, you would see this brown cloud that you would go into and know that you would soon be breathing this muck. The Chinese, they have to go home to the smog-shrouded city as well. And they know it causes grave pulmonary problems, it’s a public health crisis already, and locally, not to mention in a planetary sense, it is already a huge problem. Do they know that? Yes. Will it be some time before their concerns are able to moderate their exuberance over driving and building roads? I think it will. And I’m really sorry about that because it would be better for all of us if it were today and they were more worried about cutting the carbon footprint. But they’ve got lots of mass transit, they’re experimenting with alternative fuels, they have a far smaller carbon footprint per person than we do, and they make half of the stuff we use. This tape recorder, for example, this laptop, my laptop, my iPhone, they make it all. So it’s hard to blame them for making an environmental mess along the way. When you are there you feel your ability to criticize is limited by our enjoyment of the things they make.

Guernica: Women don’t play a very prominent role in your book. Could you address that.

Ted Conover: One critic said, “Where are Thelma and Louise, where’s Nancy Drew?” Well, those are characters in fiction. Of course, there are women—in the Peru chapter, for example, there was the school teacher forced to ride the truck home because the price of airfare had gone up and she couldn’t afford the price of a return flight—so she’s riding in this truck, trying to keep clean in this filthy environment. Or in East Africa: the women you meet if you were to take a truck across the continent [as I did], it would be women who work at lodgings and restaurants. I talk about sex workers in that chapter because [many] of them happen to do that and it is tragic and it is a concern to people around the world because of what it wrought in the last thirty years [AIDS]. And so I wish I had run into, as I said, a Thelma and Louise. I was looking for them. But I did not find them. I don’t think it’s my shortcoming. I think they weren’t there.

I want to have a serious conversation with somebody, which means I want them to admit it’s not black and white.

Guernica: In a talk you gave recently you said that you thought anyone doing writing on undocumented immigrants should cross the border, like you did several times in the process of writing Coyotes. But obviously most people who write about immigrants don’t do that.

Ted Conover: I didn’t mean to imply that anyone who wishes to write about that subject should cross the border, just that if you aspire to the kind of understanding that comes from immersion and really participating in peoples’ lives for a while and you’re thinking of writing about that story, then that’s a big part of the story for immigrants—crossing the border. I think from the perspective of outsiders it’s the main event that marks the passage they make. That’s what I meant. There’s another book, Crossing Over, by Ruben Martinez, that makes Coyotes seem like a book written in a more innocent age when a larger proportion of migrants were still headed for agricultural work and the world of Ahuacatlán that I wrote about was not as dark a place as the village Martinez wrote about. Or else the people he hung out with are in a darker frame of mind than my guys. But he did not cross the border. The border crossing is still the symbolic passage that is the root of the controversy, and as a writer, I want to do absolutely everything I can to bring a reader into the story and make the story complete for them.

Guernica: That sort of immersion—whether it’s with Mexican immigrants or Palestinians and Israeli soliders—seems to make punditry or the sort of easy truths of pundits difficult to swallow. It’s a much messier, more complicated picture.

Ted Conover: The kneejerk objection to undocumented immigration is that it’s illegal. It’s breaking the law, end of conversation, end of mental process. And, you know, it’s a valid point. But it’s one of many valid points regarding the phenomenon. Punditry often seems to be the art of distilling the valid points into a rapid-fire series of superficial arguments, rather than engaging with the complexity of the issue. And so I guess sometimes I look at what I do as a corrective to punditry. I want to have a serious conversation with somebody, which means I want them to admit it’s not black and white. And to arrive at an informed opinion you first have to acknowledge the many nuances of the debate. So that, I think, is a promise of the participatory approach—that you can see things from both sides. And it shouldn’t prevent you from arriving at a conclusion. What it will do is allow you to have a better-informed one. It will allow you to keep you from, well, sounding like a pundit.

Everywhere I traveled, I ran into people itching to be somewhere else and most often it’s people hoping to improve their station in life, to find a job, to find a better place for their family, whether in Peru, or Zanskar, or East Africa.

Guernica: You said earlier how roads are about “the possibility of something transformative that doesn’t always work out in the way we expect; the inadequacy of our own plans, the fallibility of our intentions.” Are there any examples of failed intentions you saw on your travels?

Ted Conover: One of the most baldly failed examples of roads is the highway from Kandahar to Kabul in Afghanistan. On inauguration day, U.S. officials had to fly in because the road was too dangerous. So right there you have someone’s fragment of what a good idea might have been, but then the political reality makes it seem laughable.

Another example in New York: I benefit daily from the Henry Hudson Parkway, which was one of Robert Moses’s iron-fisted infrastructure projects that transformed New York City. I benefit from it several times a week, but I’d say I benefit equally as much from the fact that I can walk across Washington Square Park, which I wouldn’t be able to do in any similar way if his plan to put a road right through there hadn’t been stopped by Jane Jacobs and other community activists. He’s the big exemplar of road building unhindered by community concerns, by local concerns. But if Moses’s career was a symbol of our ambivalence [about democratic planning versus authoritarian planning], I think now, on a global scale, it’s a bit more democratic. I think, that, in the West at least, the era of despotic planners who wield the power to transform on the level of Moses is finished.

Guernica: And what has it been replaced with, from what you’ve seen?

Ted Conover: Something more technocratic, perhaps. More people with advanced degrees and much less political clout. I lived for two years in Aspen and it’s a very liveable place because of the planning. Things still get built and it’s a necessarily and—I think—appropriately complicated process, to build things that will change everyone’s lives. I think we’ve made progress in that way.

Guernica: In Routes you travel to this little village—Zanskar, India—where the only road in and out in wintertime is a frozen river, and you write how you saw the same Avril Lavigne poster hanging in one of the kid’s bedrooms in that village that your daughter had in her bedroom in New York. This made me think about how so much of the mythology of roads is an American myth, and comes from people like Whitman, or Kerouac, or contemporary pop culture like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Mad Max, all of which you reference in your book. To what extent did you find that there’s this shared road culture across the globe? Or shared similar perceptions?

Ted Conover: Yeah, I do think that a lot of the road mythos we grew up with is uniquely American, this idea of a common gathering, of a gathering place for the citizen, like the road in Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”—a place to meet your fellow citizen no matter his or her station in life. The road is a democratic space, a town square practically, in a country that doesn’t have many town squares. And then moving ahead, the road, if driven upon properly, is a route to transcendence and ecstasy. But again, an experience of democracy, of being out there with everybody and anybody.

I think what you can say about roads universally is that everywhere I traveled, I ran into people itching to be somewhere else and most often it’s people hoping to improve their station in life, to find a job, to find a better place for their family, whether in Peru, or Zanskar, or East Africa. I think it’s a fundamental human drive to be able to try something somewhere else. It lets that drive manifest. And beyond that, I guess it might be a human universal that roads are both a path to opportunity and a way bad things can arrive. I mean, there’s fear of roads, there’s fear of strangers, of the implied obligations of having neighbors we don’t know. Maybe those are the Mexicans a mile down the road who can’t afford their healthcare and, well, now do we have to help them get it because they’re our neighbors? If they weren’t our neighbors it wouldn’t be a question. If our villages were separate, we wouldn’t have those ethical claims on us. But the road in a way extends this web we’ve built of mutual obligation.

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Photo by Erica Lansner.

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