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On The Roads: The Cartography Of Us

Feb 15, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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Sometimes the gods indulge their weakness for literary irony writ large. There I was, reading Ted Conover's new book about the roadways that are reshaping life in six locales around the world, just as the all the roads around my house began to vanish in a cosmic whiteout. It's been Snowpocalypse here in Washington, D.C. — a rare one-two punch of storms that have frozen the city to a standstill. Given that the only escape routes from my neighborhood are the rudimentary paths created by shovels, boots and paw prints, Conover's account seems to be the only "road trip" likely to be available to me until the spring thaw.

And that vivid armchair travel aspect of Conover's book is undeniably a great part of its appeal. His book is called The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. The mildly clever but phallocentric title is telling: This is definitely a Boy Book. If you sign on for the ride here, you enter a road warrior universe that is pretty much all male. In traditional extreme adventure tale fashion (think The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air), Conover tests his endurance by bouncing along atop fuel tankers through the Peruvian rainforest and in the cabs of semi trucks across Kenya. He hikes a frozen river in the Himalayas; braves roadside checkpoints on the West Bank; and, in Lagos, Nigeria, rides shotgun with an ambulance crew through the blasted overpasses of what's projected to be the fastest-growing megacity on the planet.

Women are, at best, relegated to the passenger seat on Conover's trips. Danica Patrick, Thelma and Louise, even Nancy Drew in her immortal blue roadster — it's as though these path-breathing American women behind the wheel have left only the faintest imprints on high-testosterone highways elsewhere on the globe.

Beyond implicitly confirming that the freedom to burn fossil fuel — however risky the trip — is a feminist issue worth fighting for, there's a larger dimension to Conover's book. In striking detail, Conover thoughtfully explores how roads, especially in rapidly changing countries, are contested boundary lines where the demands of the environment, traditional cultures, educational opportunity, and industrial progress collide. Returning to Kenya, which he first visited as a reporter in 1992, Conover reassesses the toll that AIDS has taken on that country and reconsiders the theory that long-distance truckers, sleeping with prostitutes along the Kinshasa Highway and other heavily traveled routes, spread the disease between Central Africa and the continent's east coast. Conover is shaken to discover that out of the 12 young truckers he got to know on his first trip, six have died. "[I]f not for the links to the outside, the virus might have stayed put," Conover writes. "This is a cost of global connectivity: The same trucks that carry medicine in may carry all manner of germs out."

Not all the roads in Conover's book are strewn with desperate stories. The most comically eye-opening chapter here is devoted to China's love affair with cars. Conover joins up with one of the many "self-driving" clubs that have sprung up in Chinese cities and embarks on a seven-day road tour with a caravan of proud car owners who drive just for pleasure. Bedecked with club decals, the 11 vehicles zoom off down the highway, their drivers happily listening to CDs with titles like The Relax Music of Automobiles.

Looking back on that adventure, Conover concludes, "It is reminiscent of a fading romance in American life, this crush on the automobile. ... Lord only knows where it all could be headed — in terms of congestion and pollution ... it is hard not to predict a slow-motion, multicar pileup in China's future. But it felt unfair to raise those issues in the presence of [the self-driving club members]. They were out to have fun, the kind we've already had. Who are we to say they can't?"

Conover may be over-sympathetic to the siren call of the road, but in The Routes of Man he proves to be a discerning map reader of its global meanings and meanderings.

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