Tracing our roads and the bumps along the way

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2010

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Roads bring us together. They shape where we live, and how we interact with each other. Choices are forks, decisions are paths. Robert Frost tells us this, and so does Bob Seger.

But “not all connections are good,’’ warns Ted Conover in “The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World, and the Way We Live Today.’’ “Connection means vulnerability.’’ Conover, whose previous books covered prison guards (“Newjack’’), illegal immigrants (“Coyotes’’) and railroad hobos (“Rolling Nowhere’’), examines how roads can bring treasure or trouble.

Each chapter is a separate voyage. In one, he traces mahogany’s origins to the remote forests of the Amazon, and wonders what will be lost if a proposed transoceanic highway links the Brazilian and Peruvian coasts. Other trips take him to East Africa, China, Nigeria, and India - places vulnerable to, or already overrun by, the effects of roads.

Conover’s approach is on-the-ground, reported travelogue. He rides with reckless Chinese drivers; he sleeps in the cabs of Peruvian truckers; he walks for days on ice in Ladakh, India. Run-ins with police, thieves, and border guards attest to Conover’s down-and-dirty dedication.

The best chapters, such as his adventures in the West Bank (balanced by spending time with Israeli soldiers on patrol and Palestinians crossing checkpoints), pose the hardest questions. When Conover travels to Ladakh, he finds a valley so remote that the only route out in wintertime is over a frozen river. A new road will open the valley up to year-round access. Some locals welcomed this. Others feared it: “As life sped up . . . people would have less time to pray. And strangers would arrive, people with different beliefs.’’

Short essays serve as transitional material between each major road trip. These cover memories of driving his dad’s Porsche in high school or a meditation on a pet toad brought from New Hampshire to Manhattan and back. Or they breeze through the history of road building - from ancient Rome to the 19th-century redesign of the Parisian urban grid.

Oddly, the shorter interludes can seem more complete than the longer travelogues. That’s because in the latter, Conover’s account often feels more like dusted-off journal entries than polished prose. We get laundry lists of food eaten, local attire observed, pit stops taken. The reader may be left wondering why these details matter. Some chapter sections peter out inexplicably, with no sense of foreshadowing or conclusion. Ideas are raised that aren’t given adequate attention. In his chapter about China’s embrace of the automobile, Conover describes great changes underfoot. The United States’ 46,000-mile Eisenhower Interstate System will be surpassed in 2035 if China’s planned 53,000 miles of expressway get built. “Lord only know knows where it all could be headed,’’ Conover meekly concludes.

In a chapter about the route from Mombasa, Kenya, to Kampala, Uganda, Conover tackles the tricky subject of how that road helped spread AIDS because of relations between truckers and prostitutes. Following up 11 years after his first trip, he rides shotgun once again with a truck driver named Obadiah, whom he wrote about in a 1993 New Yorker piece “Trucking Through the AIDS Belt.’’ The trip is eye-opening, but reported too anecdotally and narrowly. He might have visited with AIDS experts or cited studies that would help connect the dots.

Conover is a master of first-person, immersion journalism; his road trips are both entertaining and poignant. But in the end, the book doesn’t delve deeply enough into the subject matter promised by the subtitle. Rather, “The Routes of Man’’ may as well have been subtitled, “Remote places I have been, people I met, and the route I took to get there.’’

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms,’’ can be reached at

THE ROUTES OF MAN: How Roads Are Changing the World, and the Way We Live Today By Ted Conover

Knopf, 333 pp., illustrated, $26.95