There’s this moment in “The Blindside” that said it all about “The Routes of Man.” I don’t think this is a stretch; bear with me.
Okay, I’m not a huge fan of sentimental Hollywood flicks, but “The Blindside” got to me. In the movie, there’s a Thanksgiving scene when Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) zaps off a televised football game and insists the family join Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), who has taken a portion of the take-out dinner and is off eating, in the dining room, alone.
The family joins hands around a meal and gives thanks. It’s an utterly non-political, pure-humanity moment that speaks volumes about reaching out, literally, and touching someone. There’s something unrelentingly open in Tuohy’s spirit and, in fact, in the whole family’s approach to the interesting and—at first, anyway—enigmatic Oher. Later, Tuohy dresses-down the high school football coach for mis-playing Oher; the coach has only seen Oher’s bulk and nimble athleticism, he hasn’t stopped to find out how his mind works.
With keen-eyed Ted Conover as your guide, “Routes of Man” offers up a whole world-traveling volume of these kinds of moments—listening to other voices, watching other lives. This is the best kind of non-fiction writing: the ride-along.
The journeys vary—bus, ambulance, an over-the-road and well-worn Renault truck (with 450,000 miles on it) or a Nigerian danfo (shared minivan). But Conover’s purpose never changes. For 302 fascinating pages we get to hear, taste, smell and sense Peru, India, Kenya, Israel, China and Nigeria as he takes us from the beaten path looking at the idea of how roads change cultures and alter civilization. The idea is brilliant. The delivery is just as nifty.
If you’re not familiar with the Conover style, you’re missing out. The entire Conover shelf is worth reading. His is the kind of effortless writing and reporting that glides along. Think Sebastian Junger, John McPhee, or Paul Theroux (minus Theroux’s ego). You breathe in moments by Conover’s side and engage as he observes cultures and subcultures—often stories right under our eyes and down deep below the headlines. In “Newjack,” he spent a year as a Sing-Sing prison guard. In “Coyotes,” he travelled with immigrants north from Mexico to the southwestern United States. In “Rolling Nowhere,” he rode the rails with hoboes across the country.
In “The Routes of Man,” the utter humanity continues to shine brightly. Before we know it, we’re drinking tea in mud-brick houses in the Himalayas, we are paddling upriver toward remote mahogany camps in the Amazon, and we are bombing around the countryside with Chinese businessmen who crave the speed, power and freedom that only a car ride can offer. It’s the Peru trip that kicks things off as Conover wonders about what it takes to drape and trim a New York apartment in mahogany, so he goes looking for the connection and how the demand for the prized wood is changing travel and changing cultures thousands of miles away.
Each of Conover’s journeys is interspersed with mini-essays about roads and their meaning, impact and importance. These essays form a kind of glue to the longer global accounts.
But what goes along for each ride is Conover’s open spirit. Conover minimizes reporting on the work it takes to set up the adventures (one can only imagine) and jumps straight to the moment so we can spend more time inside the cultures being impacted. The style is first-person but Conover slips in and out of the stories with ease, always shining the spotlight on his subjects first. The people he meets along the way are the priority—truck driver Braulio Quispe in Peru; Tunzin Thongdol , Thinlay Angmo and others in the Himalayas; Obadiah Okello in Kenya; Omer (first name only) in Israel; Zhu Jihong in Beijing; and the trio of ambulance workers in Lagos, Florence Bada, Rasheedat Lawal and Nurudeen Soyoye. These lives emerge from the landscape as complete, three-dimensional human beings because Conover immerses himself—and us—in every detail of their existence.
The stories are at turns harrowing, funny, heartfelt, touching, terrifying (reckless speeding in China) or just plain tense (“area boys” in Lagos getting ready to attack your shared ride). Conover de-constructs border crossings in the maze around the West Bank, checks on the changes in how AIDS is perceived along truck routes in Africa, and takes us down a “road” that is for the time being a frozen (part of the year) remote Indian river.
The writing is uniformly rich and detailed, whether Conover is writing about the roads and the vehicles or the communities they lead to:
“The village was an intriguing medieval warren of mud-brick houses three and four stories high, some whitewashed, uneven and irregular. Roofs were flat and often piled high with hay and the dried animal dung that fueled stoves; tattered strings of prayer flags fluttered over many. The ground level was devoted to animals: sheltered spaces where goats and oxen and dzos (a yak-cow mix) could spend the winter. Every day they were walked to water. Not all the houses were stand-alone; many adjoined others, sharing walls (and probably some heat). There was no electricity except for a few small solar-powered, fluorescent fixtures distributed by the government.”
Go for a ride with Ted Conover and ponder changes wrought by the ever-increasing tentacles of intrusions. Roads, in essence, are vehicles for change. And for human connection.