A reader on my Facebook page, on hearing of my new book, asked simply, “Where did you get the idea?” I thought about trying to answer, but the space for replying is pretty small. But I give it a stab in the intro to The Routes of Man.
I’d say it started with bicycle riding, and the wish to get away from home and see the world when I was still pre-drivers license. Friends and I in Colorado started taking overnight tours into the mountains. The summer I was 15, my parents let me and a buddy do a three-week tour through New England. Later I rode my bike across the country, the summer before college. (An account of the last hour of that trip, in Bicycling, is the first thing I ever published for money. It’s called “Finishing.“)
I left college a couple of times before finishing, once to ride the rails with hoboes. I try to explain why in the Introduction to Routes. While I have benefited enormously from formal education, I write, it has never seemed to me sufficient; it has repeatedly sparked in me a visceral longing for the lessons of life outside.
My book Rolling Nowhere is about that, as is Coyotes. But Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing most emphatically is not. It’s about confinement. I tell about how one night I got to leave the prison on a transportation detail – another officer and I drove a gang member who’d been involved in fights to another prison upstate. En route, we stopped at a service area for fast food. He watched the big trucks go by as we ate. “That’s what I want to do when my bid’s done,” he said. “Drive one of those things.”
I felt exactly the same way.
Fast-forward a couple of years to a phone call from an editor at National Geographic. Would I be interested in writing about a new highway that would link the east and west coasts of South America, she asked? I wanted to say I’d love to – but some part of me was worried about how to write such a piece. I’d never written about civil engineering; I didn’t want to get involved in something dry. Then I thought, wait—I could write about the people on this road, the people near it, the lives (including those of plants and animals) of those affected. So the next day I called her back and said yes.
When I got back from Peru I had dinner with a writer friend, George Packer. I told him about the South America trip. “You’ve written a lot about roads,” he observed. “I have?” I said. I could think of two other pieces. He could think of four. “I think you should write a book about roads,” he said. We talked some more. It would be about specific roads but it would be about all roads, about the nature of roads. It would involve travel and it would involve reading and thinking.
I got started. Then, not long ago, I finished.