Book review of Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge by Ted Conover

Opinion

Nothing inspires journalist Ted Conover like a no crime sign, whether real or attached to a barbed wire fence and backed by an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of hopping trains with hoboes, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures. , and then writes with compassion and insight about his experiences. In his books he recounts traveling with undocumented immigrants as they cross the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a corrections officer at a maximum security prison (“Newjack ,” 2000). The rarefied prairie of southern Colorado might seem pretty easy to a writer who once watched Sing Sing, but it’s the world Conover describes in his new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, he is all so hard in his own way. Isolated, impoverished and surrounded by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley seems to be Ted Conover’s favorite work.

In the 1970s, developers carved an area of ​​ancient, mostly uninhabited prairie into tens of thousands of five-acre lots and put them up for sale for less than $2,000 each. They used deceptively beautiful pictures of the nearby mountains as bait, and their targets were people without much money who often bought the dreamy lots that had never been seen. In addition to grading some roads, than the developers did not to develop the land. The new owners, unable to dig the wells, install the septic systems and build the houses that would make for a comfortable life on the prairie, left their lots in droves. Visiting in 2017, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, close-knit community of perhaps 1,000 people who had taken their own lives, often from growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig in, commuting between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. At first, he parked a used camper on a lot owned by the Grubers, a friendly couple who shared a mobile home with their five daughters, multiple dogs, a baby goat and a cockatoo. But full immersion required him to have “skin in the game” as well, and Conover eventually bought his own $15,000 An expanse of sage and rattlesnakes, upon which sat a flimsy mobile home containing the late owner’s teeth, a 6-year-old carton of buttermilk and a loaded Derringer. “I felt good,” he writes of his humble life on the prairie. “I felt free and alive. I liked the weather even when it was bad – maybe especially when it was bad, because it was so dramatic. I felt like taking notes on everything I saw and learned. When a place makes you feel that way, I think you should pay attention.”

A personal portrait of a troubled landscape

Note that he did. He began to earn the trust of the troubled locals by volunteering with an organization that delivered free fuel. He learned early if you respect before leaving your vehicle, the person you are visiting could don’t pull a gun. Most of the book is made up of infamous anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “The restless man and the fugitive; the vain and the slave; and the people who were generally disappointed, the people who did what we thought. People who, feeling chewed up and spit out, turned away from and sometimes against institutions they had been involved in all their lives.”

Paul, for example, came here for the free land, but also because he could not deal with a crowd. A charismatic amateur chef with social anxiety disorder and a passionate hatred of the wind, Paul greeted Conover with the words: “Nice to meet you, and yes, I’m gay!” Paul introduced Conover to Zahra, a Black Midwesterner who arrived with her six children, their belongings strapped to the roof of a rental car, to join a group of isolated Africans who were establishing a settlement. One of the group’s goals: to prevent black women from becoming “beds” for white men. When the settlement turned into more of a harem – and the harem’s shelter was a plywood box without a roof – Zahra fled. (She eventually married a white man from a local ranching family.) Conover encountered conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who said the Vatican ran the CIA, and young drifters like Nick, “a drug user with a screw-up or two loose.” Many people were in trouble with the law. At first Conover warmed to Ken, “a mustachioed man in his late sixties who seemed intelligent, outgoing and resourceful” but had a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and operating puppy mills. Then there was Don, a former pastor who came across as “humble, polite, self-effacing” but was arrested for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After his release, Conover dropped by Don’s house to let him “say his piece,” but alas, no one came to the door.

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One of Conover’s strengths as a writer is his willingness to let his subjects “say their piece.” He is surprisingly open to understanding people themselves, even when he sees the world very differently. He patiently listens to far-fetched rants and crackpot theories, registering skepticism but not allowing disagreements about politics or lifestyle to destroy or even define his relationships.

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Indeed, Conover seems unwilling to judge or theorize much about what he saw and heard in the San Luis Valley. Some may see this lack of analysis as a problem with “Cheap Land Colorado,” and Conover partly invites the criticism. Early on, he suggests he was drawn to the prairie to answer big questions after the election of Donald Trump: “The American shape was shifting in ways I needed to understand, and it seemed those empty, forgotten spaces are an important part of that,” he said. writing “Just as the object is defined by its boundaries … as society is defined by the people out on the edge. Their ‘outside’ helps define the mainstream.”

If understanding recent political trends and mainstream America is his goal, Conover fails spectacularly. But is that really his goal? Interpret a few grandiose mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost—and nothing seems missing. With his detailed and compassionate narration, Conover reveals a vibrant, mysterious subculture of men and women with interesting stories to tell. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to take a trip through a boring, treacherous landscape with an open guide, windows down, refrigerated snacks, no GPS. It’s a journey I didn’t want to end.

Jennifer Reese is the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.” She lives in New York City and (on the grid) in rural Wyoming.

Off-gridders at America’s Edge

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