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

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Nothing motivates reporter Ted Conover like a no trespassing sign, whether figurative or nailed to a barbed wire fence and propped up with an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of hopping trains with oboes, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then writing sympathetically and insightfully about his experiences. In his books he has narrated the journeys with undocumented immigrants when they cross the border from Mexico (“Coyotes”, 1987) and working as a corrections officer in a maximum security prison (“Newjack”, 2000). The sparsely populated prairie of southern Colorado might seem like an easy gig for a writer who once patrolled Sing Sing, but the world Conover describes in his hairy but captivating new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge”., it’s just as hard in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and criss-crossed by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be Ted Conover’s ideal assignment.

In the 1970s, developers carved up a region of mostly uninhabited barren 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 photographs of nearby mountains as bait, and their targets were people without a lot of money who often bought the dreamy-looking lots sight unseen. Apart from the grading of some roads, what the developers he didn’t to do was to develop the land. The new owners, unable to afford to dig the wells, install the septic systems and build the houses that would allow a comfortable life on the prairie, abandoned their lots in droves. Visiting in 2017, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse and loosely connected community of perhaps 1,000 people who made a living, often by growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig, commuting between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. Initially, he parked a used RV in a lot owned by the Grubers, an affable couple who shared a mobile home with the their five young daughters. several dogs, a goat and a cockatoo. But the full immersion required him to have “skin in the game” as well, and eventually Conover bought his own $15,000 an expanse of sagebrush and rattlesnakes, upon which sat a decrepit mobile home containing the late owner’s dentures, a 6-year-old carton of butter, 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 hurt, maybe especially when it hurt, because it was so dramatic. I wanted to take notes of everything I saw and learned. When a place makes it feel that way, I think you should pay attention.”

A personal portrait of a disturbing landscape

Notice that he did. He set about gaining the trust of the prickly locals by volunteering with an organization that delivered free firewood. He learned early that if you honk before getting out of the vehicle, the person you are visiting I could don’t pull out a gun. The bulk of the book consists of discursive anecdotes about the people Conover met and befriended often: “The restless and the fugitive; the idle and the addicted; and generally unhappy people, people done with what we were supposed to do. People who, feeling chewed up and spat out, had turned away and sometimes against the institutions with which they had been involved all their lives.”

Paul, for example, came here for the cheap land, but also because he couldn’t deal with the crowds. A charismatic hobby cook 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 woman from the Midwest who arrived with her six children, their belongings on top of a rental car, to join an African separatist group that was establishing a settlement . One of the group’s goals: to prevent black women from becoming the “bed ladies” of white men. When the settlement turned out to be more like a harem, and the harem’s shelter a plywood box without a roof, Zahra fled. (She ended up marrying a white man from a local ranching family.) Conover met conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who claimed the Vatican ran the CIA, and young drifters like Nick, “a drug user with a couple of screws loose.” There were plenty of people in trouble with the law. Conover was initially excited about Ken, “a mustachioed man in his sixties who seemed smart, outgoing and witty,” but who turned out to have a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and operating puppy mills . Then there was Don, an older minister who appeared “humble, polite and unobtrusive” but was arrested for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After his release, Conover stopped 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 “speak for their work.” It is wonderfully open to people’s understanding of themselves, even when they see the world in a very different way. He patiently listens to rants and far-fetched theories, showing skepticism but never letting disagreements over politics or lifestyle destroy or define their relationships.

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Indeed, Conover seems reluctant to judge or theorize much about what he saw and heard in the San Luis Valley. Some might see this dearth of analysis as a problem with “Cheap Land Colorado.” and Conover to some extent invites criticism. Early on, he suggests that he was drawn to the prairie to answer big questions after the election of Donald Trump: “The American firmament was changing in a way that I had to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed a big part of that,” he said. write “Just as the object is defined by its borders…so is society defined by the people on the edge. Its ‘outsideness’ helps define the mainstream.”

If his goal was to understand recent political changes and the American mainstream, Conover fails spectacularly. But was this really his goal? Strip a few grand mission statements from this eye-opening book and nothing is missed, and nothing seems to be missing. Through his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover evokes a vivid and mysterious subculture populated by men and women with fascinating stories to tell. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to take a walk through a haunting and beguiling landscape with an open-hearted guide, windows down, snacks in the fridge, no GPS. It’s a journey I didn’t want to end.

Jennifer Reese is the author of “Make the bread, buy the butter.” He lives in New York City and (online) in rural Wyoming.

Off-Gridders at America’s Edge

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