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

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Nothing motivates journalist Ted Conover like a no trespassing sign, whether figurative or nailed to a barbed wire fence and backed up by an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of train-hopping with hobos, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then writing with sympathy and insight about his experiences. In his books he has chronicled traveling with undocumented immigrants as 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 easy meat for a writer who once patrolled Sing Sing, but it’s the world Conover describes in his shaky but gripping new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, Each bite is so harsh in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and overrun by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and heavily armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be Ted Conover’s ideal assignment.

In the 1970s, developers carved up an area of ​​mostly 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 pretty photographs of the surrounding mountains as bait, and their marks were people without much money who often bought the dreamy-looking lots without seeing them. Apart from rating some ways, what the developers he didn’t was to develop the land. As the new owners could not afford to dig the wells, install the septic systems and build the houses that would make for a comfortable life on the prairie, they left their lots in droves. Visiting in 2017, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loosely-knit community of perhaps 1,000 people who made a living, often from growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig in, commuting between Colorado and his New York City home from 2017 to 2022. Initially, he parked a used camper on a lot owned by the Grubers, a kind couple who shared a home mobile with their five young daughters, multiple dogs, a baby goat and a cockatoo. But full immersion meant he too had “skin in the game,” and Conover eventually bought his own $15,000. an expanse of sage and rattlesnakes, on which stood a decrepit mobile home containing the late owner’s dentures, 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

Pay attention he did. He set out to gain the trust of the picky locals by volunteering with an organization that delivered firewood for free. He learned early that if you honk before you leave your vehicle, the person you are visiting strength not pull a gun. Most of the book contains verbose anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “The restless and the fugitive; the idle and the captive; and the disaffected in general, the do-with-what-were-not-supposed-to-do crowd. People who, feeling chewed up and spit out, turned away from and sometimes against organizations they had been involved with all their lives.”

Paul, for example, came here for the cheap country, but also because he couldn’t deal with crowds. A charismatic amateur chef with social anxiety disorder and a passionate hatred of wind, Paul greeted Conover with the words: “Nice to meet you, and yes, I’m gay!” Paul Conover introduced Zahra, a black midwesterner who arrived with her six children, their belongings strapped to the top of a rental car, to join an African separatist group that was establishing a settlement. One of the group’s aims: to prevent Black women from becoming the “welshes” of White men. When the settlement turned more like a harem – and the shelter of the harem was a plywood box without a roof – Zahra fled. (She eventually married 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.” Many people were in trouble with the law. Conover initially warmed to Ken, “a mustachioed man in his late sixties who seemed intelligent, outgoing and resourceful” but turned out to have a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and operating puppy mills. Then there was Don, an elderly pastor who came across as “humble, polite, self-effacing” but was taken into custody for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After he was released, 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 that he is willing to let his subjects “tell their story.” He is surprisingly open to people’s understanding of themselves, even when he sees the world very differently. He listens patiently to far-fetched rants and smart theories, expressing skepticism but never letting disagreements over politics or lifestyle destroy or even define his 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 may see this lack of analysis as a problem with “Cheap Land Colorado,” and Conover to some extent invites the criticism. Early on, he suggests he was drawn to the prairie to answer big questions following the election of Donald Trump: “The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places were seems to be an important part of that,” he said. writes. “Just as the object is defined by its boundaries … so is society defined by the people who are out on the edge. Their ‘outsider’ helps define the mainstream.”

If his goal was to understand recent political changes and mainstream America, Conover fails spectacularly. But was that really his goal? Just a few grand mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost – and it seems nothing is lost. With his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover creates a living, mysterious subculture populated by men and women with interesting stories to tell. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to take a trip through an unsettling, magical landscape with an open-hearted guide, windows down, snacks in the cooler, no GPS. It’s a ride 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 the Griders at America’s Edge

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