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

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Nothing inspires journalist Ted Conover like a symbolic or no-trespassing sign nailed to a barbed-wire fence and backed up with an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his account of hopping a train with the Hoboes in 1984, Conover immersed himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then made a career of writing with compassion and insight about his experiences. His books describe accompanying 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 sparsely populated prairies of southern Colorado once seemed like an easy gig for a zinging patrol writer, as Loka Conover describes in his shaggy but fascinating new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Griders at America’s Edge., Each bit is tough in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and traversed by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley becomes the ideal Ted Conover assignment.

In the 1970s, developers carved up the arid, largely uninhabited area into tens of thousands of five-acre lots and put them up for sale for less than $2,000. They used deceptively beautiful photos of the nearby mountains as bait, and their targets were often penniless people who bought dreamy pieces. Other than some road rating, what are the developers did not Land was developed to do. Unable to dig wells, install septic systems, and build comfortable homes on the prairie, the new owners abandoned their plots in droves. When Conover visited in 2017, he found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loosely-knit community of 1,000 people who mostly scratched out a living by growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to commute between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. At first, he parked a used camper on land owned by the Grubers, a friendly couple who shared a mobile home with their five young daughters. A couple of dogs, a kid and a chicken. But full immersion required him to have “skin in the game,” too, and Conover eventually bought his own $15,000. A large number of adders and rattlesnakes sat in a dilapidated mobile home, which contained the late owner’s teeth, a 6-year-old carton of buttermilk, and a loaded derringer. “I felt good,” he writes of his modest life on the prairie. “I felt free and alive. I liked it even when the weather was bad – sometimes when it was bad, because it was so dramatic. I wanted to write down 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

Focus on what he did. He worked to gain the trust of the local people by volunteering with an organization that distributed free firewood. If you honk before you get out of your vehicle, he already knows you’re coming may be Don’t wear a gun. Much of the book consists of discursive anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “Restless and escapist; Passives and addicts; And the generally unhappy, done-with-what-we-had-to crowd. Those who feel chewed up and spit out, who have left and sometimes gone against the institutions they have been associated with all their lives. “

For example, Paul came here not only for the cheap land, but because he can’t deal with the crowd. “Nice to meet you, yes, I’m gay!” greeted Paul Conover, an apprentice with social anxiety. Paul introduces Conover to Sahara, a black Midwesterner who arrives with her six children, bundles their belongings into the top of a rental car, and joins a group of African separatists establishing a settlement. One of the group’s goals: to prevent black women from becoming white men’s “beds.” When the settlement became like a harem—and the harem’s shelter was a plywood box without a roof—Sahara fled. (She eventually married a white man from a local farming family.) Conover encountered conspiracy theorists in rural Poland who claimed the Vatican ran the CIA, and young drifters like Nick, drug users who had “loosen a few screws.” There are plenty of people in trouble with the law. Conover initially warmed to Ken, a “mustachioed man in his late sixties who seemed intelligent, outgoing and resourceful,” but who had a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and running puppy mills. Then there was Don, an elderly minister who appeared to be “humble, decent, self-respecting,” but was arrested for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After he was released, Connor 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 “tell their part.” He is amazingly open to people understanding him, even when he sees the world very differently. He patiently listens to far-fetched rants and crackpot theories, registers skepticism, but doesn’t let disagreements about politics or lifestyle 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 invites criticism to some degree. He suggests that after the election of Donald Trump, he was drawn to the prairie to answer larger questions: “The American skyline was shifting in a way that I wanted to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of it,” he writes. “Just as the object is defined by its boundaries … society is defined by the people on the edges. Their ‘outsiderness’ helps define the mainstream.

If his goal was to understand recent political shifts and the American mainstream, Conover fails spectacularly. But is that really his purpose? Excerpt from this eye-opening book some massive mission statements, nothing is missing—and nothing seems to be missing. With his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover offers fascinating stories to tell of a vibrant, mysterious subculture populated by both men and women. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to drive through an open-hearted, windows-down, snacks-in-the-cooler, GPS-less, tumultuous landscape. It was a ride I didn’t want to end.

Jennifer Rees Author “Make bread, buy butter.” She lives in New York City and (on the grid) in rural Wyoming.

Off-gridders on America’s Edge

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