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 riding trains with bums, Conover has made a career out of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then writing sympathetically and insightfully about his experiences. In his books he recounted traveling with undocumented immigrants as they cross the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a prison 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 fascinating new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge.”, he is so tough in his own way. Isolated, impoverished, and riddled with tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, distrustful, and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be Ted Conover’s ideal destination.

In the 1970s, developers carved a region of barren, 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 deceptive photographs of nearby mountains as bait, and their targets were people without much money who often bought the dreamy-looking lots sight unseen. In addition to leveling some roads, what the developers no was to develop the land. The new owners, who could not afford to dig the wells, install the septic systems and build the houses that would allow for a comfortable life on the prairie, abandoned their lots en masse. During his 2017 visit, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loosely connected community of perhaps 1,000 people who made a living, often by growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig in, commuting between Colorado and his home in New York between 2017 and 2022. Initially, he parked a used motor home in a lot owned by the Grubers, an affable couple who shared a mobile home with their five young daughters. several dogs, a kid and a cockatoo. But full immersion required him to have “skin in the game” as well, and eventually Conover bought in his own $15,000. expanse of sages 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 feel good,” he writes of his humble life on the prairie. “I felt free and alive. I liked the weather even though it was bad, maybe especially when it was bad, because it was so dramatic. I wanted to take notes on everything I saw and learned. When a place makes you feel that way, I think you should lend it attention”.

A personal portrait of a troubling landscape

Pay attention what he did. He set out to win the trust of the prickly neighbors by volunteering with an organization that delivered free firewood. He learned early that if you honk your horn before getting out of your vehicle, the person you are visiting could do not draw a weapon. The bulk of the book is made up of discursive anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “The restless and the fugitive; the idle and the addicted; and generally unhappy, the multitude of facts with which we had to do. People who, feeling chewed up and spat out, turned away from and sometimes against 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 amateur 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 strapped to the 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 girls” 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 loose screws.” People in trouble with the law abounded. Conover initially took a liking to Ken, “a moustachioed man in his sixties who seemed smart, outgoing, and resourceful,” but who turned out to have a long arrest history for animal cruelty and operating puppy mills. Then there was Don, an elderly minister who seemed “humble, polite and unassuming” 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 that he is willing to let his subjects “have their say.” It is wonderfully open to people’s understanding of themselves, even when they see the world very differently. He patiently listens to rants and crackpot theories, registering skepticism but never letting disagreements over politics or lifestyle destroy or even define their relationships.

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

If his goal was to understand recent political changes and the American mainstream, Conover fails spectacularly. But was that really his goal? Throw in some grand mission statements from this eye-opening book and nothing is missed, and nothing seems to be missing. With 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 ride through a haunting and beguiling landscape with an open-hearted guide, windows down, snacks in the fridge and no GPS. It’s a ride 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 (on the grill) in rural Wyoming.

Off-Gridders at America’s Edge

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