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 with an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of tramp trains, Conover made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures and then writing about his experiences with sympathy and insight. In his books, he chronicled traveling with undocumented immigrants as they crossed the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a corrections officer at a maximum-security prison (“Newjack,” 2000). The sparsely inhabited 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 rugged but riveting new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, is just as loud in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and criss-crossed by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley seems to be the ideal Ted Conover assignment.

In the 1970s, developers carved up an area of ​​dry, mostly uninhabited prairie into tens of thousands of five-acre lots and put them up for sale for less than $2,000 apiece. They used deceptively beautiful photos of the nearby mountains as bait, and their marks were people with little money who often bought the dreamy lots sight unseen. Other than the grading of some roads, which the developers do not have 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 make for a comfortable life on the prairie, abandoned their lots in droves. On a 2017 visit, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loosely-knit community of perhaps 1,000 people eking out a living, often from growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig in and commute between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. He initially parked a used camper on a lot owned by the Grubers, a friendly couple who shared a garage with their five young daughters, several dogs, a baby goat and a cockatoo. But full immersion required him to have “skin in the game” as well, and eventually Conover bought his own $15,000 sprawling sage and rattlesnakes, upon which sat a dilapidated motor home with the deceased owner’s dentures, a 6-year-old carton of buttermilk and a loaded Derringer. “I felt good,” he writes about 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 disturbing landscape

Notice what he did. He began to gain 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 your vehicle, the person you are visiting may not pull a gun. The bulk of the book consists of discursive anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “The restless and the fugitive; the idle and the addicted; and the generally disaffected, the done-what-we-supposed-to-do crowd. People who felt chewed up and spit out, turned away from and sometimes against institutions in which they had been involved all their lives.”

For example, Paul came here for the cheap land, 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 introduced Conover to Zahra, a Black Midwesterner who had 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 “bedwenches” of White men. When the settlement turned out to be more like a harem – and the harem’s shelter a roofless plywood box – Zahra fled. (She eventually married a White man from a local farming 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 loose a few screws.” People in trouble with the law abounded. Conover initially warmed to Ken, “a mustachioed man in his late sixties who seemed intelligent, outgoing, and resourceful,” but who apparently had a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and running puppy mills. Then there was Don, an elderly minister who came across as “humble, polite, self-effacing” 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”. He is wonderfully open to people’s understanding of themselves, even when he sees the world very differently. He listens patiently to far-fetched outbursts and crackpot theories, registers skepticism, but never allows disagreements about politics or lifestyle to 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 might see this lack of analysis as a problem with “Cheap Land Colorado,” and Conover invites the criticism to some extent. He suggests early on that he was drawn to the prairie to answer big questions after the election of Donald Trump: “The American landscape was changing in ways that I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places were an important part of it,” he wrote. “Just as the object is defined by its boundaries…so society is defined by the people on the edge. Their ‘outsiderness’ helps define the mainstream.”

If understanding recent political shifts and the American mainstream was his goal, Conover fails spectacularly. But was that really his goal? Remove a few grand mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost—and nothing seems missing. With his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover conjures a vivid, mysterious subculture populated by men and women with compelling stories to tell. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to take a drive through a disturbing, seductive landscape with a candid 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-Gridders at America’s Edge

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