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


Nothing motivates journalist Ted Conover like no crime, whether for example or being nailed to a barricaded fence and back with an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of hopping trains with hoboes, Conover worked on immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then writing with compassion and insight about his knowledge. In his book he recounts traveling with undocumented immigrants as they cross the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a prison doctor with maximum security (“Newjack,” 2000). The plains of southern Colorado may seem like an easy gig for a writer who once patrolled Sing Sing, but the world Conover describes in his new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge., is every bit as serious in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and overrun by tarantulas, its human inhabitants are alien, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be the best Ted Conover work.

In the 1970s, developers carved up tracts of dry, mostly uninhabited land for thousands of five-acre lots and put them up for sale for less than $2,000 apiece. They use the beautiful fake pictures of the nearby mountains as food, and their scores are people who don’t have a lot of money who often buy dreams to see many things that are not seen. Other than grading some way, what the producers can’t actually improved the land. The new owners, unable to afford to dig wells, install septic systems and build houses that will make life comfortable on the land, abandon their lot in the drive. Visiting in 2017, Conover saw car crashes, herds of feral horses and a diverse, tight-knit community of perhaps 1,000 people who have scraped together a living, mostly by grow marijuana.

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Conover decided to dig in, traveling between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. At the beginning, he parked a campsite for several owners from the Grubers, a couple with able to share a mobile home with their five young daughters, several dogs, goats and a cockatoo. But total immersion required him too to have “skin in the game,” and eventually Conover bought himself $15,000. The spread of sage and rattlesnakes, while sitting in a mobile home with the late owner’s dentures, a six-year-old box of buttermilk and a loaded Derringer. “I feel good,” he wrote about his humble life on the land. “I feel free and alive. I love the weather even when it’s bad – maybe especially when it’s not good, because it’s so dangerous. I feel like writing about everything I see and learn. When a place makes you feel that way, I think you should take care. “

A personal portrait of a troubled landscape

Listen carefully to what he does. He plans on winning the trust of the prickly villagers by volunteering with an organization that delivers firewood. He learned early that if you honk before you get out of your car, the person you are visiting have the ability not draw gun. Most of the book consists of descriptions of the people Conover met and often befriended: “People are restless and run away; the weak and the addicted; and the often disgruntled, do-with-what-we-were-supposed-to-do crowd. People who, feeling chewed up and spit out, have turned away from and sometimes against the organizations they have been involved with all their lives. “

For example, Paul came here for the cheap land, but also because he couldn’t deal with the crowd. An avid cook with social anxiety and an air of hatred, Paul greeted Conover with the words: “Nice to meet you, and yes, I’m gay!” Paul introduced Conover to Zahra, a Black Midwesterner who arrived with her six children, their belongings strapped to the top of a rental car, to join a group of African separatists who had established a settlement. One of the group’s goals: to prevent Black women from being the “beds” of White men. When the settlement turned into more than a harem – and the harem’s shelter was a box without plywood – Zahra ran. (She married a white man from a local ranching family.) Conover encountered conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who claimed the Vatican ran the CIA, and young drifters like Nick, “a drug user with a few screws loose.” There are a lot of people who have problems with the law. Conover begins to warm to Ken, “a mustached man in his late sixties who seems smart, outgoing and capable” but who turns out to have a long history of being arrested for animal cruelty and working puppy mills. Then there’s Don, the senior manager who comes across as “humble, polite, self-effacing” but is taken into custody for failing to register as a sex offender. have sex After his release, Conover dropped by Don’s house to “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 themselves.” He is incredibly open to people’s understanding of themselves, even though he sees the world very differently. He patiently listens to the nonsense and opinions of the crackpot, registers the scandal but does not allow disagreements about politics or lifestyle to affect his relationship or can even define them.

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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 the lack of analysis as the problem with “Cheap Land Colorado,” and Conover to some degree invited criticism. Early on, he revealed that he was drawn to the land to answer the big question after the election of Donald Trump: “The United States has changed in a way that I want to understand, and the places empty, forgotten like the essence of that,” he wrote. “Just as an object is defined by its boundaries…so society is defined by the people outside the edges. They ‘outside’ help to define the essence.”

If understanding recent political changes and America’s fundamentals is his goal, Conover has failed miserably. But is it really a goal? Excise a few gospel passages from the eye-opening book, and nothing is lost – and nothing seems to be lost. With his powerful and compassionate message, Conover conjures a vivid, mysterious subculture populated by men and women with riveting stories to tell. To read “Cheap Land Colorado” is to drive through the stress, make the area beautiful with open minded advice, windows down, snacks in the cold, no GPS. It’s a ride I don’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 map) in rural Wyoming.

Off-Gridders at America’s Edge

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