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


Nothing motivates journalist Ted Conover like a no-trespassing sign, painted or nailed to barbed wire and secured with an AK-47. Beginning with 1984’s Nowhere to Turn, Conover began immersing himself in impenetrable subcultures, writing about his experiences with compassion and insight, beginning with his 1984 record about hopping trains. In his books, he has written about traveling with undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a corrections officer in a maximum security prison (“Newjack,” 2000). The sparsely populated wilderness of southern Colorado might seem like an easy gig for a writer who once patrolled the Sing Sing, but Conover describes it in his new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-the-Grid Places on America’s Edge.,» tough in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and overrun by tarantulas, its people alienated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley proved to be the perfect assignment for Ted Conover.

In the 1970s, developers carved up the dry, largely uninhabited prairie into tens of thousands of five-acre lots, selling them for less than $2,000 each. They used deceptively beautiful photos of nearby mountains as bait, and their subjects were people without a lot of money who often bought dreamy-looking places that were nowhere to be seen. In addition to evaluating some lines, what are the developers did not happen there was land development. The new owners, who could not afford to dig wells, install septic systems, and build houses that would allow for a comfortable life in the field, left the land. Conover, who visited in 2017, found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loosely-knit community of 1,000 people who mostly make a living growing marijuana.

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Conover has decided to commute between his home in Colorado and New York between 2017 and 2022. At first, he put the old woman on land owned by the Grubers, who shared a mobile home with their five young daughters. several dogs, a baby goat and a cockatoo. But to take the full plunge, he also needed “skin in the game,” and eventually Conover bought in with his $15,000. an expanse of sage and rattlesnakes, topped by a dilapidated mobile home with the late owner’s dentures, a 6-year-old carton of buttermilk, and a loaded Derringer. “I felt good,” he writes about his simple life in the field. “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 I could write down everything I saw. If a place makes you feel like that, I think you should pay attention.”

A personal portrait of a troubled landscape

Notice, he did. He volunteered for an organization that supplies free firewood and began to win the trust of the residents of the thorn. If you honk your horn before he gets out of the car, he knows you’re going maybe don’t draw a gun. The bulk of the book consists of discursive anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “Restless and fugitive; free and dependent; and those who were generally disaffected, what we should have done. People who felt that they had been chewed up and spit out, abandoned the institutions they had been associated with all their lives, and sometimes turned against them.

For example, Pavel came here for cheap land, but at the same time he could not fight with many people. A charismatic wannabe chef who hates social anxiety and the wind, Paul Conover: “Nice to meet you, yes, I’m gay!” he greeted. Paul introduced Conover to Zahra, a black woman from the Midwest who had come to join an African separatist group that was building a settlement with her six children and their belongings strapped into a rental car. One of the group’s goals is to prevent black women from becoming “bed boys” for white men. When the settlement turned into a harem, and the harem’s shelter a plywood box without a roof, Zahra ran away. (She married a white man from a local ranching family.) Conover met conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who claimed the CIA was run by the Vatican, and young drifters like Nick, “a drug user with a screw or two loose.” The number of people in trouble with the law has increased. Conover initially warmed to Ken, who turned out to be a man in his “sixties who seemed smart, bright and witty, but who had been incarcerated for a long time for animal cruelty and running puppy mills. Then there was Don, an elderly minister who seemed “humble, polite, self-effacing” but was arrested for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After his release, Conover went down to Don’s house to give him a chance to “have his say,” but alas, no one came to the door.

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One of Conover’s strengths as a writer is his willingness to “speak his mind” to his subjects. He is incredibly open to people’s understanding of him, even if he sees the world completely differently. He patiently listens to overblown theories, registers skepticism, but never allows disagreements over politics or lifestyle to mar 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 invites some criticism. Early on, he says he was drawn to the field to answer big questions after the election of Donald Trump: “The American skyline changed in ways that I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed to be an important part of that,” he said. writes. “Just as an object is defined by its boundaries…society is defined by the people outside it. Their “outside” helps define the mainstream.”

If understanding recent political changes and the American mainstream was his goal, Conover failed miserably. But was that his intention? Take a few big mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost—and nothing seems missing. With his detailed and sympathetic reporting, Conover imagines a vibrant, mysterious subculture inhabited by men and women. Reading Cheap Land Colorado is a trip through an open-minded guide, windows down, snacks in the cooler, no GPS, through a disturbing, alluring landscape. It was a ride I didn’t want to end.

Jennifer Reese – “Make bread, buy butter.” He lives in New York and (on the grid) in rural Wyoming.

Off-Gridders on the American Edge

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