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 an innocent symbol, whether symbolic or impaled with barbed wire and supported by an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 account of hobo-ridden train hopping, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impossible groups, then writing with compassion and insight about his experiences. In his books he chronicles accompanying undocumented immigrants as they cross the border from Mexico (“Coyotes,” 1987) and working as a correctional officer in a maximum security prison (“Newjack,” 2000). The densely populated area of ​​southern Colorado might seem like an easy game for an author who has patrolled the Sing Sing, but the world Conover describes in his strange but entertaining new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge., everything is difficult in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and surrounded by tarantulas, its inhabitants isolated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley became Ted Conover’s ideal work.

In the 1970s, developers carved up arid, mostly uninhabited wilderness to create tens of thousands of five-acre tracts and sold them for less than $2,000 each. . They used deceptively beautiful photos of the nearby mountains as bait, and their targets were people with little money who often bought the dreamy place without seeing it. In addition to sorting other ways, what are the manufacturers I did not it was developing the country. Their new owners, not being able to dig wells, install water pipes and build houses that would make a comfortable life on the plain, abandoned their lots in large numbers. When he visited in 2017, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, tight-knit community of perhaps 1,000 people who made a living, mostly from growing marijuana.

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Conover decided to ditch, traveling between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. At first, he parked in a used camper on the property of the Grubers, a friendly couple who they share a mobile home with their five young daughters, several dogs, a baby goat and a cockatoo. But complete immersion required him to have “skin in the game,” and Conover eventually bought his own $15,000. a large patch of sage and rattlesnakes, where sat a loose mobile home with the last owner’s dentures, a 6-year-old carton of buttermilk and a full Derringer. “I felt happy,” he writes about his humble life in the desert. I felt free and alive. I loved the weather even when it was bad – maybe especially when it was bad, because it was very bad. I felt like I was 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 troubled country

Notice he did. He began to gain the trust of the local people by volunteering to work with an organization that transports firewood for free. He learned early that if you honk before getting out of your car, the person you are visiting strength not pulling a gun. Much of the book consists of random anecdotes about the people Conover met and often befriended: “The restless and the fugitives; unemployed and addicted; and the generally unaffected crowd, which is the crowd made up of what we had to do. Those people, who felt chewed up and spat on, turned their backs on and sometimes opposed the institutions they had been involved with all their lives.”

For example, Paul came here for cheap land, but also because he could not deal with the crowds. An avid cook with social anxiety disorder and severe antipathy, Paul greeted Conover with these words: “Nice to meet you, 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 breakaway group that was establishing a accommodation. One of the group’s goals: to prevent Black women from becoming “bed sites” for White men. When the shelter appeared to be for women – and the women’s shelter is a plywood box with no roof – Zahra ran away. (She ended up marrying a white man from a local farming family.) Conover met with conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who claimed that the Vatican was running the CIA , and young people like Nick, “a drug user with two screws loose.” People in legal trouble abounded. Conover began to warm to Ken, “a man in his late 60s who seemed intelligent, friendly and intelligent” but it turned out that he had and a long history of arrests for animal cruelty and operating puppy mills. Then there was Don, an older worker who was known as “humble, polite, well behaved” but was taken into custody for not registering as convicted sex offender. After he was released, Conover came to Don’s house to let him “say his piece,” but unfortunately, 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 “speak for themselves.” He is incredibly open to people’s interpretations, even if he sees the world in a very different way. He patiently listens to nonsense and speculation, registers doubts but never allows political or lifestyle disagreements to destroy his relationships or even define them.

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Indeed, Conover seems reluctant to judge or comment much on 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 to some extent invites criticism. Earlier, he suggests that he was drawn to the desert to answer the big questions after the election of Donald Trump: “The American sky was changing in ways that I needed to understand, and these places that the empty, the forgotten seemed to be an important part of that,” he writes. Just as a destination is defined by its borders…so a nation is defined by its outsiders. Their ‘outside’ helps to define the ordinary. ”

If his goal was to understand the current political and social changes in America, Conover fails spectacularly. But was that really his intention? Interpret a few mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost – and nothing seems missing. Through his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover weaves together a vivid, fascinating culture populated by men and women with great stories to tell. Reading “Cheap Land Colorado” is taking a drive through rugged, treacherous country with an open guide, windows down, snacks in the cooler, no GPS. It’s a journey I didn’t want to end.

Jennifer Reese is the author of “Make Bread, Buy Butter.” He lives in New York City and (on the grid) in rural Wyoming.

Off-Gridders on America’s Edge

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