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


Nothing excites journalist Ted Conover more than a no trespassing sign, be it figurative or one nailed to barbed wire and backed by an AK-47. Beginning with “Rolling Nowhere,” his 1984 tale of jumping a train with a homeless man, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly incomprehensible subcultures, then writing about his experiences with empathy and insight . In his book, he documented travels across the border from Mexico with undocumented immigrants (“Coyotes”, 1987) and as a corrections officer in a maximum security prison (“Newjack”, 2000).To a writer who once patrolled the Sing Sing, the sparsely populated prairie of southern Colorado seemed easy, but Conover describes the world in his fluffy but riveting new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Griders on America’s Edge., Equally harsh in its own way. Isolated, impoverished and traversed by tarantulas, and its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well-equipped, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be the ideal Ted Conover mission.

In the 1970s, developers divided an arid, uninhabited prairie into tens of thousands of 5-acre parcels and sold them for less than $2,000 each. They use pretty pictures of nearby mountains as bait, and they signify those who don’t have much money, often buying up unseen dreamy lots.In addition to grading some roads, developers No What is to be done is to develop the land. Unable to dig wells, install septic systems and build houses to live comfortably on the prairie, the new owners abandoned their land in droves. During a 2017 visit, Conover found scattered trailers, herds of wild horses and a diverse, loose-knit community of about 1,000 people who grow marijuana for a living.

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Conover decided to dig deeper, commuting between Colorado and his home in New York City between 2017 and 2022. He initially parked a used camper van on a piece of land owned by the Gruber family, an amiable couple who share a mobile home with their five young daughters, dogs, a baby goat and a Cockatoo.But full immersion required him to “get involved” too, and Conover ended up buying $15,000 himself A large patch of sage and rattlesnakes sits a dilapidated mobile home containing the late owner’s dentures, a 6-year-old box of buttermilk and a full Derringer. “I feel good,” he wrote of his humble life on the prairie. “I feel free and alive. I love the weather even when it’s bad — maybe especially when it’s bad because it’s so dramatic. I want to take a note of everything I see and learn. When a place makes you feel that way, I think you should pay attention.”

Personal portraits of disturbing landscapes

Notice what he did. He began earning the trust of locals by volunteering with organizations that provide free firewood.He knew early on that if you honk your horn before getting out of your car, the person you’re visiting possible Don’t draw a gun. Much of the book consists of rambling anecdotes about people Conover has met and often befriends: idle and addicted; and disgruntled people in general, and what we should be doing. Those who feel chewed and spit out have turned away from and sometimes against institutions they have been involved in their entire lives. “

For example, Paul came here for cheap land, but also because he couldn’t handle the crowds. Paul, a charismatic amateur chef with social anxiety disorder and a strong hatred of the wind, greets Knover, “Nice to meet you, yes, I’m gay!” Paul introduces Knover For Zahra, a black Midwesterner who came here with her six children, their belongings strapped to the top of a taxi, to join an African separatist group that is building settlements. One of the group’s goals is to prevent black women from becoming “bed girls” for white men. When the settlement became more like a harem — and the harem’s sanctuary was a plywood box without a roof — Zahra escaped. (She ended up marrying a white man from a local ranch family.) Conover met conspiracy theorists from rural Poland who claimed the Vatican ran the CIA, as well as young wanderers like Nick, “a man with a A couple of drug addicts with loose screws”. People who break the law abound. Conover was initially interested in Ken, “a bearded man in his sixties who seemed smart, outgoing, and resourceful”, but it turned out that he had been arrested for a long time for animal cruelty and running a puppy mill . Then there’s Don, an older pastor who came across as “humble, polite, and unassuming” but was detained for failing to register as a convicted sex offender. After his release, Conover visited Don’s house and asked him to “speak his mind”, but no one came.

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One of Conover’s strengths as a writer is his willingness to let his subjects “speak their work.” He’s very open to people’s understanding of himself, even if he sees the world in a very different way. He listens patiently to far-fetched rants and crazy theories, expresses skepticism, but never lets disagreements about politics or lifestyle derail his relationships, or even define them.

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In fact, Cornover seems reluctant to judge or theorize about what he saw in the San Luis Valley. Some might see this lack of analysis as a “Colorado cheap land” problem, Conover has drawn criticism to some extent. Early on, he suggests he was drawn to the prairie to answer big questions following the election of Donald Trump: “The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of that,” he wrote. “Just as an object is defined by its boundaries…society is defined by people on the fringes. Their ‘outsiders’ help define the mainstream.”

If understanding recent political shifts and the American mainstream is his goal, Conover has failed miserably. But is this really his purpose? Cut out some grand mission statements from this eye-opening book, and nothing is lost — and nothing seems to be lost. With his thorough and compassionate reporting, Conover evokes a vivid and mysterious subculture of men and women who tell compelling stories. Reading “Colorado Cheap Land” is like driving through a disturbing, stunning landscape with an open-minded guide, windows down, snacks in the fridge, and no GPS. This is a journey I don’t want to end.

Jennifer Frith is “make bread, buy butter. ” She lives in New York City and rural Wyoming (on the grid).

Off-Griders on the Edge of America

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