October 30, 2022

SunLit Interview

Kevin Simpson of The Colorado Sun spoke with Ted Conover about those who choose to live off-the-grid in the San Luis Valley. Original here.

“Cheap Land Colorado”: Choosing life off the grid in the San Luis Valley

Author Ted Conover explains why understanding the isolated subculture of the Valley’s “flats” matters in a time of political extremes

Ted Conover is the author of seven books, including “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes,” “Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, “and most recently “Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep.” A graduate of the Denver Public Schools, he is also professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Ted Conover spoke with SunLit just ahead of the Nov. 1 release of his new book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge,” in which — through his trademark immersive style — he spent years living off the grid in the vast, sparsely populated flats of the San Luis Valley. He will discuss his book with U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper at a launch event Tuesday at Denver’s Tattered Cover.

SunLit: What factors converged to suggest that there was an important story to be told about the people who live in the “flats” of the San Luis Valley? And why is the story of the people living reclusive lives in these wide-open spaces important? 

Ted Conover: When Donald Trump was making his march toward the White House, I happened to spend a few days exploring remote parts of South Park. I’d gone there frequently starting in high school with a friend whose family had an A-frame in the woods near Fairplay. But I’d never seen the wide-open area around Hartsel and south of there.

I drove for the first time through the huge grid of dirt roads created by developers in the 70s, for subdivisions that never took off. And I saw how a few people were living out there, in forlorn-looking trailers on the prairie. Who would want to do that, I wondered, and why?

Not long after that my sister, who at the time worked for the Gates Family Foundation in Denver, sent me photos from an even larger area of failed subdivisions in the San Luis Valley. An Alamosa-based group called La Puente was doing outreach among the off-gridders down there—there seemed to be a lot—who were at risk of becoming homeless as the weather turned cold. Something told me this kind of extremity, in a time of political extremity, was important to learn more about.

SunLit: Does life among your subjects have particular relevance to the challenges that face our society in a larger context at this moment in time?

Conover: I believe it does. I think one way to assess society is by looking at who we leave out. As I’ve gotten to know people in some of these remote places, I’ve come to see their isolation as a kind of metaphor for feelings of exclusion and disparagement that the MAGA movement taps into.

Like a lot of people in my circle, I was pretty oblivious about that until Trump got elected. So this project is a way of getting out of my silo and taking a fresh look at my country and my state. I also happen to really like spending time down there.

SunLit: One of the trademarks of your work is “immersion,” placing yourself within the story. How do you determine whether immersion will work as an approach to a book subject, and how did this experience differ from your previous projects? 

Conover: Sometimes journalism does not benefit from having the writer as part of the story. But with other subjects it works well. I’m best known for my book, “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” which I researched by becoming a New York state corrections officer without the knowledge of my superiors.

My passage through that system was, I think it’s fair to say, intrinsically interesting — it’s a story I couldn’t have gotten any other way. There are huge problems with America’s heavy reliance on incarceration. Putting myself in it gave me the authority to say something about it, and also brought some of that reality to readers who might not otherwise be willing to go there.

Immersion works especially well if I’m exploring a subculture, and I suspected that off-gridders in the San Luis Valley qualified as one. I wanted to know what it’s like to live that way — who they are and how they think. Talking to people about their lives is one way to start. But you can go a lot deeper if you do it yourself.

SunLit: One of the instantly fascinating facets of the story is the way you developed relationships with a very diverse set of people – from residents to service providers to law enforcement. What were the challenges to forging working relationships with the people in your book and how did you approach – and overcome – them?

Conover: While I grew up in Colorado, I now live in New York where I’m a journalist and professor. In much of the country these days that might make me a persona non grata, and I encountered a lot of suspicion on that score. But I persisted.

People got to know me over weeks, months, and finally years. First they knew me as a volunteer for La Puente, then as a writer interested in interviewing them, and finally, after I bought my own place, as a neighbor. I credit spending time, and being as open as I can about my goals and process, with helping me develop relationships.

I think also that it makes a big impression when people see that I’m there mainly to listen to them, not judge. I explain that I want to learn what they know: how to get water, how to stay warm, what to do about snakes, how to approach strangers (or handle strangers who approach you). I’m guessing that not many “educated” people give them credit for knowing things.

SunLit: In one passage you describe “a postapocalyptic landscape á la Mad Max.” Tell us about the setting of “Cheap Land Colorado,” a region that emerges as a character unto itself throughout the book.

Conover: Guidebooks will tell you that the central part of the San Luis Valley is the world’s “highest alpine valley.” To me that conjures something alpen, out of “The Sound of Music.” In fact the area I wrote about — the prairie between the Sangre de Cristo Range and the southern San Juans—is big and flat like a lot of other American prairie. But it has glorious mountains on either side as scenery.

The main thing to know about it, besides the fact it’s beautiful, is that most of it is private land. And in the 1970s, real estate speculators bought up some ranches and divided them into something like 45,000 5-acre lots, most of them in Costilla County.

They sold them by mail, for $30 or $50 down and the same amount per month. Buyers basically got a section of prairie with a grid of dirt roads overlaid. That’s it. No utilities, no trash collection, nothing. It’s a very hard place to live, and until recently few people actually did so.

Lots of those who try give up in defeat — especially this time of year, when nights get really cold. Keeping yourself warm is costly and difficult. In the old days, when settlers abandoned their homestead, they left behind a scenic log cabin. Today it’s more likely to be the wreckage of an old RV or TuffShed, or a primitive shelter made of OSB and a hundred scavenged bits and pieces of other people’s abandoned places.

 Sometimes violence has been done to these old mobile homes or trailers by people taking out the copper wire, the windows, etc., and that’s what makes me think of Mad Max landscapes: Scattered across the arid natural beauty, you find plastic and aluminum wreckage. And the day I drove my camper trailer out there for the first time, I actually passed the smoking ruins of some guy’s hash oil-making operation, which had exploded.

SunLit: You titled one chapter “So Many Different Kinds of People.” How would you describe the vast differences in the folks you encountered throughout your research, and the variety of reasons that drew them to the San Luis Valley?

Conover: Like a lot of urban dwellers, I harbored certain stereotypes about the people I imagined living out on the flats. I now see that as a measure of my ignorance. The poor off-gridders I’ve gotten to know come from all over the place — the country and the coast.

There’s more men but there are plenty of women, and there are families with kids. There’s gay people and straight people and people in between. There are veterans and dropouts and addictions of various kinds. They have a thousand different stories about what sent them there.

What they tend to have in common is a desire to be self-sufficient despite having little money, and a desire to avoid the madness of towns. Quite a few think the world might be coming to an end. Most have conservative politics, and there’s a strong libertarian streak.

SunLit: Both logistically and in terms of your mindset, how did you manage the back-and-forth between Colorado and your home, wife and teaching job in New York?

Conover: It can be weird to go back and forth between these opposite kinds of places, but it’s a weirdness I’ve grown to love. Usually I fly to Denver and then drive. I find myself relaxing once I get south of Pueblo on I-25, and that process usually deepens when I drop down from La Veta Pass and into the endless space of the San Luis Valley.

The sky is so big. I tend to be playing music when this happens, and inevitably I also start thinking about tortillas and green chile.

But my wife and my job are in New York, and I’ve grown to really appreciate the diversity and buzz of the place. So having both in my life seems to be working for me.

SunLit: How did you approach actually writing “Cheap Land Colorado” from the standpoint of making notes and writing drafts? Was it an ongoing process or one that you didn’t begin until after your stay in the Valley?

Conover: I take notes pretty much all the time when I’m reporting, including before I go to bed. The first piece of polished writing I used them for was a cover story in Harper’s Magazine that came out in 2019, after I’d been working on this more than two years.

But then came more reporting, more living — like, three more years’ worth, and a lot more notes. My main note-taking was done in a single Google Doc, daily entries journal-style. Sometime during Year Four I reached the maximum size for a Google Doc, which I can attest is just over a million characters. (Readers can relax: The book is much shorter than my notes!)

I never try writing a draft before I’m finished with the relevant research. That would be like putting the cake in the oven before the batter contains all of the ingredients.

SunLit: Did the experience of living part-time on the flats of the San Luis Valley change you, and if so, how?

Conover: It opened my eyes to another America. It gave me a lot of time to think about values, of the many important things I share with my neighbors out there, and some that I don’t. I also learned a lot about solar panels, gasoline generators, freeing a truck that’s stuck in mud, and advanced techniques for the cultivation of marijuana.

SunLit: When did you know you had the fully formed basis for “Cheap Land Colorado”?

Conover: When the gusher of new information I absorbed every day at the beginning turned into a more manageable trickle. And when I could picture the book’s beginning, middle, and end.