History,” Ted Conover writes in Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, “doesn’t always declare itself in the American West, where there is so much emphasis on the present and the future. This is especially true of scarcely settled places…, where the internet will tell you practically nothing and the local library not much more.” Conover is being figurative in making such a statement; raised in Colorado, he knows exactly how much history is worth. At the same time, the sentiment is also literal, particularly when it comes to the dead-end flats on the rural southern border of the state. Such a divide—or better yet, a tension—emerges as a driving force in Cheap Land Colorado, which is a chronicle, by turns personal and journalistic, of the period of time, roughly spanning the Trump administration, during which Conover sought to explore the state’s sprawling San Luis Valley: “this huge expanse, about the size of New Jersey,” where “the San Juan Mountains to the west hold the remains of an enormous ancient supervolcano whose eruption was one of the largest explosions in Earth’s geologic history.”
For Conover, the project represents a homecoming in a variety of ways. First, of course, there’s his return to Colorado, which, as the book begins, he has long forsaken for Manhattan, where he is a professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. More to the point, there’s the territory of immersive journalism, which is where the author made his name. His debut, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes, grew out of his senior thesis at Amherst College; it appeared in 1984, when he was 25. For 1987’s Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants, he spent over a year traveling and working with migrant laborers in Mexico, Florida, and the Southwest and crossed the border clandestinely several times. In 2000, Conover’s fourth book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, caused a bit of controversy when he revealed that he had gone undercover to work as a prison guard after the State of New York had denied him access as a journalist. I am a stickler for journalistic ethics, but this does not seem like a breach to me. The first rule of journalism, after all, is to get the story, and that’s what Conover has done.
From the perspective of the present, one might be tempted to reimagine efforts like these as voyeuristic—tragedy porn, as it were. This interpretation, however, would be incorrect. What sets Conover’s work apart is its engagement and its rigor, the care with which he embeds himself. Cheap Land Colorado is a case in point, a book that gains as it grows. It begins not with assumptions but with questions, and it ends, four years later, with many of those questions (as they must be) unresolved. The reason it works is that Conover does not want to be an observer; what he seeks is to become a participant. He’s up-front throughout these pages about his journalistic intentions—I lost count of how many times he describes himself taking notes—but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. He’s not in the San Luis Valley to get a story, in other words, but rather to experience and record a way of life.
As to how Conover does this, it’s a matter of easing himself in. After arriving in Colorado, he volunteers with the relief organization La Puente, which does what it calls “rural outreach.” That involves visiting potential clients in person, a process complicated by the fact that many of those in need of help have reasons for not wanting to be found. Here we meet Matt Little, the first in a series of individuals with whom Conover will align himself: “a forty-nine-year-old veteran of two tours in Iraq, a slightly built man from rural West Virginia with an easy smile. He smokes cigarettes and often he is whiskery. He tells me not to wear a blue shirt, because that’s the color worn by Costilla County code enforcement, and you don’t want to be mistaken for them.” Eventually, Conover purchases a trailer and is allowed to install it on the property of the Grubers, a family of off-gridders with five kids. He uses his encounters to draw some loose conclusions, always framing them through the lens of his own subjective point of view. “Prairie people,” he writes, “overall just seemed poor and wanting a different life.” This is a desire for which I have an abiding sympathy, even if, as Conover elaborates, “their political consciousness tended toward the Trumpian: anti-government, pro-gun, America first, self-reliance.”
Conover meets these people on their own terms, even as he acknowledges that he does not share their views. Instead, he is seeking to evoke the frayed edges of our current circumstance, in which the notion of a common destiny appears to have dissolved. This is reflected in the drugs found everywhere in the valley. (Each household, for instance, seems to have its own cannabis patch.) It is reflected, too, in the reaction of many off-gridders to COVID (“You people and your masks!” one gripes to Conover) or Black Lives Matter or the 2020 presidential election. And then there are the guns. At a gathering, Conover meets a man with “an AK pistol (an AK-47 rifle modified into pistol form) and a Colt revolver.” When the author asks about them, he is told that “around here you need a gun that can fire a lot of rounds in case you run into ‘a whole herd of mule deer.’”
“‘Or a whole herd of protestors,’” the gun owner adds.
This is discomforting stuff, but that’s the point: immersion as a way of reckoning, of understanding, of seeing the situation as it is. “At a time when more and more people seem to believe that almost anything can be true,” Conover notes, “I wanted a book that could be fact-checked, populated by people who are indisputably real.”
In producing such a book, Conover complicates the dynamic between reporter and subject. He becomes a part of this world. That’s a shift he makes explicit when he buys his own five-acre lot in the San Luis Valley and renovates a bigger trailer there. “My project was to understand life on the flats,” he writes, “and ownership was a major part of that.” But this, he knows, is only a justification for a deeper and more inchoate set of resonances and longings. “Last,” he admits, “and probably the biggest thing, was the way I felt out here on the prairie. I felt good. I felt free and alive.”
That’s empathy Conover is describing, and it is the hallmark of his attentiveness not just as a writer but also as a journalist. We must care about the people we report on; if not, we are exploiting them. “What, then, to say?” he wonders about the Grubers after an acquaintance accuses them of scamming her. “The journalist in me wanted to…fill out the picture she had sketched of her dealings with the Grubers. On the other hand, I knew that if I did and it got back to the Grubers (as it likely would), it could permanently spoil my relationship with them. So I held off.”
What he’s saying is that there are no easy answers, in journalism or in life.•