‘Cheap Land Colorado,’ Pulitzer finalist journeys along the edge in Costilla County
ALAMOSA — Ted Conover, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for “Newjack,” has spent the last five years as a sojourner in the San Luis Valley, living off and on among off-gridders who have chosen to reside, disconnected and far away from others, on the remote, isolated flats east of Antonito in Costilla County.
The result is Conover’s latest book “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-gridders at America’s Edge” which has been described by James McBride as “a profound book that reads like a novel and will have you laughing a little and thinking a lot.”
Conover, who was raised in Colorado, recently took the Valley Courier on a tour of the flats and spent time afterwards discussing what he learned and why he thinks the story he’s told is the most relevant story for this time in the nation’s history.
Conover visits ‘the flats’
In May of 2017, Ted Conover was in the San Luis Valley riding shotgun in an SUV headed east out of Antonito on County Road G. Tona Ruybal was at the wheel. A native of the valley with roots that run deep and a long history as director of La Puente’s homeless shelter in Alamosa, Ruybal was Conover’s guide and his passport into a remote, somewhat lawless territory where strangers were typically greeted by someone with a gun in their pociket, if they were greeted at all.
This was his inaugural trip into a vast expanse of sparsely populated land known as “the flats”.
Raised in Colorado but now a resident of New York City for roughly thirty years, Conover was moved by the wide-open landscape. He felt at home beneath that sky and those clouds, calmed, maybe even cleansed by the quiet.
But the people of the flats, off-gridders who had come from everywhere and nowhere and paid to stake their claim on their own five acres, were what landed him in that passenger seat of the SUV in 2017. Conover had questions he wanted to ask of the people who lived there. Things he wanted to understand about this world in which they lived. And it was the precise time for him to learn.
In November of 2016, just months before, Donald Trump had been elected and sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, an event that took many — the politically astute as well as those who thought they understood the direction the country was heading — completely by surprise. And even in the six short months that had passed since his election, the divide between people had grown.
Conover had a sense that the people he was about to encounter were supporters of Trump. He was interested in getting to know them, to spend time with them and immerse himself in their lives and their world on the flats as a way of gaining understanding about the political and cultural events that were unfolding.
“The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed to be an important part of that,” he writes.
More than five years later, driving down County Road G again but, this time, sitting in the driver’s seat this with a newcomer to the flats riding shotgun, Conover looks back on those first months.
His voice is surprisingly animated, almost excited. There was no professorial air of judgment or superiority, nothing to indicate disdain of any kind. He points out places of interest — the trailer where the Grubers were living when he first came to the flats or the history of the ramshackle place surrounded by a tall, makeshift fence built to keep prying eyes and unwanted strangers out. It’s clear that he knows the area very well and remembers equally well what brought him there.
“Wanting to understand the side of the United States that voted for Donald Trump was important to me,” he said. “When I came out here there was a lot of sympathy for him on the flats. And I would meet people who saw me as the enemy because I’m a journalist and I’m from New York. I remember being asked directly by someone, ‘So, what do you think of Donald Trump?’
“And I said, ‘Hey, I’m a journalist. He doesn’t like me, so how could I like him?’ There was obviously more that I could say but that’s how I chose to handle it. I wasn’t interested in changing their minds. I was interested in learning why they supported him and why they believe some of the things he believed.”
Conover has a unique take on journalism
Conover is a different kind of journalist. He’s most intrigued by different cultures and has learned that the most insightful way to tell stories that are not just genuine but accurate portrayals is to spend time with people — without the rush of a deadline — doing what they do, living where they live, talking with them, asking questions, listening — always listening — to what they say. He may have certain feelings about what people say or what he sees people do and, when appropriate, comments. But he continually strives to suspend judgment.
It was an approach to journalism for which he has become famous, long before he was learning about the people on the flats. When he was in college, Conover left college to ride alongside hobos who hid out in freight cars to ride the rails across the country. When he was interested in learning about the prison system, he hired on and worked for a year as a correctional officer at Sing Sing, the notorious prison in New York. When he was interested in the issue of undocumented immigration, he spent months traveling with immigrants from Central Mexico as they made the trek north and illegally crossed the border into the United States, continuing to stay with them as they searched for employment in a country where they had no legal standing.
Each experience had broadened his perspective and taught him more, ultimately leading to books that received broad critical acclaim and were embraced by others curious, like himself, about people who were different than themselves.
“By working to understand someone, by putting in the time, you can get closer to having something to say,” Conover said. “To having a story that you know is meaningful because you’ve been there long enough to know. Some things start to make more sense. Like understanding the desire to spend stimulus money on something fun instead of using it to pay bills. Or why you would buy a firearm.”
Conover believes we share more in common than we may think
As we continue to drive along the unmarked dirt roads, he speaks of the people he’s gotten to know and to care about deeply. He speaks of Matt Little, the rural outreach worker with La Puente who taught him the best way to approach a place where someone lives.
Other names, other people pop up as he tells the story — complex, three dimensional people who are comprised of more than just their circumstances. He speaks of how Covid was viewed and the contradiction in someone who would say that Covid was a hoax yet still wear a mask or the conservative Christian who smoked weed or the person who voted for Barack Obama then Hillary Clinton then Trump. People who were gay, who were straight, who were bruised or healing. People who were immensely diverse and could never be characterized in one specific way yet all shared the common trait that brought them to the flats: a desire for freedom, for independence, for self-determination in how and where they lived their lives away from a society that had judged them or dismissed them all together.
Conover’s book does not draw conclusions for the readers. He does not tell people how to feel about what they read or what great lessons he has learned in the time he’s lived there. But he is very clear about what he hopes the book will inspire.
“We’re in this riven country with a huge gap where we’re so politically divided between the red and the blue,” he said. “And it also seems ironic to me because I think all you sometimes need to do is get people in a room talking about their kids or some project that we share.
“We have more in common than the things that separate us. I see this book as an exercise in mending. I don’t make that my explicit goal. I’m not here to mend the country.
“But I think that talking to people unlike you - especially now - can really matter.
“Knowledge is a great cure. And if you learn about what makes a correction officer’s job at Sing Sing so difficult or what drove a broken person to move to some disconnected place far away, you might learn about why that CO does things that makes a prisoner experience such rage or what makes that person who feels broken want to vote for Donald Trump.
“I think that’s what makes this an important story to tell. I think that’s what makes this story meaningful.”