On the shelf
Cheap Country Colorado: Off-Gridder on America’s Edge
Button: 304 pages, $30
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Once upon a time, American writers went into the wilderness to commune with the Oneness of Things: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Edward Abbey’s Arches National Park, Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek. Now they’re going to the sticks to sort our divisions. In “Heartland,” Sarah Smarsh explored American poverty through the lens of her upbringing in rural Kansas. In “Nomadland,” Jessica Bruder showed how national parks and rural towns have become stopovers for traveling boomers cheated out of a comfortable retirement by the Great Recession.
At the start of Cheap Land Colorado – all of which are legally required to have “land” in the title – veteran journalist Ted Conover proposes that he will provide another book-length study of rural America as a symbol of a broken nation. In 2017, Conover decided to relocate part-time to the San Luis Valley, a region near the Colorado-New Mexico border that has long been a magnet for off-the-gridder and sky dreamers. The valley, he writes, offers one of the country’s last escape hatches, a way of being separate (but not separatist). “A person could live in this vast, empty space like the pioneers on the Great Plains did, except you’d have a truck instead of a wagon and mule and some solar panels and maybe even a weak cell phone signal,” he writes. “And legal weed.”
Conover suggests his stay will offer him – and us – a window into Trump-era America: “The American firmament was changing in ways I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of it to be.” However, his heart does not beat for the job. In many ways, that’s a relief: Poor, odd, difficult, pretty, drug addicted, and occasionally violent, the San Luis Valley is so removed from urban or rural traditions that it’s not always identifiably American. Conover is well advised not to reduce his topics to types. But its reticence also results in a coreless, sometimes frustrating book that’s unsure of what kind of portrait of American life it aims to present.
Conover’s portal into this world is La Puente, an overstretched nonprofit that provides basic support—meals, firewood—to residents of the area. Jobs are few and far between, and most people live in beat-up RVs; Many, Conover says, appear to be dodging warrants. In recent years, the county has fined residents for failing to install sewer systems, which causes more resentment than sewer lines. Without an escort, most of Conover’s conversations would have been about a gun barrel, if they had taken place at all. (Although he doesn’t mention it, Lauren Boebert currently represents the region in Congress.)
However, once he earns the trust of locals – a process that takes years in some cases – he finds a remarkable group of residents who are difficult to stereotype. Troy, a one-legged ex-farmer. The Gruber family, a kind-hearted, weed-infested, homeschooling household whose hustle and bustle is interrupted by the foul-mouthed screams of a cockatoo named Sugar. Zahra, a black woman in a predominantly white community who has escaped city life and a predatory ex.
For his part, Conover sincerely loves the region, seduced by the surrounding mountains, its remoteness and its strange inhabitants. But life there is hard, big and small. Sub-zero temperatures freeze the doors of his mobile home overnight. The Valley was a magnet for dispensaries, which exacerbated the opioid crisis. People came to make an investment – the book’s title comes from the Google search that led a resident there – but there is no profit to be made in a country so remote and without infrastructure.
In the 1870s, the Valley was home to “Colorado’s most famous cannibal” (there were at least two), and violence there continues. An email Conover receives from a friend after he’s been there for a while gently pokes fun at his early idealism: “Do you feel free and safe on your land? Is that western sky still big and promising?”
Conover writes that this book is a little different from the immersive journalism for which he is best known: he hitchhiked on freight trains for his first book, Rolling Nowhere in 1984, and infiltrated the elite for 1991’s Whiteout from Aspen and served as the Sing Sing proofreading officer for 2000’s Newjack. (He even wrote a book about his trial, 2016’s Immersion.) He is a product of the New Journalism School of pure feature writing , which insists that the best news coverage is no news at all. (Even Coyotes, his 1987 book about Mexican migrants en route to the United States, was too character-centric to make politics.)
But even if Conover plans to avoid routine big-picture conclusions about the San Luis Valley — if he’s content to tell stories about trying to build a wind turbine or volunteering at an animal shelter — a comprehensive portrait of the area difficulties arise time. Aside from an early ride with a county officer, Conover goes into little detail about the area’s police and government, their crises, or the rationale behind the crackdown on the treatment plant. The region’s shaky economy appears to revolve mostly around marijuana, but the details are unclear. Specificity could lead to a more conventional, perhaps boring, reportage performance. But without that context, Conover’s observations can feel unfinished or overly romanticized. “It was a beautiful, wild and mysterious world, home to the destitute,” he writes. Part of the immersion journalist’s job is to unravel the mystery.
This uncertainty about what to make of the San Luis Valley – is it beautiful or poor, a hippie paradise or a survivalist hole, a potential remote work utopia or a climate change dystopia? — may be what makes Conover, despite his better instincts, occasionally seek deeper meaning. In his conclusion, he writes, “Sometimes I’ve wondered if we can see in them an answer to the question: Who is America for and for whom isn’t it?” Call it the “Hillbilly Elegy” effect: Today’s non-fiction author ( not only of “country” books, but also of best-sellers like Tara Westover’s “Educated”) must make some sort of claim that rural America is not just itself, but a laboratory for our Society is collapsing and declining.
Conovers Colorado is too idiosyncratic for that. He’s talking to a few folks who slip into the familiar tropes of rural Red-Staters – antivax, gun-pro-gun, suspicious of coastal liberalism. Except that the rules of life in the San Luis Valley don’t map to such simple binaries. This makes Cheap Land Colorado a fascinating portrait of individual residents. But as far as a place that can teach us something about where America is going, that’s a completely different country.
Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-11-02/review-a-new-book-on-rural-america-avoids-the-cliches-why-thats-only-mostly-a-good-thing Review: Ted Conover’s new rural US book ‘Cheap Land Colorado’