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It begins with a moment of contact—of driving up to a homestead and trying to introduce yourself.
The prospect is daunting: A lot of people live out here because they do not want to run into other people. They like the solitude. And it is daunting because many of them indicate this preference by closing their driveways with a gate, or by chaining a dog next to their front door, or by posting a sign with a rifle-scope motif that says, “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE WITHIN RANGE!”
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The local expert on cold-calling is Matt Little, charged by the social service group La Puente with “rural outreach.” Matt has let me ride around in his pickup with him so that I can see him in action. Distances between households on the open Colorado prairie are great, which gives him time to explain his approach, which he has thought about a lot, as he does this every day and in three months has not gotten shot.
If you’re thinking the checklist is short, you’re mistaken. Before you ever see the homestead, you need to consider the visual impression you’ll make. Matt drives a 2009 Ford Ranger with a magnetic “La Puente” sign on the door. It is not fancy. Nor is Matt fancy: He is a 49-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. La Puente ordered him a hoodie and a polo shirt in maroon with its insignia, and he usually wears one or the other, along with jeans and boots.
He’ll drive by a place, often more than once, before actually stopping, so that he can reconnoiter. Is there an American flag flying? That often suggests a firearm inside. Are there children’s toys? Is there a small greenhouse or area hidden behind a fence that suggests that marijuana is being grown? (Initially, I thought that might be a good sign, because cannabis can make people mellow. But Matt emphatically said no. “A full-grown plant could be worth a thousand dollars, and people steal ’em!”) More to the point, is anyone even living there? Are there fresh tire tracks? Smoke coming from the chimney? Many prairie settlements have been abandoned or are lived in only during the summer.
Matt had noticed one property with berms constructed inside its perimeter of barbed-wire fence. He saw bullet casings and suspected the owner was a vet with some psychological issues: “I thought he was probably playing war games, re-enacting things he’d been through.” He drove by to show me—the place was at the end of a dead-end road, which made it kind of hard to pretend you were just passing by. Matt said that the first few times, he paused at the road’s end, waved at whoever inside might be watching him, and turned around. He continued in that vein over the next month, waving or honking but not lingering, until one day he saw a man outside the house dressed in camo gear. Matt parked his truck and stepped outside.
“I’m Matt from La Puente,” he said. “I’ve got a little wood.” He gestured at the firewood stacked in the bed of his truck, something useful conceived of by his employer as a calling card, an icebreaker.
The man picked up an AK-47. “You’re a persistent son of a bitch,” he said. Then: “How much is it?”
“It’s free,” Matt said.
The guy walked toward the gate. He opened it. He waved Matt in.
My first experience of the San Luis Valley came on a family car trip when I was 11. We stayed on the paved roads, but even that was impressive. The Great Sand Dunes National Monument, now Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, looked like fake scenery from a movie until we were in it. I was amazed by its origin story: grains of sand blown from one side of the valley’s huge expanse, about the size of New Jersey, had formed gigantic dunes on the other. 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.
When you grow up in a beautiful place that seems to lose some beauty to settlement (i.e., development) every year, you treasure the unchanged. The San Luis Valley still looks much as it did 100, or even 200, years ago. Blanca Peak, at 14,345 feet the fourth-highest summit in the Rockies, overlooks a vast openness. Blanca, named for the snow that covers its summit most of the year, is visible from almost everywhere in the valley and is considered sacred by the Navajo. The range Blanca presides over, the Sangre de Cristos, forms the valley’s eastern side. Nestled up against the range just north of Blanca are the amazing sand dunes. The valley tapers to a close down in New Mexico, a little north of Taos. It is not hard to picture the Indigenous people who carved images into rocks near the rivers, or the Hispanic people who established Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, and a still-working system of communal irrigation in the southeastern corner, or a pioneer wagon train. Pronghorn antelope still roam, as do feral horses and the occasional mountain lion.
It’s also not hard to see a through line between the homesteaders of the 19th century and the people who move out there today. The land is no longer free, but it is some of the cheapest in the United States. In many respects, a person could live in this vast, empty space like the pioneers did on the Great Plains, except you’d have a truck instead of a wagon and mule, and some solar panels, possibly even a weak cellphone signal. And legal weed. By selling or bartering weed and picking up seasonal labor, you might even get by without having a job, though if you have no income, things can get tricky, especially when winter comes around. It would be extremely difficult to live completely off the land, especially out on the open prairie.
Denver and New York City, where I now live, are complex urban areas. Out here, by contrast, it seemed that life must be simple, but how could I really know? My feeling of ignorance grew stronger in November 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The day before, in New York, I had told a French radio station that Trump could never win the election. (Of course, I had plenty of company in this delusion.) The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand, and these empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of that. I took an assignment from this magazine in 2017 to write about South Park, which is similar to the San Luis Valley in its challenging climate and abundance of open space. One particularly remote area was overlaid with dirt roads from a moribund 1970s subdivision that had never taken off, just as in the valley. Some isolated trailers and shacks suggested that a handful of people were living off-grid.
I told my sister about the place. In her work for a Denver-based foundation, she said, she had recently visited Alamosa, the San Luis Valley’s biggest town, and heard about an off-grid settlement on a much larger scale. Staffers from a social service group called La Puente had shown her slides of how people were living out on “the flats” and told her about their rural outreach initiative; later, she sent me some photos in a PDF file. I got in touch with La Puente, which had begun as a homeless shelter—one of the first rural homeless shelters in the country—co-founded by a nun. And then I visited.
Lance Cheslock, the executive director, showed me around, starting with lunch at the shelter. It’s a big old house on the humbler side of Alamosa, converted to allow for separate facilities for men, women (who get buzzed into their part of the upstairs), and families, for whom there are separate bedrooms. There are 45 beds in all, but on this day in June, only 26 guests were registered. Most of the downstairs is a dining room and kitchen. The shelter was serving three meals a day, with lunch and dinner open to walk-ins from the community—but only after enough diners had signed up to clean the kitchen afterward. The AmeriCorps volunteer assigned to this task wasn’t having luck. Lance took the clipboard from her and began walking down the queue, cajoling and appealing to diners’ better natures, engaging with them one by one until he had his volunteers. A few minutes later, we sat down at a table for six, along with shelter clients and a staff person, the shelter’s director, Teotenantzin Ruybal.
Tona, as she’s known, had grown up in the valley and had run the shelter for more than nine years. She was from one of the extended families that have been in the area for generations and identify as Hispanic. (The terms Latino and Latinx are less often used in the valley.) Her demeanor was on the gruff side—you can’t run a shelter if you’re a pushover—but it was clear from our conversation that she had a big heart and was deeply committed to helping the poor.
She explained the direct link between the shelter and the off-gridders I was interested in: “You’re living in a slum, and you see an ad about owning five acres for $5,000, and you have a view of Blanca Peak—to them it’s an opportunity, it’s the savage wild, their piece of the rock.” People would come to the valley just to own their own place, free from landlords and utility bills. And free also from being judged: “Sometimes the attitude is, I’d rather live a rough life out there than live in town and be looked down on,” Tona explained. “Regardless of if it’s a stupid choice, it’s their choice.”
Normally, Matt had shown me, you didn’t see somebody outside, so the procedure was to stop at the end of their drive and tap the horn. At the first sign of life, he’d often step from his truck so they could see him, a (hopefully) unthreatening presence. He might leave them with some firewood, a business card with his cell number, and an offer to come back should they find themselves in need of food, help with filling out an application, a ride to town for a doctor’s appointment, or a pickup of a prescription.
I paid close attention because I was starting to volunteer with La Puente. It seemed like a good way to meet isolated prairie dwellers, and Matt said he could use the help.
I set myself a goal of three new contacts per day. La Puente loaned me a “Rural Outreach” sign for the door of my own pickup truck. I chose an area and drove around, as slowly as I could without looking suspicious; I guessed that many of the places I was sizing up were abandoned.
I finally settled on a place with a short driveway, figuring that would make me harder to ignore and easier to evaluate. It was a modest house with various pieces of junk around it, including nonworking vehicles, but I could see by tracks in the dusty dirt that someone had been driving in and out. I stopped and beeped the horn. That’s when I realized that the Jeep Wagoneer in front had somebody in it. I rolled down my window. A moment later, he cracked his own window. I climbed out of my truck and, in a show of my confidence and good intentions, walked over to him.
“Hi, I’m Ted, from La Puente,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. His green Corona beer baseball cap matched the color of his eyes.
I told him about the firewood.
“I don’t usually accept charity and stuff,” he said.
“I get that,” I said. He was just back from rehab, he said. I asked for what, and he said opioids.
“And how are you doing?” I asked.
“OK so far. You want a soda?” He offered me a Sprite, which I accepted.
It was November and cold and windy, and I had left my jacket in the car. I should have gone to get it, but I kept hoping that any minute he’d invite me into his truck, which was warm enough inside for him to be in a T-shirt; its front read, “Single and Ready to Jingle.”
He didn’t invite me in, but he liked to talk, and it wasn’t long before he told me how he had once let a guy live in his place for a spell while he was gone. Then, when he came back, he and the guy got into an argument and the guy shot him. “Right here.” He held out his arm to show a big, complicated scar.
Instead of needing to pry information out of a hermit, as I had expected, I found myself with a chatty, self-revealing guy who really wanted someone to talk to…even if he didn’t want to invite them into his car.
I tried honking outside three places where either nobody was home or nobody lived, and I left each feeling kind of foolish. But then I saw a humble place close to the road, with a horse in a small corral and a couple of chickens in a pen. I parked at the gate and honked. I was immediately swarmed by several heeler dogs, some of them growling, but I made soothing noises and crossed my fingers. It took a couple of minutes for a Hispanic guy about 60 years old to appear and start walking toward the gate, from about 50 yards away. While he ambled over, I read an official notice from the county that had been stapled to a fence post. “CEASE AND DESIST,” it said. I pointed to it after the man reached me and I had introduced myself.
“Are they after you about no septic system?” I asked. It was a common problem.
“No, it’s over taxes,” said the man. “They didn’t send the bill. I’m working with them.” I offered him wood, which he accepted, as well as some new bedsheets I happened to have, which he declined (“I sleep in my clothes”). He said he owed 10 hours of community service to a court and asked if he could work it off with La Puente. I gave him the office phone number and encouraged him to call. We said goodbye, and I climbed back into my truck. I turned the key and…nothing. Embarrassed, I tapped the horn again. The dogs swarmed me again. The man came out again and immediately offered to give me a jump—it was in his interest, as well, as I was blocking his gate.
“Circling the wagons” was the expression that came to mind at the next place I decided to hit. An array of old vehicles—a Lincoln, an RV, a pickup truck, a Volkswagen bus, an SUV, and more—were arranged in roughly three-quarters of a circle, like a wagon train hunkered down on the prairie in anticipation of attack, or a doughnut with a big bite missing. I saw goats outside, a sign of life, but paused: The settlement was about a football field away from the road. Honking would bring nobody to my window. What the hell, I thought, and decided to drive in.
I tapped the horn as I approached and tapped it again for good measure once I had entered the little circle inside the perimeter and placed my truck in park. The apparent dwelling was on the far side of my truck, so I rolled down the passenger window to make it easier to see me.
A middle-aged white man wearing wraparound dark glasses with reflective lenses and a baseball cap came out a door, descended a few steps, and walked around to my side of the truck. He kept his distance and also kept his right hand inside the pocket of his hoodie; I suspected there might be a pistol there.
“How ya doin’?” he asked in a tone that said, Declare yourself.
I told him I was Ted from La Puente, new to the area, just wanted to introduce myself, got a little wood—He interrupted me: “That’s dangerous, just rolling up on people. You must be either brave or a little dumb.” He smiled in a way that was hard to interpret.
“Probably a little dumb,” I acknowledged.
He was just visiting from California, he eventually told me. “Tony will probably be back a little later.”
I put that name and all the vehicles together. “Wait—does this place belong to Tie Rod Tony?” He was a person I had already met. The man nodded. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid. But I was wistful, feeling like a cat who had wasted one of her nine lives.
Excerpted from Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge by Ted Conover, published by Knopf. Copyright © 2022