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When explaining her husband’s relationship with his home state to their friends in New York City, Ted Conover’s wife once joked: “I’m Jewish. He’s from Colorado.” “[That] summed it up pretty well,” Conover says. “Colorado is a big part of who I am.”
The New York City–based professor, journalist, and author returns to the Centennial State with his latest book, Cheap Land Colorado, a first-person exploration of off-grid homesteaders in the San Luis Valley. Conover is famous for his immersive reporting style, which has included spending a year as a prison guard in New York’s notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility for 2001’s Newjack and crossing the U.S.-Mexican border with Mexican migrants for 1987’s Coyotes.
His new book is no different. For five years, Conover has lived off and on in a part of the valley southeast of Alamosa known as “the flats,” a failed subdivision whose bargain-priced plots have attracted a new generation seeking their own version of the American dream. The resultant is richly detailed and filled with empathy for those living life on the margins and the stunning landscape that surrounds them. We sat down with Conover before the book’s release on November 1, to chat about his writing process, why the San Luis Valley reminds him of Mad Max, and why, ultimately, that’s a good thing.
5280: You first wrote about the San Luis Valley in an article for Harper’s Magazine, so I’m curious: Did you always know this was going to be a book, or did that realization come later?
Ted Conover: I believed it had the potential to be a book from the beginning. I thought, This is the kind of subject where, the more I put into it the more I am going to get out. So the Harper’s article was like a raft I swam toward on my way across the lake.
The Harper’s story ends with you discussing real estate with your neighbor, and I won’t spoil anything for readers when I say you did eventually buy land in the valley, which plays a big role in the book. Why was owning property there so important?
I thought buying a place could make the whole thing more interesting. It was a way to expand the scope and depth of the story and to enter book territory. This was a hunch, but this also wasn’t my first rodeo.
Do you still spend time there?
Yes. I don’t feel like it’s necessarily time for me to leave the valley. Maybe I can just go and spend time there for pleasure now.
How did you balance being a good neighbor with being a good journalist?
There’s the classical positioning of a journalist as a person who doesn’t get involved and tries to maintain strict objectivity without being partial to any one group. But that gets revised in the long-term, immersive journalism I like to do. It generates empathy for one’s subjects. To me, what you gain from that—a fuller sense of the humanity of people living in an extreme situation—is worth what you lose in terms of pure objectivity. Objectivity probably is impossible [anyway], so I strive for fairness and completeness.
I was struck by the extreme kindness your neighbors routinely showed you but also how, at the same time, so many people in the book express paranoia and mistrust of outsiders.
For sure. I don’t want to paint with too pretty a brush. There are people out there who are less likable than others and less trustworthy than other people. You take people on a case-by-case basis. You think, Is this a person I could be friends with? I’m lucky that many times the answer has been yes, but there are plenty of people who really are there because they do not wish to connect.
Like many of your other books, the landscape plays a huge role in the story. Is there something about certain environments that you find conducive to storytelling?
Place is really important to me and is sort of in my mind as a precondition for telling a story. Even today when we first started talking, the first thing I did was ask if you were at the office or at home. I want to know where people are because I think it makes a difference. I’m endlessly fascinated by the way different places speak to me and speak to the people in them.
What about the San Luis Valley spoke to you?
It isn’t one of these pessimistic rural American places where the best seems in the past. Rather, the San Luis Valley seems to be a place brimming with possibility whether you’re a hemp entrepreneur or, you know, a disaffected worker looking for a new life. Because the land there is so cheap all kinds of people can make all kinds of new starts. I like being in the valley. I feel my spirit open up when I come over the pass and see myself entering this vast volume of space defined by the two mountain ranges.
Early on in the book, you say the valley reminds you of the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. Did you ever come to revise that impression or did you embrace it instead?
I think the latter. I stick by the Mad Max metaphor because it’s just so apt for the area in which I live down there. Occasionally, you’ll see the wooden ruins of a log cabin from some old homestead, but much more common are the aluminum and plastic ruins of trashed RVs. Maybe it’s less beautiful, but it’s, I don’t know, to me it’s more honest. It’s a truer reflection of where we are today. It’s the rural west, and it’s got the frontier spirit still. But it’s also got paranoia and fearfulness of what is happening in the world.
Read an excerpt of Cheap Land Colorado here. Conover will be at the Tattered Cover’s Colfax location on November 1 for the book launch and at the Boulder Bookstore for a live recording of the KGNU Radio Book Club on November 2.