TED Conover gets it right. Alamosa Citizen visited with the New York-based author about the time he spent living with an off-grid community in the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley. He spent time there over a period of four years, first as a volunteer with La Puente, then eventually as a resident himself with his own five acres.
“Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge” delves into the attractions and perils of bare-bones, off-grid living. “Stories of seekers, dissenters, people willing to risk everything in hopes of finding, or forging, something better. The availability of cheap land was fundamental to that,” he writes in the book, which comes out today.
Conover tells the history of the land, from Spanish land grant to ranches to an undeveloped subdivision of five-acre plots. He describes the everyday lives of a diverse group of residents, a barter economy, and the push-pull needs of solitude and community. In the process, he becomes a friend and neighbor.
(This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.)
The first thing we wondered about is why did you decide to approach the project the way you did – in terms of, you had many visits over the years, you eventually bought five acres yourself. And so we wondered about why you approached it the way you did over a period of visits over a period of years. And did you find yourself splitting time between New York and the flats during that time?
Yes, and I still do. I was just there two weeks ago. And as you know, I’ll be back the first week of November. And I’m going to continue spending time out there because I really like it. But back to your initial question, traditional journalism starts with the five W’s, starts with interviews, with reaching out, identifying yourself as a journalist, and talking to people that way. And I have always believed if you can invest the time, there’s often a bigger and better story to be told if you can just get it. And how do you get it? Well, the way I’ve found is to do a deeper kind of journalism, which I think of as immersion. I’ll start with the traditional beginning. I will introduce myself and then I’ll keep going. And I’ll get to know people after talking to them several times. And my vehicle for doing that was volunteering for La Puente, which had this rural outreach initiative at the time.
DATE: Monday, Nov. 7
TIME: 4:30 p.m.
WHERE: Leon Memorial Hall, Adams State University
DATE: Thursday, Nov. 3
TIME: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Milagro’s Coffee House, 529 Main St., Alamosa
They no longer do, unfortunately, but they let me volunteer for them. And that was a great way to meet people and explain who I was and what I’m doing. And then to follow up and say, “If you Google me” – and everybody Googles you – “you’ll see that I’m a writer, grew up in Colorado, but I live in New York.” And I like living in New York, but it’s also a silo. It’s limited … For such a big diverse place, you can end up with a very narrow perspective on American life and I wanted a bigger one. And I think the rise of Donald Trump made me feel this even more strongly, that there was a side of the country I did not understand as well as I needed to. And I know that that movement is alive among off-gridders on the prairie. Not everybody, there’s a lot of different kinds of folks out there, but there’s plenty of MAGA and plenty of, I‘d say, libertarian outlook.
People think government’s too big, they want to be left alone, they say. And so I explained I want to know more about that. And then at a certain point, it’s hard to see all this beautiful land for sale for not much money and not think maybe I should have some. And I just thought owning land myself would be a way to have skin in the game, if you know what I’m saying. A way to not just be a visitor, but to be a neighbor. And not just a volunteer, but the guy down the road. And I thought that would really take me further than I could get any other way.
That’s my approach.
Listening to you, it sounds like the valley has remained part of your life.
Absolutely. And I expect it will.
You mentioned the valley sky frequently. Sunsets, the clouds light. And you say you write that “The sky made a difference to them. And to me as well. I was enthralled by the space.” So we wondered, how do the sky and landscape figure into the communities created in these five-acre plots? What was your experience there?
So it’s such an interesting question. And it’s one I do not have a perfect answer for because I must admit I don’t understand it completely. I know that whenever I come back to the Valley – and I usually come down I-25 and over La Veta Pass – coming in to the Valley just makes me feel different. It makes me feel better. And I like being in all that space. It makes me feel relaxed and it makes me feel I’m in a world full of possibilities. And as you know, because you’ve lived there a long time, it’s sometimes a matter of saying, “Oh, well right now it’s raining on me, but I can see over there by Blanca, it looks sunny. And then I can see over there toward Alamosa, partly cloudy. And down toward Taos, it looks, I don’t know, smokey or something.” So you can see all these different things going on at once. And sometimes I think, “Well, maybe that’s it,” that you can imagine yourself in a different situation, just a half hour, an hour away, or maybe if you just stay still, your situation will change. And there’s something nice about that.
“It’s something of a frontier mentality where you’re going to forge your new life, you’re going to make it happen for yourself. And if it doesn’t work out, well, hey, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. And I think there’s a lot of people who want to be in that situation.”
Yeah, that’s remarkable how you have that takeaway. Let’s ask you this. Tell us a little bit about the people attracted to your life. Your description of them is that “They were the restless and the fugitive, the idol and the addicted, and the generally disaffected, the done-with-what-we-were-supposed-to-do-crowd.” Off the grid is difficult and dangerous. What makes it worthwhile?
I guess it’s the feeling that you are your own landlord. You are your own power company. You are, to some degree, the master of your circumstances. And my book is not about the whole Valley, it’s not even about all the off-gridders in the Valley. There’s all kinds of off-grid life in the Valley. Up in the mountains, it’s very different and there’s a lot of off-grid living that’s much more prosperous than what I write about. But these bare-bones kinds of places around me, I think the people who, they just had enough. They’ve tried to fit in and they’re done with it. And a lot of them want to be left alone. A lot of them seem happiest not to have everybody crowded around. There’s a few real hermits. I think most people enjoy some contact with other people. But it’s something of a frontier mentality where you’re going to forge your new life, you’re going to make it happen for yourself. And if it doesn’t work out, well, hey, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. And I think there’s a lot of people who want to be in that situation.
Yeah. Our next question is, an off-the-grid community develops its own off-grid economy. Can you talk about the informal barter system that you experience, the mutual trust that’s required in some of these transactions for work or property and how that works?
Sure. So you may have a leaky roof and I can help fix it. So you may not have ready cash with which to pay me. And maybe you’ve loaned me tools in the past, maybe you’ve helped me fix my truck. Maybe you had a good marijuana harvest last fall and you’re willing to share a little of that with me. Those are all examples of barter. Eggs. There’s people with chickens, there’s people with goats who milk them. There’s various kinds of skilled laborers down there. And in fact, I hired some when I needed to put in some new solar panels and I felt bad because hey, I’m just a writer. I don’t have that many good skills. What am I going to trade for? So I end up offering some money, the old fashioned way. But that’s like the second choice. Most people are ready to talk barter.
I’ve got this neighbor who’s a bail bondsman. And one day he needed somebody to come with him. He needed some muscle. He’s trying to apprehend a guy, a fugitive outside of Blanca. He said, “You worked in corrections, didn’t you?” Because I wrote this book called New Jack Guarding Sing Sing, which is about a year I worked as a corrections officer. But I don’t really fit the mold. I’m not a big burly guy. He said, “Do you have a ballistic vest?” And I said, “No, I don’t have a ballistic vest.” I’m wondering if this is something I should be getting involved with. And anyway, I agreed to go along with him and he agreed to pay me, including a reward if we caught the guy. And I said, “You know what? I know you’ve got a gasoline-powered post hole digger. How about you just help me dig some holes with that?” He said, “Oh yeah, I would’ve done that anyway.” So I mean, I never thought I’d be trading being a lookout on a fugitive apprehension for some holes in the ground around my five acres. But no, it’s all good.
A question here, you seem very critical of county code enforcement officials when it comes to things like septic tank enforcement, fines, deadlines established to get property up to code. At least that’s a takeaway from reading the book. Did you come away with any solutions for these problems? What else should a county do in these situations?
I actually happen to think counties need rules. And I think most of the rules of Costilla County make sense. If you got that from my book, it’s maybe because I was reporting on the feelings of my neighbors who get angry over fees for putting in a driveway or limits on the length of time they can camp on their own land. That shouldn’t happen. I actually think the county’s justified in most of these things. I think the county went through an unfortunate phase where they cracked down very suddenly after years of ignoring these regulations. And that was the real problem, was how hard they came down on people with no resources, who were given only a few days to fix their problems. And that’s not cool. They backed off of that and I think they’re in a better place now. There is tension around that, but I’m not a critic of the county.
“It doesn’t seem like the Valley’s over. It kind of seems like it’s a work in progress, it’s an experiment that’s ongoing.”
Gotcha. Couple other questions. Just thoughts, questions. Do you think that there’s a difference … I mean you address this in one of your answers in terms of this is a slice of the Valley, a population that you embedded or lived with. Do you think there’s a different story of the San Luis Valley today that you would’ve found if you came in another way? Say not through La Puente, maybe you came through as an Adams State visiting professor. Or you’re, which we’re seeing recently, the “urban flight” who wants more open space. Do you think people that come in those other ways get a different portrait initially of the Valley?
No question about it. I had to seek out this particular world. I wouldn’t have normally bumped into it. I don’t think most people would. And I imagine those other experiences of the Valley, they’re just as significant, just as important. I focused on this one because it’s pretty unusual. And in fact it’s extreme in many ways in terms of American life today. And like I said, it seems connected in certain ways to our political situation, so that’s why I focused on this. But you’re absolutely right. The angle you come in from makes a big difference.
What I really had enjoyed and why I was really wanting to read your book is that it addresses a side of the Valley I’ve really been interested in since I returned home seven years ago. And so the timing of the book for me personally as a native – and I left for 35 years and I came back seven years ago – the reflections of what you found, that’s what I was wondering about. So I was really happy to see your work because it’s the side I’ve been trying to understand myself or see better since I came back. So I really appreciate the book from that perspective as a native, because I’m like, “Wow, I wonder who these people are,” because you can see them as you drive the country roads. And you can see the trailers and the homestead and you’re like, “Who are these people and how did they …” So from that, I really enjoyed it.
Well thank you for saying that. And I appreciate that among longtime Valley dwellers – including indigenous communities around San Luis, and people who have been here many generations – there’s some dismay at seeing people living out there on the prairie and sort of in a bare-bones way. And it’s not always a welcome sight. And there’s some interesting tension there. And I guess I’d say I see some of both sides. But the rules were set up by those county commissioners, especially in Costilla County back in the ’70s when they agreed to these subdivisions. And they increased tax revenue by doing it. You get more taxes from a whole bunch of five-acre lots than you do from a few big ranches. But it also ushered in a whole new era of social services and road grading and sheriff’s office calls out to the middle of nowhere to break up some fight. It really ushered in a new era that’s really just kind of getting started I think because there’s so many lots. Most of them have absolutely nothing on them still. And as the country fills up, that’s not going to stay the same.
You know, what I appreciate about the Valley now as I’ve come back is it’s still alive. It’s not dying. It has a lot of challenges, the Rio Grande Basin, et cetera. But your book demonstrates this: it’s still an evolving story. We don’t know what the end story of this place is going to be. And it’s a story that stretches for hundreds of years, but it’s still alive, unlike other rural markets that seem to be dying or dwindling. And we have towns that are, but the Valley as a whole just seems to still have this organic and it’s still alive.
That’s an excellent point. And you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t seem like the Valley’s over. It kind of seems like it’s a work in progress, it’s an experiment that’s ongoing. And one of the amazing things about all this cheap land, and the reason I put that in the title, is if the barrier to entry is low, if all kinds of people can gain a foothold, there’s going to be all kinds of experiments going on from marginal permaculture enthusiasts to hemp farmers and entrepreneurs of every stripe alongside outlaws and everything else. I mean, there’s vitality there and that’s a very cool thing.
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