What Going Off the Grid Really Looks Like


This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

“In the United States,” Gertrude Stein once observed, “there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.” That was true in 1936, when she wrote “The Geographical History of America,” and it remains so today. The numbers are startling, and not only if you live someplace like the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with your hundred thousand neighbors per square mile. Add up all the developed areas in the fifty states—the cities and suburbs and exurbs and towns, the highways and railways and back roads, the orchards and vineyards and family farms, the concentrated animal feedlots, the cornfields and wheat fields and soybeans and sorghum—and it will amount to a fifth of our nation. What is all the rest? Forests, wetlands, rangeland, tundra, glaciers, barrens, bodies of water of one kind or another. If you don a blindfold, throw a dart at a map of the country, and commit to living where it lands, you will most likely end up alone, in the middle of nowhere.

All that open space has an enduring hold on the American imagination. There’s a reason it serves as the backdrop for so many political ads and pickup-truck commercials: it represents the ill-defined notion of liberty that we claim as our founding ideal, and functions as a kind of collective backup plan should some crucial opportunity or exigency arise—a place to prove our mettle, a place to start over, a place to which, if push came to shove, we might flee and never be found. Most of us do not put this proposition to the test. But, by choice or chance or lack of any other option, a handful of people really do wind up trying to make a life somewhere in the almost eighty per cent of America that is essentially undeveloped land.

Some of those people are the subject of Ted Conover’s “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge” (Knopf). Conover, who was raised in Denver and is now a professor of journalism at New York University, might be thought of as a reporter in the George Plimpton mold; to write about his subjects, he prefers to spar in their rings and scrimmage on their fields. Unlike Plimpton, however, he sticks around for months or years, often under distinctly uncomfortable circumstances. For a book about modern-day hoboes (“Rolling Nowhere”), he learned to hop freight trains and spent months riding the rails; for a book about undocumented immigrants (“Coyotes”), he lived with Mexicans on both sides of the border, picking fruit in citrus orchards and travelling across the Sonoran Desert and the Rio Grande; for a book about the New York State prison system (“Newjack”), he got a job as a corrections officer and worked for a year inside Sing Sing.

Then came November 8, 2016. The day before the election, Conover had declared on a radio program that Donald Trump would never win the Presidency; afterward, like countless other members of the media, he was stunned into the conviction that he no longer understood his compatriots and needed to embark on a grand reëducation. In keeping with a long tradition of believing that the immensity and wildness of our nation hold the key to its essential character, he found himself thinking about the least populated parts of his home state. “The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand,” he writes in the new book. And so, eager to learn more about his fellow-citizens, Conover headed west, to a place where almost none of them live.

The cheap land of “Cheap Land Colorado” is in the south-central part of the state, in a region known as the San Luis Valley. The largest alpine valley in the world, it has an average elevation of more than seven and a half thousand feet, a couple of thousand feet higher than the Mile High City. Although it is comparable in size to New Jersey, which has a population of 9.3 million, the valley is home to fewer than fifty thousand people, around ten thousand of whom live in a single town, Alamosa. Most of the remaining residents live in other, smaller towns, but some of them—maybe around a thousand people, although no one seems to know for sure—live scattered across an enormous area of the valley known as “the flats.” Nearly all the people Conover meets on the flats are poor, yet they generally own their own land. In fact, most of them were drawn to the area because it is possible to buy a piece of America there for rock-bottom prices—typically, somewhere between five hundred and a thousand dollars per acre, or roughly half what you’re likely to pay for a single square foot in Manhattan.

There is a hitch, of course. The flats possess almost no infrastructure: no electricity, no water, no sewer system, no pavement, precious little Internet or cell service, and a long drive on dirt roads unknown to most mapmakers for jobs or schools or medical care or a gallon of milk. Most of the people Conover meets live in trailers, sometimes augmented with sheds and shacks; they buy tanks of propane and two-hundred-and-seventy-five-gallon drums of water, rely on generators or solar panels for electricity, burn their trash in barrels, and use outhouses for human waste. A significant number of them, taking advantage of Colorado’s lax drug laws (if also frequently bending them), grow marijuana.

All this is somewhat surprising, because the San Luis Valley has many of the hallmarks of a lovely—and pricey—place to live. It has a dry climate, enjoys nearly two hundred and fifty days of sunshine a year, and boasts spectacular views: to the east, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and, towering behind it, the Sangre de Cristos; to the west, the snowcapped peaks of the San Juan Mountains. The weather is cold, but not atypical for the Rocky Mountain West, and the water resources are plentiful by desert standards. Nothing, in other words, makes the valley intrinsically less appealing than, say, the desert land around Joshua Tree, in California, where five acres might run you a quarter of a million dollars.

Conover keeps his readers waiting for too long, almost half the book, before saying anything about how the San Luis Valley came to be a magnet for the dispossessed. That story—about greed, grift, credulity, and the great American yearning to own things—begins after the Second World War, when developers started acquiring undeveloped land, rebranding it as residential, and subdividing it into lots for single-family homes. The honest ones made the land livable before selling it off, putting in everything from roads and utilities to houses, swimming pools, and golf courses. The dishonest ones did not, which is how people around the country, dreaming of retiring in sunny Florida, wound up buying a piece of uninhabitable swampland.

This subdivision craze reached southern Colorado in the nineteen-seventies, when developers began buying up enormous swaths of the valley and giving them names like Rio Grande Ranches. One pair of savvy businessmen staked out property lines for an estimated forty thousand five-acre lots, graded the roads meant to connect them, and then did absolutely nothing else, except profligately promote their product. They placed ads in TV Guide and in newspapers nationwide, promising “spectacular sports and outdoor adventure,” “game galore,” and “Healthful Sunbright Skies”; they bought up lists of people who had purchased rifles or Western novels or subscriptions to hunting magazines, then sent them mailers hawking five acres for under two grand in cash, or thirty dollars a month at six-per-cent interest. These tactics worked: a stunning number of people bought land in the flats sight unseen. One salesman recalled, “That guy in Illinois would tell his neighbors, ‘Yep, I just bought a ranch in Colorado. I’m gonna run out there this summer and check it out.’ ”

Those neighbors might have been impressed, but the Federal Trade Commission was not. The advertisements suggested that land in the San Luis Valley was a good investment, which, given the absence of amenities, was plainly untrue: unhappy buyers could not sell their parcels for what they had paid, if they could sell them at all. In 1979, under pressure from the federal government, the developers agreed to cancel all outstanding debts and refunded as much as fourteen million dollars. But they never made any further improvements, with the result that, a half century after those original lots were surveyed, land in the San Luis Valley, unlike the vast majority of real estate in America, has appreciated almost not at all.

“Cheap Land Colorado” opens with a problem. Conover wants to meet the off-gridders of the San Luis Valley, but many of them live there precisely because they do not want to be met—a preference they sometimes broadcast, he writes, “by closing their driveway 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!’ ” As a way around this prevailing suspicion of strangers, he starts volunteering for an outreach program run by a social-service organization called La Puente, based in Alamosa and widely respected around the valley. In this capacity, he drives around the flats in a pickup truck with the group’s insignia on its side, visiting properties, introducing himself to their owners, and, as a more or less literal icebreaker, offering them free firewood. (In the valley, as in an Annie Proulx story, freezing to death is an ever-present possibility.)

This strategy pays off, in that Conover’s book is full of remarkable characters. These include Frank and Stacy, who live in threadbare but cheerful chaos in a mobile home with their five homeschooled daughters, a cockatoo, various dogs, and, outside, goats, a pig, ducks, and, soon enough, Conover himself, who pays them a hundred and fifty dollars a month to park his newly acquired trailer on their land. There is also Paul, a gay guy who has lived in the flats for more than a quarter of a century—long enough to raise up from sapling-hood a little grove of Chinese elms, the envy of other residents in a part of the valley almost entirely devoid of trees. There is Zahra, who moved from the Chicago area to help start an African-nationalist group, got fed up with the would-be leader’s dishonesty and his half-finished home, squatted elsewhere in the flats for six months, and then fell in love with a white rancher who grew up in the valley. There is Luke, who identifies as having Asperger’s syndrome, excels at fixing anything electronic, pans for gold in the nearby mountains, and dreams of making money by selling goat milk, heirloom tomatoes, and homemade cheese. There is Nick, a representative example of a local species known as a prairie rat: “a person who could probably get a minimum-wage job somewhere if he wanted to but preferred just to hang out, subsist, keep a low profile, and do the drugs that made him happy.” There is a nameless gender-nonconforming couple who are widely disliked, partly for their self-presentation but also because they are rumored to be cooking meth in their trailer and are caught pumping water from the Rio Grande, which is illegal and, in the valley, almost the greater infraction. There are people it is impossible not to despise, like Zane, a tattoo artist from Alabama who, together with a friend, flaunts his disregard for government and law enforcement until they are both arrested on charges of sexually abusing their daughters; people it is impossible not to pity, like Geneva, whose husband and son die within six months of each other, the latter after coming too close to an electrical line; and people it is impossible not to admire, like Teotenantzin Ruybal, stern, steady, and compassionate, who runs a homeless shelter that serves residents of the flats when a crisis strains their already meagre resources or a trailer proves no match for the high-desert winter.

Cartoon by P. C. Vey

Ruybal grew up in the San Luis Valley, but most of the other people in “Cheap Land Colorado” arrived there later in life, generally propelled by the kinds of forces—grief, destitution, divorce, addiction, inability to fit in, outstanding warrants—that produce either profound inertia or a tendency to drift. One such person is Matt Little, a La Puente employee who, in addition to the many other ways he helps Conover—training him for his volunteer work, hitching up the trailer he buys and driving it out to the flats—provides the title for his book. An Iraq War veteran and a native of a moribund West Virginia steel-mill town, Little married a home-town girl, had two sons, then won the state lottery and bought a house for his family. One of his sons turned out to have paranoid schizophrenia; the house, which was not insured, burned down. Three months later, his wife died, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Little, desperate to get away and dreaming about images he’d seen in old Field & Stream magazines, went online and Googled “cheap land colorado.”

All of these people are fascinating, but none of them is the main character of the book. That role goes to Conover, who calls the second chapter “My Prairie Life, Part I” and the third “My Prairie Life, Part II.” The titles change after that, but the gist remains the same. As a writer, Conover is most at home in the first-person present tense; he prefers the closeup to the wide-angle shot, action to exposition, the immediate moment to context or history.

The virtue of this approach is that it brings the San Luis Valley into relief. Conover has a good eye for the particularity of life on the flats: a kid out riding her bike crashes into an antelope; a family dresses its pet Chihuahua in a leopard-skin sweater to keep it from getting eaten by hawks; a man uses crushed beer cans to landscape the area outside his trailer, as a suburbanite might use mulch. All along, the scale and the solitude of the valley quietly assert themselves. By day, on the long dirt roads, locals roar into intersections at top speeds, knowing that if a vehicle were heading toward them its dust plume would be visible from afar; by night, the sky above those same roads is dense with stars, while rabbits and nighthawks appear like fleeting motion-picture shows in the headlights.

Still, all this immediacy comes at a cost, one I felt acutely throughout the book: off to the side of Conover’s own high beams, a great deal lies in darkness. The tens of thousands of other people living off the grid elsewhere in America are acknowledged in a single parenthetical aside, and the scope of rural poverty in this country goes entirely unmentioned. You would not know from “Cheap Land Colorado” that life in the San Luis Valley, presented here as extraordinary, looks a lot like life in countless other impoverished places. Nor does Conover pay much attention to the structural problems that have swept his characters out onto the flats, like so many Joads on the road. Although he wrote an entire book, “Whiteout,” about Aspen, which is a few hours away and has a median home price upward of three million dollars, we get no consideration of that town here, no sense that the lives of the rich have any bearing on those of the poor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *