Books In Conversation
Ted Conover with J.C. Hallman
Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders At America's Edge
I drove to Colorado to immerse myself in the life of pioneer “Immersion Journalist,” Ted Conover. Conover’s new book chronicles his experience—his ongoing experience—of trying to understand the lives of people who have left “civilization” behind in favor of latter-day “self-reliance” in Colorado’s San Luis Valley by living some version of it himself.
Visiting Conover would have been a pilgrimage for me, no matter where he was. His early books chronicling other rugged experiences—hopping freight trains, traveling alongside undocumented workers, working in Sing Sing prison as a corrections officer—served as a guide for my own immersion experiences, both in terms of style and in what writers should be willing to invest in the projects that fire their imaginations.
When you enter the San Luis Valley from the east, there are the bounteous wheat-colored plains, and the sudden magnificent peaks in the distance that wear crowns of cloud. You drift down into a land where “classic” on the radio still means Beethoven and Mozart (not eighties rock), and where billboards advertise resources for those with mental illness and offer warnings to would-be dog-fighters (5,000 dollar fine). In towns, there are buildings wholly dedicated to mosquito-control efforts, and between the inhabited portions of the valley there are great swaths of land so uniformly covered with scrub brush they look like the inspiration for shag carpeting.
Google Maps got me to Conover’s place—barely. He met me outside to open a gate that was part of a fence he’d recently completed to keep cows from bumping up against his trailer in the middle of the night.
I’d met him in person seven years earlier, at a Harper’s Christmas party. (Cheap Land Colorado derives from a Harper’s cover piece from 2019.) We chatted about James Agee, and our discussion bled over into an email exchange about Agee’s immersion experience with the Gudgers, a family of Alabama tenant farmers described in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When I received Cheap Land Colorado, I was tickled to discover that Conover had found his own family to embed with, the Grubers.
It’s tempting to call Conover’s accommodations in the valley “spartan” or “Bohemian,” but that would not be correct. Nor would the obvious comparisons to motels or mobile home parks. Let’s just say it’s not Fifth Avenue, and it’s not Bedford Avenue, either.
We spent a wonderful afternoon together—another journalist visited for an hour or so—and that evening we drove to a nearby town to have dinner with a childhood friend of Conover’s who happened to be visiting. I can proudly report that I was the second to stay overnight in the guest room of Conover’s restored mobile home.
Our interview is compiled from an email exchange that predated my visit, and a second exchange conducted after I learned the most fundamental lesson of the San Luis Valley: “You have to see it to get it.”
J.C. Hallman (Rail): This book is a natural bookend with your first, Rolling Nowhere, about hobo culture, but it’s also quite distinct from that effort. Rolling Nowhere was about leaving home, while Cheap Land Colorado—for you, at least—is, in a way, coming home. There are other differences, in that your “immersion” this time around hasn’t actually ended. Still, does this book feel like a natural pairing with Rolling Nowhere, or full circle for your career?
Ted Conover: I see what you’re saying. Both books are about dispossessed people in the rural West, both involve homeless shelters and wide-open spaces. And yes, Cheap Land Colorado marks a return to my home state. But while Rolling Nowhere, a kind of travel book, was my beginning, Cheap Land, a book about homesteaders, doesn’t feel like a conclusion. At least I hope not! In my mind I see something like a curlicue, a circling back but a not-meeting. A big difference, as you note, is that this latest immersion doesn’t seem quite over—though the book is finished, I’m heading back to my place on the prairie in about ten days, just because I like being there. More specifically, I like who I am there. I like having to manage the winds and the bad roads and the people who want to know what are you doing out here? I like how dark it gets at night.
Rail: Like Rolling Nowhere, it’s not just that people are forced into this place, this life—there’s an attraction there, something appealing. It seems like it’s this that draws you as well.
Conover: Yes, it’s the pull of a possibly better place, a better situation. Maybe, if you’re a tramp riding freights, it’s the next town. That’s why you move—you hope it will be an improvement on where you are … at the very least, a solution to boredom. Or if you’re the Grubers, it’s the hope that you can forge a simpler, less expensive family life off-grid, have a garden, raise some animals, keep your kids away from crime.
Rail: You say that the prairie is an “antidote to civilization.” What is it, exactly, about civilization that requires an antidote?
Conover: If civilization means urban living, commuting to work, and complex, specialized economies, then to me it’s almost self-evident that sometimes you’d want to get away from those things. You’d rather not work really hard only to find you can barely afford your life. Or that you barely have any time to spend with your kids. That you work for a company and then give all your money to other companies. That you live a life that’s stressful and unhealthy, perhaps in a place with bad air and noise. That you’re valued for an ability to do one or two things over and over again, when in fact you’re a being that can do scores and scores of different things.
Rail: You say that “Sometimes living on the prairie felt like taking blinders off.” What do you mean?
Conover: I use that phrase right before introducing the reader to a kindly-seeming old man I had liked, and even admired (at seventy-two years old, he was fixing up a decrepit house to make a new start for himself and his wife) until I learned that he had failed to register with the county as a sex offender. I had also enjoyed time with his outgoing, intelligent friend, until I learned the friend was a serial operator of puppy mills who had faced charges in several states for cruelty to animals. I tend to begin with the proposition that most people are basically good, but the backstory can complicate that.
Rail: There’s a bunch of stuff like this in the book—but it hasn’t exactly turned you off the place. You’re not exactly among your people out here, are you? Is the book a throwback, then, to an extent, to a time when writers were beyond ideology, when the purpose of literary investigation was to build bridges between worlds, and not burn them?
Conover: Is that an old-fashioned idea, looking for humanity in people who are, on the surface, unlike me? I hope not. I mean yes, in terms of education and privilege, there’s a chasm there. But when I think, where would I rather spend the summer—on a porch on Martha’s Vineyard, among people “like me,” or on the prairie in the San Luis Valley, right now the San Luis Valley is winning.
Rail: You say in the book that you were tempted to buy a gun. Did you?
Conover: Let me answer that by telling you about the time I gave a reading at a bookstore in Aspen, following publication of my book, Whiteout. Somebody I offended in the book had publicly threatened me, and I asked Random House if they might discreetly hire a person to, you know, keep an eye on things during the event. The fellow they hired introduced himself to me ahead of time—he was quite presentable, not visibly “the muscle.” I asked him quietly if he had a weapon. He glanced toward his waist (he was wearing a hip-length jacket) and said, It’s really better if I don’t say. So, to borrow a phrase, it’s really better if I don’t say.
Rail: This is related to the last couple of questions, but it’s more theoretical, so bear with me! You say, at one point, referring to purchasing a mobile home in poor condition, that “for whatever reason, I’ve always preferred renovation to building from scratch.” I’m interested in that reason. My first instinct is to suspect that you’re renovating yourself, in some way (and this could be related to the phrase you italicize above: “I like who I am there”). But I also wonder whether there’s a controlling metaphor lurking in there somewhere (or meadow-phor, as you joked as we walked through your yard). Are writers basically renovators? Or certain kinds of writers? Is Cheap Land Colorado making an effort to “put back together” a culture that has broken down or otherwise fallen into ill repair? Is this the literary version of what the aid organization you worked for, La Puente, was trying to achieve?
Conover: That’s a really nice thought, but in truth I don’t think so. My guess is that my renovation impulse is less tied to a social agenda than it is to wanting to preserve cool old stuff in a country like ours that so prefers the new. After college I moved back to Denver for a while, where I bought an 1890 house that had wonderful stained glass and other original features and fixed it up. The place where I live now in New York has two wooden fences designed by the previous owner, who was an artist; when they were looking old and splintered, I replaced them with the same designs. Even old mobile homes, among our most ephemeral dwellings, can be worth fixing up.
Rail: There’s a scene in the book of a dog being put down with a gunshot. This is very Faulknerian, it seemed to me (and Faulkner is referenced once here), in that it is unflinchingly anthropological, but also affectionate. Thinking of Faulkner, and maybe James Agee as well, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to what extent did you allow yourself to become emotionally involved in these stories? Is there a line you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t have, crossed?
Conover: I was very moved by the gentle way that Frank and Sam prepared that old Saint Bernard for his violent end, and I helped them carry him to the hole they had dug. Empathy is one element of the documentary art.
That said, I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger myself. I wouldn’t enter into romantic or financial partnerships with my subjects. I try to be mindful of how my presence as a participant-observer might change the actions of people around me.
One tricky thing about my research for this book was how I wore two hats. The first was my role as a volunteer rural outreach worker for La Puente. That work helped me meet people; often once I had, I would explain that I was also a writer, and ask, could I interview you sometime? A conventional journalist wouldn’t want their hands tied that way, might worry about compromising their objectivity.
But to me there’s no existential problem in situating oneself, as a writer, on the side of people who are suffering, people in extremis. Occasionally it was a challenge not to get into arguments with them over politics; many times I had to bite my tongue. Political differences, in our day and age, can easily overpower human commonalities if we let them. That was a line I didn’t want to cross.
Rail: To get a little wonky for a moment: What kind of relationship do you see between creative writing and, say, anthropology? Sociology? Ethnography?
Conover: Well, I’d say that the courses I took in the social sciences, which were essentially about understanding humans in groups, helped prepare me to go out and live among different groups in a thoughtful way. And that has given me something to write about, time and again.
What the courses did not do was teach me how to write about that field work creatively, for a general reader. That’s something I had to figure out.
Rail: What were some of the first lessons you derived in that effort? Were there creative writing tenets that were useful in that regard, or were you charting new territory from both angles, as it were?
Conover: Hm. I was definitely feeling my way in the dark. One model for me was popular first-person travel writing of the day—books like William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways and Peter Jenkins’s A Walk Across America. I remember appreciating A Year at the Catholic Worker, by Marc H. Ellis, because he was a young person grappling, as I was, with his role in an unequal world; he was writing as a witness. A poem by Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki-Rosa,” was a precious reminder of how much I couldn’t know. Stanley Booth’s now-classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which I’ve written about elsewhere, was an artful model for creating a first-person narrative out of time spent immersed with a particular group of people.
As for creative writing tenets, show don’t tell is still high on my list.
Rail: Is it a writer’s job to embrace danger? Or at least not to flinch from it?
Conover: Well, I kind of think that’s my job, that’s my franchise. I find a situation that looks dangerous—crossing the border, working in prison, making cold-calls to hermits on the prairie—and I go there and take part. My editor for Newjack, the late Daniel Menaker, posited that I was counterphobic. (It was a word I hadn’t known until he said it.)
Obviously not every writer needs to expose themself to physical danger to research a book. And just as obviously, writing seriously usually entails taking on various other kinds of risks: the chance that what you’re working on might not be successful, or might not get published. Or that it won’t be as original as you thought. Or that readers will misunderstand it. Those are dangers that writers face all the time.
Rail: Do you have a firm line in the debate on how much creativity can or should be brought to bear on a body of fact while still being called nonfiction? Does it matter whether a book is a memoir or an investigation? If all nonfiction must be, well, nonfiction … then what is your definition of fiction?
Conover: A book labeled nonfiction should be true, by which I mean that people’s names should be real, unless there is a compelling reason to change them (which the writer explains), and the people themselves must be real people, not composites. Scenes you didn’t witness should not be recreated as though you did; dialog you didn’t hear cannot be reconstructed. You cannot invent facts.
That still leaves plenty of room for creativity. You decide where to begin the story, when to pause it, and how to render the ending. You decide when the passage of time should be compressed and when events can be played out moment-to-moment on the page. You decide whose voices should be included and whose, if any, ignored; you decide what to notice. You decide how much history to include, and how to tell it. You decide who the narrator will be—the persona you will inhabit on these pages.
Rail: When in your process do you begin making these creative choices? Do the creative choices come later in the process—after the gathering of the material, as it were—or do creative choices guide how the gathering itself proceeds, or even what to become interested in, in the first place?
Conover: I think creativity needs to start early, with making choices about the best way into a story. Research can be tremendously time-consuming. If you can imagine early on how particular research might translate into parts of a book, you can save some time. When I first learned about people living off-grid in these vast failed subdivisions of rural Colorado, I thought, maybe I could just go start doing that myself. And perhaps that could have worked. But the approach I settled on was better: I became a volunteer with La Puente, which was actively doing outreach to all kinds of prairie people. That gave me structure, goal, chronology—and the satisfaction of actually helping some folks, which you can’t always do in journalism.
Rail: You dramatize the moment when you first started thinking that your experience here could become a book as a series of questions. Is this how it always happens for you? Can you describe that moment physiologically? Is it a distinct sensation? Has it changed for you as you’ve gotten older?
Conover: In my mind taking on a new subject is like walking into a room, or house. Is this a place I like spending time? Is there enough here to interest me? Is it likely to interest other people, too? While riding the rails I happened upon three Mexicans under an overpass in Sacramento, waiting for a train just like I was. They seemed amazed that I spoke some Spanish and was interested in a chat. The more I learned from them, the more it felt as though I had been in a really interesting house (the House of Freighthopping) and had just stumbled upon a door to another part of the house I hadn’t even realized was there (the House of Immigration). This new section was actually bigger than the original house—there would be so much to learn there! And its inhabitants would talk to me! I remember being super excited. I had just found the topic of my second book, Coyotes.
Rail: You cultivate a lot of experiences, and then find a narrative among them, at some later date. Can you describe the process as events emerge for you? To what extent do you plan these events? Or do you recognize them, as they happen, or discover them later, in recollection?
Conover: I’d say both. When I start a new project, I’m setting off both to learn about a new social world and to have an experience in it. I’m thinking about both. I can set broad goals for the experience—to hop freight trains in the company of “professionals,” to cross the border with migrants, to work as a corrections officer. But the day-to-day stuff I often can’t control, so I’m pretty much laissez-faire about what that should include, pretty much come what may. Si Dios quiere. When I started getting interested in off-grid life in the San Luis Valley, I knew it wouldn’t be enough to just move out there myself; I needed to be part of a community. I also thought that my experience should include enduring at least one winter, since that’s a major test of who can make it.
Rail: Does knowing that you needed to be part of a community mean that community is really part of the subject, as well, even though people sometimes move out here to escape community? Is community the reason you’re sticking around even now, after the book is complete? How close are you getting to people out here?
Conover: Yes, though as you suggest it’s not clear whether “community” is quite the right word for the social world I’ve become part of. Because a significant number of prairie dwellers seem to actively resist social connection, and there is lots of suspicion out there. Still, people make friends, even if they live miles apart, and they keep up on social media and sometimes in person. I enjoy being out there on many levels: (1) Now that they’ve gotten to know me, many of the people are really nice. They look out for their friends. They lend a hand. If somebody has something that another person needs, they tend to work out a barter. (2) They are a lot different from the people in my other life—different in their politics, their expectations, even the way they talk. Earlier this month a woman summed up the look of an old cowboy who walked past us: “Rode hard and put away wet once too often,” is what she said. I love that! (3) The landscape is incredibly beautiful—the sky, the grass, the mountains.
Rail: This project sent you into histories, song, poetry, scholarship—how important is it for a writer who is a chronicler of experience to recognize that experience is not the only thing to chronicle—that experience includes study, as well?
Conover: What a good question. I find myself constantly thinking: How can I make this maximally meaningful? How can it be maximally engaging? My experiences in these different worlds are the foundation. But other kinds of knowledge—history especially, but also song, poetry, scholarship—enhance the story. They offer dimensionality and change of pace, relevant digression.
Rail: Is the lesson, then, that a literary ethnographer—for lack of a better word—can’t simply be a recorder of interesting events? There’s still a sense that needs to be made of them, even if it’s only placing them inside a larger tapestry made not of images, but, as you say, pacings, incidents, styles?
Conover: That’s right.
Rail: A portion of this book is more or less straight history—though it doesn’t come at the beginning. This is similar to Newjack, which saves its historical section for the last third of the book, I think. What are your guiding principles in terms of how much history to include in a book that is more a chronicle of immersion, and where to place it?
Conover: Of all the things one could add to a chronicle of experience, history often strikes me as the most potent. It offers context, a frame. And too often—I think especially in the United States—it’s ignored.
But where should history go in a first-person chronicle? As you note, in Newjack I put most of it into a chapter in the second half of the book. And in Cheap Land Colorado I do that again.
I wait because some readers feel that history slows things down. I suspect that’s especially so if they don’t see its relevance to my personal story. So I bide my time, and let the story unfold until the time seems right to add a little history.
Rail: Your prose appears quite simple—it hardly ever calls attention to itself. How hard is it to write sentences that require little effort to read and appear effortless to have written?
Conover: I think that writing style should suit its subject. I work hard to report a story and characters that carry impact all by themselves—without a lot of distracting verbal flourishes. To me this is the right way for a person like me, who has enjoyed many advantages, including education, to write about people like them, who have not. I want to show them respect, not impress the reader with my erudition or verbal dexterity.
Rail: Near the end of the book, you recollect that when you had first been driven out onto the flats, you didn’t understand what you were seeing. Is it a writer’s job to see differently? I’m thinking of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, or how Annie Dillard describes seeing in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What is your philosophy of seeing?
Conover: Great question. I try to be one of those people on whom, to paraphrase Henry James, nothing is lost. As far as what to notice, there’s always a productive tension between the things I notice and the things they notice. I notice that the side door of the minivan won’t close; they notice that the minivan lacks license plates. I see a snake and assume it’s poisonous; they can tell the difference between a viper and a bull snake. (They want the bull snake to stick around, because it chases away rattlesnakes.) I see an old ditch running across my neighbor’s lot; my neighbor explains it’s the remnant of a now-defunct irrigation system that was part of the ranch that preceded the subdivision. I see a young person with jerky movements and scabs on her arms; they see a meth user. Or here’s one from just last month: I see a guy pulled off to the side of the dirt road in his pickup truck. Meadoux Gruber, age sixteen and newly employed by a ranch, sees a potential thief of the metal t-posts that form a barbed wire fenceline. “Because why was he wearing leather gloves?” she asks as we drive by. (She and her sister Trin had had to replace several stolen t-posts at the ranch the month before.) I just spent five years researching and writing a book. But there’s still so much I don’t know.