Ted Conover began reporting his latest book, Cheap Land Colorado, in May of 2017, in a scenic and unforgiving stretch of the San Luis Valley known locally as the Flats. He tells the story of a diverse cast of off-grid homesteaders, struggling to bootstrap a life on the rural margins. Conover was first introduced to the locals as a volunteer for a nonprofit called La Puente. Under the tutelage of a military vet named Matt Little, he went door to door offering help with basic necessities like food and firewood. Over the course of the next five years he became a regular fixture in the valley, splitting time between a rented trailer parked on the property of a local family (the Grubers) and his adopted home of New York City where he teaches in the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Eventually, Conover bought his own parcel in the Valley, haggling down from twenty to fifteen-thousand dollars. When we spoke by phone in December, he said, “I’m probably not the only writer in New York on a crowded subway car who sometimes misses the place they grew up.”
The Challenge of First Impressions: Lisa Wells Interviews Ted Conover
This piece is excerpted fromCheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge by Ted Conover, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
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 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!”
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.