There is a part of the dry flatlands of Colorado called the San Luis Valley where five acres of land can be purchased for a couple of thousand dollars. There is no electrical grid, sewerage, and in most places no running water. Nevertheless, the appeal of owning one’s own land acts as an outdoor lamp to moths for Americans who are poor, drug-addicted, paroled, angry, deeply religious, paranoid, anti-government conspiracists, or mentally unstable in complicated ways. Ted Conover is an immersion journalist who purchases a piece of property and a trailer and braves the ferocious dogs that seem to surround each shack or trailer and makes an effort to talk to his neighbors.
At his best, Conover humanizes a cadre of people who have stepped outside the normal confines of civilization. We learn that there is a great deal of pain, destitution, and untreated mental disease in an otherwise prosperous country. What he does less well is research and history. He tried to explain how real estate developers came to own the land they are selling, but I still don’t get it. He has part of a chapter about murders that have happened in the area for the last 100 years, but I’m not sure why we should care. Most troubling is the absence of any real arc to his story or take away message. Conover goes back and forth from his east coast university job to his trailer in Colorado and records interviews, but there isn’t any evident beginning, middle, or end to the book.
To his credit, Conover is bringing to light how challenging life can be in America, but the frustrations and misery of the off-gridders doesn’t seem especially unique to Colorado. His subjects can be found just as readily in Philadelphia, Sacramento, or probably within ten blocks of his job at NYU.