Author recounts research and writing from Costilla County


Photos by Patrick Shea Adams State University Interim President David Tandberg (right) introduces author Ted Conover before a full house at Leon Memorial Hall on Nov. 7.

ALAMOSA — Within a week of his newly published immersion journalism book, author Ted Conover met with engaged crowds at Milagros Coffee House in Alamosa and again on Nov. 7 at Leon Memorial Hall on the Adams State University campus.

The empty auditorium started filling up 45 minutes before Conover provided background for his reporting on off-grid living in Costilla County. People stood in the back and filled all the seats as Interim ASU President David Tandberg introduced Conover.

“Cheap Land Colorado: Off-gridders at America’s Edge” tells the story of a Denver Public Schools graduate who lives in New York City but felt compelled to explore the off-grid society, ultimately in Costilla County. Conover teaches at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In addition to publishing “Immersion: A writer’s Guide to Going Deep,” his other five books also entailed living deep, not just researching deep.

In 1984, for example, he devoted a year living the life captured in his book’s title, “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes.” For “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” he completed all the training and then spent a year as a prison guard.

Starting in 2017, Conover volunteered for La Puente under the guidance of experienced staff who were familiar with the off-grid “flats.” Conover ultimately purchased a trailer and property with a well in the flats region of the county. According to Conover, 97 percent of Costilla County is privately owned.

Before visiting the flats, La Puente drivers routinely load firewood in their trucks and navigate rough roads. They meet with the people who are inclined to meet with them, and they offer wood and information about services. After five-plus years volunteering and cooperating with neighbors, Conover cultivated relationships for interviews, primarily in the immediate vicinity of his land.

Conover said the off-grid movement in the county “reminded me of the early homesteaders, who were also trying to make it in difficult conditions.” For his own experience, Conover praised his heavy-duty sleeping bag, but he faced other problems when the thermometer registered minus-7 degrees. The door to his trailer was frozen shut, and he was trapped inside.

“I realized I was at the bottom of a very long learning curve,” Conover said.

With his immersion method, the author said he has learned from tramps on trains, old jailers in prison, and others with expertise because he likes to “put myself in a position to really know what’s going on.”

Although he’s not a native of the Valley, Conover’s reporting and the way he fielded tougher questions from the crowd revealed a sensitivity for nuance and humility. He said, “I have no doubt that I’ve missed the mark with certain people.”

One audience member praised Conover’s ability to ask tough questions and get honest answers. How did he do it? The book includes details about real people, folks who agreed to be interviewed.

“It’s not a straight line,” Conover explained, attempting to describe his approach. “But I feel like I’ve been entrusted with something very precious.”

Another audience member asked how he felt as an outsider when he writes his books. When school districts experimented with busing during Conover’s days at George Washington High School in Denver, he then rode the bus from the predominately white school to Manual High School where he was among the minority. As an adolescent, he learned how to learn and adapt to different social conditions.

For his writing process, Conover said he doesn’t start writing until he reviews all his notes and completes his research. He said his notes are extensive, claiming that all his note-taking for this book exceeded the maximum document size for a single Google doc.

“I always take more notes than I can use,” Conover explained.

Following the discussion, Interim President Tandberg invited everyone to his house across the street where several stacks of complimentary copies of Conover’s book shrank fast as the line for autographs grew and hors d’oeuvres disappeared.