In the many decades that have passed since Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books became the most widely read, most beloved account of the American frontier experience, a revisionist view has emerged, not just of what these days is called settler colonialism but of her father, Charles—that is, Pa, the fiddler with the twinkling eyes.
As portrayed by Wilder’s biographer Caroline Fraser, Charles Ingalls was a feckless man, if a loving father. He dragged his wife and daughters out of Wisconsin and “a comfortable, established home with plowed fields and a productive garden,” in Fraser’s words, and then from bad to worse: a house illegally built on Native American territory from which they are expelled; a farm in Minnesota prey to apocalyptic locust swarms; a hotel in Iowa next to a saloon, where a man tried to force his way into the young Wilder’s room; and finally the Dakota Territory. Scientists at the time had warned that the Great Plains were arid and infertile and sure to drive small farmers into bankruptcy, but the government, urged on by the railroads, lured people there anyway, giving away homesteads, unleashing land rushes, creating the conditions that laid waste to the prairie ecosystem. When Pa died in 1902, he had nothing to leave his widow and blind daughter but the house they lived in.
A century and some years later, Donald Trump wins the presidential election, and the journalist Ted Conover lights out for the territories—well, for southern Colorado, parts of which have indeed become a barren land. An earlier magazine assignment sent him to that part of the state to write about South Park, the real town of TV-show fame, “a place nearly devoid of people that was overlaid with dirt roads from a moribund 1970s subdivision.” After the election, Conover feels compelled to go back. He heads for a settlement not far from South Park in the San Luis Valley, sometimes called the flats, where a transient population lives in one-room shacks or trailers, many without plumbing, electricity, or internet. “The American firmament was shifting in ways I needed to understand,” he writes in his new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge. “These empty, forgotten places seemed an important part of that.”
I’m happy to report that over the course of his journey, Conover appears largely to forget his mission to explain the Trump voter, a too-common assignment that typically degenerates into cliché-mongering. Anyway, the people he meets in the valley strike him not as enemies of the great American experiment but, on the contrary, as the direct heirs of the pioneers—you might say, of Pa, which is perhaps why Conover has chosen a passage from Wilder’s The Long Winter as one of his epigraphs. The land isn’t free anymore, but, as Conover writes, “it is some of the cheapest in the United States”: $5,000 or so for a five-acre lot. The settlers “have a truck instead of a wagon and mule,” plus “some solar panels, possibly even a weak cell-phone signal,” he notes. “And legal weed.”
Who moves to the flats in the 21st century, and why? “What would drive you to it?” he wonders. Of course, that’s the mystery of Charles Ingalls, too. I should be clear that Conover doesn’t talk about Pa, but you can’t miss his ghostly presence. “My wife quipped that I could title this book Little House on the Prairie, with Meth,” Conover writes.
To dredge up answers, Conover “goes deep,” as he calls the Method-style journalism he has become famous for in Immersion (2016), his manual about the process. For his breakthrough book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), Conover spent a year as a corrections officer in the New York maximum-security prison. Newjack’s accomplishment is that it provides a 360-degree overview of America’s ghastly penitentiary system while remaining inside the perspective of one of its most monstrous members, which is how prison guards are usually characterized—by journalists, anyhow. You shouldn’t hate anyone, my journalism-professor husband likes to quote his fifth-grade teacher saying, and Conover doesn’t. He records hateful things, such as fantasizing about breaking the arm of an inmate who had reached out of his cell and hit him. But Conover is able to stay close to the corrections officers’ experience even as he takes the sociological view, with the result that the urge to pass judgment on them starts to feel callow.
In Colorado, Conover gets a job doing rural outreach for La Puente, a social-service provider that runs a local homeless shelter where flats dwellers sometimes spend the winter. Outreach means driving from one lonely outpost to another, offering firewood, food, or a ride somewhere, and leaving a card in case someone needs more. Like corrections, it’s dangerous work. Matt, who trains Conover, tells him about the time a man in camouflage picked up an AK-47 when Matt stopped at the gate, though the man opened up when he found out that the firewood was free. A flats dweller whom Conover visits says, “I don’t usually accept charity and stuff,” and refuses to get out of his Jeep. What he will accept is the chance to tell his life story through the Jeep’s half-open window: the opioids, the rehab, the time he let a guy stay with him and got himself shot.
And yet Conover discovers a social solidarity among the isolates. The flats are an accidental rather than intentional community, but all the more diverse for it. It’s not that the off-gridder stereotypes don’t have truth to them. People carry weapons—a lot of them. At one party, the men pile pistols, AR-15s, .50-caliber rifles, and shotguns high on the table before going in. In this case, the guns are used for friendly target shooting, but guns plus the vast spaces and solitary life yield plenty of violence and crime. Conover meets people fleeing the law or their own soiled reputations. A couple from Oregon whose “humble, polite, self-effacing” manner impresses Conover turn out to have a very nasty past. There are “homeschoolers (Christian and otherwise), sovereign citizens, weed lovers, and Hillary haters”; domestic abusers, science-deniers, conspiracy theorists, and, above all, addicts. Some of his interviewees are simply bizarre. Ania and Jurek, from rural Poland, tell him that the CIA is run by the Vatican, that the Church of England owns the Pentagon, and that capitalization in government documents signifies enslavement. “It’s called Dog Latin,” Ania says. “You can check it online.”
But wackiness is not synonymous with intolerance. Most of the people Conover encounters get along with others just fine as long as the others keep their distance. Zahra, who also goes by Ankhzahra Soshotep, is a Black nationalist from Chicago, a member of a sect that practices Egyptian polytheism. She flees to the flats to escape an abusive partner. After some mishaps that leave her with nowhere to go, she is taken in hand by Paul, a friendly, funny gay man who finds her a place to live. Eventually she moves off the plains to a nearby town, and even forms a happy relationship with a white man, an act that her old sect would have considered a violation of its strictest taboo; she later marries him. But Zahra still considers her six months of freedom on the plains some of the best in her life. Paul, meanwhile, has spells of severe depression, and his neighbors call and text one another anxiously when he doesn’t answer his phone.
Conservatism goes hand in hand with environmentalism. A religious family politely refuses to accept the iced tea and lemonade that Conover brings over, because they don’t approve of plastic containers. And who can say for sure why someone flies a MAGA flag? “It was the least expensive flag at Walmart!” exclaims Sherry. Conover doesn’t really believe her, but her defensiveness shows that she knows her views aren’t universally shared.
After a while, Conover starts hunting for some cheap land of his own. He tells himself that ownership would be good for the book. “I could interview a hundred landowners (and probably had), but it seemed to me I’d understand them all better if I were an owner myself. If I had skin in the game.” But that’s not the real appeal. He’s not just going deep; he’s buying into the dream.
From afar, that dream looks like sucker bait. Since the 1970s, when developers subdivided ranchland on the flats that had been abandoned for lack of water, the real-estate business there has been shady. Back in the day, plots were sold by mail order. Ads in publications such as TV Guide and the Chicago Tribune said things like “Good Recreation Land IS Great Investment Land!” and had photos of people golfing, fishing, and skiing (activities not currently possible on the flats). A reader could send away for a brochure and receive more false promises. People bought land sight unseen.
But the developers hadn’t bothered to extend waterlines or dig sewers or run electrical wiring to their lots, so few of the relatively middle-class folk in the first tranche of buyers who could have built up the area ever settled on their parcels. The land turned out to be worthless as an investment, too. It sells today for about what it sold for in the first instance—a lack of appreciation in value that is “a rarity in American real estate,” Conover observes.
Conover visits a retired developer and tells him that he thinks his marketing practices were deceptive. The developer replies that “overall, his customers had been quite satisfied.” The surprise twist here is that Conover comes to agree with the man, more or less. It’s not that he believes the early buyers weren’t deceived. But he thinks that the people he finds there now are getting what they want. The director of La Puente’s homeless shelter articulates this thesis for him: “You’re living in a slum, and you see an ad about owning five acres for five thousand dollars … To them it’s an opportunity, it’s the savage wild, their piece of the rock.” Life on the flats, that “vast tawny plain,” offers sanctuary to those oppressed by landlords, utility companies, people who look down on them, and walls closing in.
One thing is clear: People don’t come to the flats for easy money. They know they’re not going to get rich. The pioneers weren’t always in search of economic opportunity, either. Some longed for less tangible things, like open skies, a fresh start, and what Conover calls “sovereignty.” As Pa says in that epigraph: “Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”
The flip side of this proud self-reliance is a corrosive mistrust of civil institutions, especially the government, that does leave some flats residents vulnerable to Trump’s antiestablishmentarian pitch. When Conover goes to work for La Puente, colleagues tell him not to wear a blue shirt, because that’s the color worn by the county officials who come around looking for code violations, and he doesn’t want to be mistaken for one.
Though it’s also true that off-gridders have reason to hate the county. For one thing, it recently decided to crack down on them, and they figure it’s trying to get them to leave. The local officials do nothing to dispel that impression. They write a great many citations for failure to put in a septic tank, which costs $7,000 to $12,000, well out of reach of the people being cited. Worse, the county gives them 10 days to install a tank, after which they’ll be fined $50 to $100 a day, even though the job tends to take at least a month. “So paranoid were some locals,” Conover writes, that “they would seed their driveway with nails in order to disable visiting inspectors” and sneak into their home the back way.
Conover’s steady sympathy, his negative capability, lets us take in the culture of the flats on its own terms. To the degree that his subjects do resemble old-school pioneers, they remind us that many disenfranchisers of the Mexicans and Native Americans were themselves disenfranchised. It must be said that his expansiveness sometimes devolves into rambling, and the book sprawls, as if it took its shape from the prairie. His evocations of the olden days give a golden cast to his characters, whose lives, like Pa’s, sound bleaker than Conover seems to want to acknowledge. He’s an optimist, which is refreshing and generous, if not wholly persuasive.
That’s the risk of the immersive approach, and its pleasures. When Conover finds a parcel and moves onto it, ownership does remove mental barriers. As feral horses and unfenced cows meander through the plains and clouds amass and scatter with sublime indifference to human concerns, Conover merges past, present, and future into a timeless, ecstatic whole. “Even if you’re not a nineteenth-century-style homesteader,” he writes, “the wide-open spaces of the valley evoke a sort of ongoing frontier, virtuous because unsettled, pure because off-grid.” His mind casts off previous assumptions. Chatting with some neighbors one night, Conover entertains the possibility that UFOs exist. Life is full of mysteries; better to enjoy than to question them. A reader may not be willing to go that deep, but she has to acknowledge the sincerity of Conover’s desire to join the ranks of American dreamers, for better or for worse.