Drawn to the prairie, in search of answers to big questions

Nothing motivates the journalist Ted Conover like a no-trespassing sign, whether figurative or nailed to a barbed-wire fence and backed up with an AK-47. Starting with Rolling Nowhere, his 1984 account of hopping trains with hoboes, Conover has made a career of immersing himself in seemingly impenetrable subcultures, then writing with sympathy and insight about his experiences. In his books, he has chronicled traveling with undocumented immigrants as they cross the border from Mexico (Coyotes, 1987) and working as a corrections officer at a maximum-security prison (Newjack, 2000).

The sparsely inhabited prairie of southern Colorado might seem an easy gig for a writer who once patrolled Sing Sing, but the world Conover describes in his shaggy but engrossing new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, is every bit as harsh in its own way. Isolated, impoverished, and traversed by tarantulas, its human inhabitants alienated, suspicious and well-armed, Colorado’s San Luis Valley turns out to be the ideal Ted Conover assignment.

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