What is the common denominator that might drive a journalist’s curiosity about both Aspen and an impoverished area of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley?
It comes down to the particularity of the people, Ted Conover said at an event hosted by Aspen Journalism last month, where he discussed his latest work, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge,” and reflected on the community he chronicled more than 30 years ago for the book “Whiteout: Lost in Aspen.” (Please find full audio and video recordings of the talk at the top of this post.)
“Cheap Land Colorado” details a landscape of hardship and resilience, focusing on a remote area of Costilla County known as “The Flats,” where inhabitants, often living in mobile homes, are attracted by cheaply priced parcels that typically lack utility connections.
Conover spoke of how he, shortly after the book’s November publication, gave a talk at Adams State University in Alamosa and one audience member challenged him: What gives you, as an outsider, the right to write about the valley?
Conover, a professor of journalism at New York University who has lived in New York since the 1990s but grew up in Denver, recalled replying, “As a journalist, that is just kind of what I do. I just go somewhere and decide I have the right to write about it. But I try to justify that by becoming knowledgeable and thoughtful and empathetic.”
The book, he emphasized, “is about a very specific little world. It’s about this little part of this giant valley, and I tried to become an expert in the particularity of this place. And that often means the people there, right? It’s not just the numbers about tax or real estate, it’s who is there and what are they like.”
Conover then drew a comparison to his time living in Aspen — for about two years in the late 1980s, when he worked as a cab driver and as an Aspen Times reporter — that resulted in “Whiteout.” The “standout people I wouldn’t have known elsewhere” leave lasting impressions, he said.
“There is quite a long list of them,” he said, mentioning Nicholas DeVore III, Nancy Pfister and Bruce Berger. “I don’t think I would meet these people other places, and that’s part of why this place is special. And it’s the same down there [in the San Luis Valley]. It’s particularity that I am attracted to above all.”
He found plenty of it among the tracts of land created as part of 1970s subdivisions that never took off.
‘You realize you don’t know so much’
The impetus for wanting to get immersed in the San Luis Valley came from a desire to better understand the country’s increasing polarity after the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Conover met many of the book’s sources through his volunteer work with social services agency La Puente in Alamosa. There, he assisted at a rural outreach program that would deliver firewood and help provide other basic needs for area residents. He found the work to be a good introduction to begin building trust.
Conover first bought a camper-trailer and rented the corner of a lot owned by a family he got to know. Later, he purchased his own parcel. He continues to return to the valley and finds its vast open spaces soothing.
After one of his first nights living off the grid when temperatures dropped below zero, Conover found the door of his camper frozen shut the next morning. It drove home the importance of humility.
“All of these projects involve humility because you realize you don’t know so much and it’s the people out there who are living that way who do know what you need to know,” he said. “And that’s actually not a bad place to begin because here I am, an East Coast journalist and college professor and I am trying to meet people who don’t like those people very much. But if what I am asking is how to keep from freezing … and what mistakes did I make — people love to point out your mistakes — that’s not a bad opening.”
Overall, Conover said his years of experience in the valley “focused me on how many Americans have seen their standard of living fall in the last generation, have seen themselves fall out of the middle class, have seen their dreams evaporate, and how many of them are white people who blame Democrats for maybe not caring enough about people like them, especially those that live in poor rural places.”
Conover spoke of the balance that must be struck between holding one’s tongue as a survival mechanism and coming to understand what makes people tick.
“There is a lot of crazy stuff floating around online, and a lot of my neighbors believed some of it,” Conover said. “It’s important to talk about why, and where did you hear that, and where does that come from that you would believe something you hear on the internet over something you learned from a journalist. Oh, we don’t like journalists so much either, and why is that? And that’s a really fascinating question, and it’s one reason I’m happy Aspen Journalism exists and happy to be a professor of journalism because it is so important.”
On the hopeful side, Conover said he found that after getting past whatever is in the news or trending online, “you end up talking to people like they are people. And you’re both trying to figure out how to avoid the road that’s broken three axles on the way into Alamosa, or talking about the weather that’s coming in and everything else that makes us human and is not part of social media, not part of the current social schism.”
The photo negative
It’s difficult to draw comparisons between Aspen and the San Luis Valley, given their seemingly inverted characteristics.
Costilla County is home to an oversupply of 5-acre parcels that in 40 years haven’t appreciated much. By contrast, Conover observed that the Pitkin County land market is defined by insatiable demand and no obvious ceiling to what some people will pay.
“It strikes me that here, you might be lucky enough, if you’re not a person of wealth, to find a living situation that is sustainable in Aspen or Basalt or farther downvalley, but you are going to be the exception,” he said. “You are not going to be on the same footing as the people who own most of the property, so that is a very odd thing, and that is completely different from the San Luis Valley.”
Conover said what drew him to Aspen in the first place was a desire to get behind the celebrity-holiday-party coverage that was so prevalent in the town’s media profile at the time and to understand what it was really like to be the thing that so many might have wanted to be: an Aspen local.
“Whiteout” takes the reader inside John Denver’s Windstar organization and other aspects of late-1980s Aspen culture dedicated to seeking higher consciousness, into the mining tunnels where the valley’s original source of wealth was extracted and on Conover’s own search for meaning in a scene that he writes “seemed tantamount, some days, to the commercial rejection of sorrow.”
He then found “a sort of magic and sexiness and a rebelliousness … that wasn’t happening anywhere else.” Today, he sees the town as having evolved to a place where the resort and the nightlife aren’t the be-all and end-all in the way they were then. Even if skiing disappeared, Aspen might still survive “because there is so much else to recommend it now,” Conover said.
But whether crashing the party in Aspen or helping to run dinner service at La Puente, Conover said the margins of society are always the most fascinating and are what brought him to both places.
“I’m attracted to people living in ways my friends don’t know about or understand,” Conover said. “Aspen is a bit of an exception to that rule, but it is an extremity, so I was attracted to Aspen for the same reason.”
Thanks to Ted Conover, author of seven books. including “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” and “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants,” for participating in the talk. You can purchase “Cheap Land Colorado” at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.