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Author Ted Conover finds shared humanity off the grid in rural Colorado

Author Ted Conover and Aspen Journalism Executive Director Curtis Wackerle discuss Conover’s work, political divides and empathy in journalism at Aspen Meadows on Jan. 5.
Kaya Williams
/
Aspen Public Radio
Author Ted Conover (right) and Aspen Journalism Executive Director Curtis Wackerle discuss Conover’s work, political divides and empathy in journalism at Aspen Meadows on Jan. 5. Conover’s latest book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off Gridders at America’s Edge,” shares an account of life in the rural San Luis Valley.

Author Ted Conover has made a career out of immersive journalism, living the story as he gathers it from his sources in books like “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” and his latest work, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off Gridders at America’s Edge.”

For “Cheap Land Colorado,” Conover spent four years on and off in a trailer in a struggling, barebones region of the San Luis Valley, connecting with the people there who live off-grid and, often, far from the mainstream on lots purchased for $5,000 or less.

“All of these projects involve humility, because you realize you don’t know so much, and it’s the people living out there who do know,” Conover said in a conversation with Aspen Journalism Executive Director Curtis Wackerle at the Aspen Meadows Albright Pavilion on Thursday Night.

Conover also published the book “Whiteout” in 1991, detailing his two years in Aspen working as a taxi driver and reporter at The Aspen Times in the late 1980s.

Based on his experiences in Costilla County, where he spent time among the off-gridders of his latest book, Conover has said that he sees the rural region in the San Luis Valley as a “photo negative” of Pitkin County.

That contrast comes from the differences in “income and hype and cachet,” he said Thursday night, as well as differences in demographics and the landscape. (Aspen has a more “gentle” beauty compared to the stark but also “unbelievably profound” beauty of the San Luis Valley.”

But Conover also believes in shared humanity. He told Wackerle and the several dozen people in the audience that working on the project gave him hope that it is possible to bridge political and cultural divides.

“I find that after the first half hour of getting past whatever’s on the news or on the internet feed, you end up talking to people like they’re people,” he said. “And you're both trying to figure out how to avoid the road that’s broken three axles on the way into Alamosa or the weather that's coming in, or everything else that makes us human, that is not part of social media and not part of the current political schism.”

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Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.