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Denver Post Spotlight Family living Off the Grid in Colorado’s San Luis Valley

Life off-grid in San Luis Valley’s high desert takes skills that few arrive with But Rodney Cook’s family has created a community where others have given up.

DENVER POST

Rodney Cook’s high-desert property is littered with the stripped carcasses of worn machines, whose parts were scoured to power devices that sustain the lives of a dozen family members living in a harsh landscape near Hooper

To provide heat during winters, when temperatures often fall below 10 degrees overnight, he makes a 60-mile round trip to the mountains, where he cuts wood to feed stoves that heat homes and cook food.

“We burn about 25 cords of firewood a year,” he said. “I don’t know if this is for everybody out here. It’s not easy.”

The land sits on a table-top stretch of the San Luis Valley, a patchwork-quilt of arid desert and irrigated green farmland almost 8,000 feet above sea level.

Mountains carve the sky in all directions, and the promise of cheap land and life beyond the confines of civilization lures many. It is dream land beyond the reach of electricity and other infrastructure considered necessary by most.

In his 10 years here, Cook, 53, has seen many people come and go.

Much of the land was platted years ago for subdivisions that were never built.

“There is land to be had in these kind of funky subdivisions that were created in the 1980s, and never really took off,” Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson said.

Anderson, who lives in the town of Saguache in a hay-bale home powered by solar panels, estimates that only about 30 percent of those who move to the desert have the skills needed to make a go of it.

“There is this kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ fantasy. Show up in September, and it’s just great. There is great land, it’s cheap, you’re with your girlfriend. Then the winter comes, and you haven’t gotten much done,” Anderson said. “We joke that this is where relationships come to die.”

Some stick it out for a while. They get a structure and a wood stove but eventually give up, leaving behind crumbling reminders of their effort. Others squat for the summer, then leave in the winter, returning with the warm weather.

Many arrive hoping to cash in on the state’s cannabis rush. “(They build) three greenhouses and live in a storage container,” Anderson said. “All the money went into the greenhouses because they’re going to make a million off marijuana.”

Cook, who advertises his land to potential tenants on an off-grid living website, shares the property with another family and a man who lives alone. The two parties each pay Cook $250 a month in rent to have their trailers on his 40 acres of land.

His tenant family — a couple and their two sons — moved to Cook’s property from nearby Costilla County after that county took steps to control an influx of people moving onto desert properties without the resources to develop them.

The county made it illegal for owners to camp on their land longer than two weeks, whether in a trailer or a tent, without showing that they were building a permanent structure.

Cook said his tenants had paid for the land they couldn’t use.

“A lot of the folks who don’t want to comply are going elsewhere in the valley, especially Saguache and Alamosa (counties),” Costilla County administrator Ben Doon said. “As long as they get their septic system and building permit, we leave them alone.”

The tiny community that has sprung up on Cook’s property is self-sufficient, with members helping one another to survive.

Residents share food and labor. When he travels to the mountains to cut wood, his son-in-law and a tenant help to bring down and transport the lumber.

Cook shakes his head as he describes a previous group of tenants who moved in and then did little more than get stoned.

He kicked them out.

Members of the Cook family head ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Members of the Cook family head home with a bed full of hay spilled from one of the commercial farms nearby, July 29, 2017 near Hooper. The closest paved roads are three miles away and the others are much further.

Cook and his wife, Kalin, 54, live with a daughter, four grandchildren and a niece in two trailers joined together — the cramped interior dark and crowded with necessities of their lives.

They have a small solar panel, and two wood stoves keep the interior warm. A third stove is used for cooking.

Another daughter, her husband and their two children live in a separate trailer.

The property is home to 32 wolf-dogs, as well as chickens, pigs, goats, dogs and cats.

Some of the animals provide service for their upkeep. The chickens give eggs, the goats provide milk, the hogs end up on dinner plates, their meat shared with those who live on the land.

“We do all our own butchering,” Cook said.

Piles of bulky cattle bones are strewn about the wolf-dog pens. “We have a butcher in Alamosa, and they save all their scraps,” Cook said.

The hybrids eat from 800 to 2,000 pounds of scraps each week.

Charina Cook, left, and her cousin Kebrina Orth, dump out the huge butcher scrap bones left after the wolves ate their fill on April 2, 2017 near Hooper, Colorado.
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Charina Cook, left, and her cousin Kebrina Orth, dump out the huge butcher scrap bones left after the wolves ate their fill on April 2, 2017 near Hooper, Colorado. Cleaning up the bones is a never ending chore, along with caring for the wolf hybrids and their fences on the property.

Cook holds a U.S. Department of Agriculture license, which is needed to breed and sell the animals.

He used to sell wolf-dogs, getting anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for a pup, he said, but “we haven’t been breeding a lot of them lately.”

There is an artesian well on one of his properties. He hauls back 250 to 700 gallons of water every other day for his family and tenants.

The family shops for groceries in Alamosa, and Cook supplements their pantry with meat from elk, deer and jack rabbits that he hunts.

They grow their own vegetables. Jars of meat and vegetables canned for storage are stacked throughout their trailer.

Winter is on the way and ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Winter is on the way and the sun is setting as the kids get home from school Nov. 21, 2017 near Hooper. Charina Cook, not pictured, drops them off and picks them up at the bus stop, three miles from their home during their four day school week- Monday through Thursday.

Cook’s grandchildren, who attend Sangre de Cristo Elementary School, in nearby Mosca, help out. On a recent day, 11-year-old Lakota braced a bucket of water on her head with both hands, as she carried it toward the hog pen.

Cook and his family moved to the land — adjacent to property owned by his parents — 10 years ago, after his mother died, leaving his father alone.

“A family from Tennessee had started buying this place and they couldn’t handle living off the grid,” Cook said. “I took the payments over.”

They left behind two trailers and a working septic system.

The power is down on the ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

The power is down on the property because the 18 horse power propane engine on the homemade generator they bought two months ago, just stopped working March 31, 2017 near Hooper. Rodney worked for 5 days and could not get it running. He switched out the motor, that one died 2 hours later. They spent more money on a small generator to hold them over until he figured out a more permanent solution. He’s still working on it.

Cook, who had lived in remote locations on and off for 30 years, came to the land with skills — some learned from his father, who was a diesel mechanic. While Cook was in the Army, he repaired small arms. Also, he once held a job at a hog farm. Welding, electrical, mechanical, plumbing — Cook can do it all.

A satellite dish points to the sky from one of Cook’s trailers. The family has internet access and television powered by a generator.

Since arriving in the desert, Cook has learned some things from YouTube videos. Among the things he has built based on instruction from the social media site is a degasifier, a contraption that turns wood into fuel that he’ll use to power an 18,000-watt generator he is building.

A battered orange Subaru sits near the partially completed generator. The vehicle’s engine compartment sits empty — the four-cylinder motor was poached to power the generator.

Cook once converted one of his stoves to burn oil. The stove exploded, throwing him across the room and burning his left arm up to the elbow.

“That went back to wood,” he said. “The wife and kids said I can’t play with oil anymore.”

The rent he collects supplements the $1,400 he gets from Social Security and from Veterans Affairs payments for a service-connected disability. The money supports himself, his wife and four of their six grandchildren.

Cook’s back was injured driving an M60 Patton tank during maneuvers at Fort Riley, Kan., when he was in the Army in the 1980s. Directed to break away from a tank formation in a 45-degree angle, his vehicle climbed a slight embankment and slammed down into a tank trap he hadn’t seen.

“It was an old tank trap for training,” he said, “No one knew it was there, and when (the tank) came down, it flipped and pitched me out like a lawn dart.”

The accident blew off eight of the tank’s 24 road wheels and damaged discs in Cook’s back.

Cook acknowledges that life in the desert is difficult. But neighbors are scarce, the skies are clear, the vast empty desert is quiet and the Milky Way lights the night.

“I live out here because I don’t have to listen to all the crap that goes on in the city and town. All you hear is sirens,” he said. “I like quiet. I don’t have to worry about listening to neighbors bellyache.

“I’ll die right here because I like being out in the middle of nowhere.”

Early morning clouds block the sun ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Early morning clouds block the sun as it rises and Lakota Douglas has some time to herself July 27, 2017 in Hooper. She has been a wrestler and is a volleyball player and wants to be an ice skater, a cheerleader, a track star and a singer and to be a famous movie star like some of her idols. Living with her mother and grandfather off-grid hasn’t stopped her dreaming of fame outside the property, it’s only fueled her imagination.