A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.
But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.
Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.
If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.
The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.
Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.
See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.
From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.
Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!
I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.
Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!