Man of Destiny

Elizabeth Gilbert pays tribute to a latter-day mountain man

Elizabeth Gilbert
The Last American Man
Viking

In John Krakauer's 1996 bestseller Into the Wild, a young Chris McCandless sets off alone for remote Alaska to try to survive off practically nothing but his wilderness skills. Though he believes himself prepared, he proves no match for Mother Nature, and he's later found starved to death in an abandoned school bus. There may not be a moral to that story, but McCandless's desire to go it alone in Alaska is a typical one for many Americans, especially men.

If Into the Wild essayed the contemporary American man's inability to live up to America's frontier ideals, Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man finds someone who can. A ranch hand in Wyoming refers Gilbert to his brother, Eustace Conway--turtle farmer, road-kill eater, dumpster scavenger, cowboy (and pseudo-Indian), and all-around tough guy. And in this fellow--who, by age seven, could hurl a knife at a squirrel and nail him to a tree--she has her man. A writer for GQ, where this piece initially appeared, Gilbert explains early on that she's always been interested in men. This may explain why she practically drools over Conway in the early chapters of the book: "The chicks, I don't know how else to say it, absolutely dug him; the guys wanted to be just like him. He was growing into his looks, becoming both more unusual and more cool in appearance--broad facial bones and a strong mouth, wide-set and hooded dark eyes, and a long, arched nose. His body was superb in shape."

Gilbert is also a fiction writer--her works include Stern Men and Pilgrims--and she succeeds in turning the testimony of Conway, his family, his ex-girlfriends, and ex-coworkers into a book that reads more like a novel, or an extended character study. Gilbert learns that Conway's childhood was filled with not only easygoing afternoons and knife tricks. Conway's father, an MIT-trained engineer also named Eustace, was an overbearing, cruel parent who disapproved of just about everything young Eustace did, whether it be raising hundreds of turtles in their backyard in Gastonia, North Carolina, or catching and skinning raccoons he caught in the forest. From an early age, Eustace Jr. set out on an anachronistic lifestyle based largely on the semi-legendary figures of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and other male frontier icons. But the disapproval of Conway père was matched only by his mother's love, tutelage, and support. Her own father had run a wilderness camp whose goal was to rear "Men of Destiny": self-sufficient, strong leaders for America's future.

Conway fled from the suburbs the first chance he got, made a tipi, and started living off the land. It was the tail end of the Seventies and he bought hardly anything. He ate road kill. He dumpster-dove. He made his own clothes. He hunted and ate berries and weeds--whatever he could find. Slowly, people heard about this woodsy vagabond, and stories began to appear in the media. Soon after, Conway started to lecture on his lifestyle in schools across the South, and to teach the children how they, too, could become self-sufficient. Eustace Conway's destiny, it seems, was to lead by example, to become a latter-day preacher of back-to-the-land.

In time, going back to the land came to involve purchasing a large parcel of it in North Carolina--a spot Conway named Turtle Island and turned into a working farm. With the money from his exhausting teaching schedule, Conway purchased plots of surrounding land until he'd built up a self-sufficient mountain empire. Eventually, Conway stopped touring as much and turned his homestead into a kind of wilderness center, where children and adults would bunk down, learn about the wilderness, and work, work, work.

But staying at home is not what being a frontiersman is all about, and Conway began to feel that his new business venture was keeping him from spending enough time living what he preached. This wanderlust led him on a seemingly impossible trek across America on horseback. He succeeded, of course, setting a world record on the way. Not satisfied with that feat, he took a girlfriend on a horse-and-buggy journey across the Great Plains. He later wandered as far afield as Guatemala to observe indigenous ways of living: Upon getting off the plane there, he immediately asked, "Where are the primitive people at?"

Conway doesn't seem to see anything wrong with his idealized notions of "primitive people." To this book's credit, Gilbert does. For a long time, like everyone who first meets him, Gilbert is enamored of Conway and his lifestyle. But as she digs deeper, she begins to question the political implications of his pipe-smoking, tipi-living emulation of the American Indian life. She interviews her subject's ex-lovers and ex-interns from Turtle Island, all of whom detail the pattern of any relationship with Conway: first, awe and admiration; then, when faced with his grueling and demanding work ethic, disillusionment, a sense of betrayal, and then either dislike or outright hatred.

But Gilbert's increasing understanding of the complete Eustace Conway--his faults as well as his virtues--doesn't ultimately lead her to the usual bitter conclusion. She feels, it seems, sorry about the personal cost exacted by his fervent and unending efforts to spread his message. Toward the end of the book, she asks Conway, "Have you ever wondered...if you might benefit the world more by actually living the life you always talk about?" and "How about trying to live in peace for once?" Conway's response is a testy one: "'What does that mean?' Eustace was roaring now, laughing and totally losing it. 'What does that fucking mean?'"

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