Randy Johnson photo
Eustace Conway hitches a wagon with a student at Turtle Island Preserve.
Eustace Conway wasn’t born a mountain man. Or maybe he was. Maybe he inherited the gene from his mother, who grew up on the grounds of a rugged outdoor boys camp in the mountains outside of Asheville, who got it from Eustace’s grandfather, C. Walton “Chief” Johnson, the founder of that camp. But the fact is that Eustace spent the nights of the first 17 years of his life sleeping in a suburban home in the Piedmont, first in South Carolina outside of Columbia, then in Gastonia, N.C.
So no, he’s not “from” the mountains, but he is most certainly a mountain man, which speaks to that old repeated school-age axiom that we can be whoever we want to be when we grow up, the central meaning, essentially, of the “American Dream” once one strips away the caricature of picket fences and families with 2.5 children and the dog and the four-bedroom house with an immaculately groomed lawn. It’s upward mobility characterized not by cars or boats or watches but by a higher sense of self, casting away any predetermined notions of who we are supposed to be or what we’re supposed to do, and being whoever we damn well please.
That’s the allure of Eustace, of course. Not what he says—“Don’t stop. Tenaciously commit yourself to that goal and critically analyzing anything and everything that gets in the way”—though these words can be meaningful and powerful for those who take them to heart, they’re not particularly profound. Similar directives could very well have been plucked from the speeches of any number of college circuit lecturers. No, what sets him apart from the suits and ties, what has seduced and mesmerized countless numbers of college students, journalists and documentarians, is that he does it. He did—and still does—what many have only dreamed of doing, breaking away from modern society and all of its ills to return to the land.
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Eustace’s parents and grandfather cherished and nurtured experiential education in a woodland setting. His mother’s father in 1923 founded Camp Sequoyah, a summer camp for boys in Weaverville, N.C., where campers spent days swimming, horseback riding, competing in field games, camping in tepees, handling snakes, rock climbing and learning skills such as archery, insect classification, backpacking, basket weaving, and beading.
Chief Johnson wanted his campers “to be the most that they could be. To reach their human potential. To look within themselves and find out who they were, not what somebody else wanted them to be,” Eustace remembered. Karen, Eustace’s mother, grew up on the summer camp grounds, living in a log cabin heated by an open stone hearth. What skills city boys managed to learn a few weeks out of the year she practiced year round and, as a mother, passed on to her son. Eustace spent time at his grandfather’s camp for a couple of weeks in his early years and at least 10 weeks each year after he turned 11.
“They were very powerful, very influential times,” Eustace remembers. “As a youngster I bonded with the mountains in a deep and powerful way.”
His father, a chemical engineering professor, was an avid outdoorsman. He loved to hike and take Eustace along, teaching him to identify the flora and fauna. The elder Eustace even brought his son along on a whitewater canoe trip—when he was 4.
Eustace calls the areas where he spent early childhood “pseudo-suburbia,” because in the early ‘60s there were still hundreds of acres of wilderness that surrounded the cities and which backed up to his home. Young Eustace struck out in the woods alone at 6 years of age. He camped alone in the woods for a week at age 12. And by 17, he made the forests his home for good, living for 17 years in a tepee, at first squatting on land he did not own.
“Backing away from masses of people, backing away from the norm, being reflective, stepping out of society … almost forces you to look—and I wanted to look—I wanted to sort of see from a perspective what was going on. That just afforded me the opportunity,” Eustace explained. “It’s hard to analyze things when you have obscurity. A lot of our modern-day life is sham and illusion. Most of what we believe is going on in this country is unfair, incorrect propaganda.”
With only the earth and himself as teachers, he became proficient in truly living off of the land, creating his own tools and fashioning his own buckskin clothing from the hides of the animals he hunted for food. At Appalachian State University in Boone, where he earned degrees in English and anthropology, he was conspicuous even amongst the hippies.
“Eustace stood out from everybody at ASU,” wrote photographer Forrest MacCormack of Raleigh, who attended Appalachian State in the ‘80s, on his blog. “He often walked barefoot, even in the dead of winter back in those days. I remember talking to him one day on the school ‘quad,’ and our conversation always stuck with me. He told me about having some money that he was going to buy some land or had already bought some land near Boone. He lived in a tepee on that land. That he was going to live off the land. I thought he was delusional and likely doing wayyyy too many drugs. Boy was I totally wrong.”
Eustace wasn’t content to spend all of his days in the North Carolina wilderness, however, and he describes a long list of adventures that cross national borders and bodies of water. He canoed 1,000 miles on the mighty Mississippi as an 18-year-old. He hiked across eastern America via the Appalachian Trail, traveling the full 2,181 miles. He has backpacked more than 5,000 miles in wilderness, deserts and jungles in North America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, visiting with Indian tribes along the way. Setting a world record, he crossed America from the Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean by horse in 103 days. He navigated around the southern coast of Alaska, amongst icebergs and whales, in a kayak. Through these extreme adventures, Eustace learned how to harness his fears and to how to survive.
“I remember one time when a big storm came up and I was out at sea in a 16-and-ahalf-foot-long kayak, a big, choppy storm came in, and I couldn’t really hardly move. The current was against me, wind was against me, it was terribly dangerous, 10-minute survival rate in the water, icebergs blowing all over the place, and I realized that I didn’t have a very good chance of living,” he said. “And the only chance I had was if I could get over my fear, because I got very afraid, and adrenaline started flowing like crazy, and I realized that I needed to conserve every bit of that energy. So I started controlling my breathing and just really working on focus. And every single paddle stroke made a difference. I had to brace and react to every piece of water that came flying at me. Over time, I slowly got my way into the land … and literally hugged and kissed the earth and laid down in a big pile of exhaustion.”
It was in 1987 that Eustace founded Turtle Island Preserve at a tract of land he had amassed east of Boone, N.C., in a community called Triplett, at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The name for the environmental education center and 1,000-acre wildlife preserve comes from an American Indian legend about the creation of life on land on the back of a sea turtle. Here, Eustace built a farmstead with nine log buildings using materials harvested on site and trained mules and horses to pull logs, sleds and wagons and to plow the garden. And now, after many years of living in the woods without other humans, Eustace shares his Turtle Island abode with a rotating cast of interns, volunteers and apprentices. But Eustace insists he was never really alone.
“You’re not alone because there’s a whole forest around you that’s a rich and thriving community, and you’re just a visiting member in a huge community,” he emphasized. “It’s important for us to recognize that these mountains are the home for thousands of creatures before the human beings and will be after we’re gone.
“I hope,” he added, quietly.
There is much to be learned from being away from other humans, he’ll nevertheless tell you. “For anyone, even people persons, you might say … it’s real important to have time by yourself,” he stated. Our culture doesn’t give much opportunity for that—especially time by yourself surrounded by nature.” Though he finds a few hours for time to himself in the early morning hours and at dusk, and though he finds the task of teaching others very meaningful and important, he yearns for his days of solitude.
“I miss it about every hour.”
“I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”
– Steve McQueen
To reach Turtle Island from Boone, one must first plunge off the edge of the Blue Ridge, fishtailing down paved, winding switchbacks, and then take a right on a country road, driving past a few small houses before turning onto the bumpy, rocky and narrow passage into the holler. Better than an old logging trail, but not much better.
As the preserve emerges as a clearing in the forest, the sun’s heat feels heavier, thicker here than most places, and the odor of earth and wood chips is strong. Other than the chirps of birds and squirrels, the first sign of animal life is a goat, black as night, chained to a stake in the wooded area next to the preserve’s driveway. The beast stops grazing to hold its gaze.
The noisiest creatures on the property are the farm fowl: chickens, ducks and guineas, which help control insect and tick populations. A black and white horse flicks its tail in a field as a rooster of the same color palette struts in the grass nearby. And from up the hill come the first human voices, as Eustace and a few assistants are seated around a fire pit with a group of youth from Germany. The group spent the prior night at the preserve and everyone in the circle, one by one, takes turns describing his or her experience and what was learned.
“Seeing how you used everything,” one woman, perhaps a group leader, said. “Nothing is wasted.”
The kids lingered, reluctant to leave. “Let’s go!” the woman repeated. After their exit, Eustace’s eyes sparkled as he recapped the visit with his assistant, Desere. Though he must have hosted thousands of students and visitors to the preserve, he still seemed genuinely excited by the students’ reactions. He congratulated Desere for her leadership of the night walk—an activity in which visitors help each other through the woods in complete darkness, learning to trust their senses.
Afterward, seated at the lunch table in the preserve’s kitchen, Eustace described how his years of subsisting in the woods made him feel human, made him feel alive.
“When I’m living close to the land and the sun is hitting me and I’m stressing and challenging myself with the exercises of being involved with the land, like when I’m sailing or canoeing across the big expanse, or sneaking up on a bear. What’s most alive—that’s when you’re putting yourself on the edge. Which is very different than watching television. Or playing some video game where you’re killing people by pushing buttons.”
And he spent several years studying what nature had to say about the difference between man and woman.
“One of the weirdest things going on with culture today, especially during my lifetime … is that there’s such a big question about what’s masculine or feminine,” Eustace remarked. “People are trying to get away from gender … sort of trying to wash away the differences.
“Inherently, by nature, a man is very different than a woman,” he continued. “You see these things in nature. How a male animal acts compared to a female animal. And when you live in nature long enough you realize you’re an animal. I touched my wildness. It’s good to get clarity on that. I think that we should celebrate masculinity just as we should celebrate femininity, just as we should celebrate aging and elders, just as we should celebrate infancy and birth.”
Thirty-four years after forsaking the comforts of suburbia to make a home deep in the forest, to live as an animal amongst animals, Eustace is anything but anonymous. He has been the subject of countless newspaper, magazine and television profiles, from MSN to Our State to National Geographic to GQ. A documentary, Full Circle: A Life Story of Eustace Conway, has been screened at international film festivals. The requests from journalists no doubt multiplied after 2002, the year Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert published The Last American Man, the most detailed account of his life to date. Does all of this media attention, the clamoring for face time, the hype—does it embarrass him?
“It’s only been more recently. But I’m not embarrassed by it; it’s intriguing,” Eustace replied. “I try to think of it as an honor and try to make use of the attention to do something good that goes beyond my ego.
“People [say,] ‘Oh, this guy is so different,’” he added. “But the point is: you can do this, too, if this is important and you want to. I learned a lot along the way. I didn’t know that much, but I was willing to not let fear and others’ opinions stop me.”
Completely isolated from society he is not, and anyone looking for contradictions or hypocrisies in his story, or the oft-romanticized stories that have been told about him, will find them. He decries the binds of “capitalistic slavery,” for example, but Eustace is an active participant in the free market economy, with his soft-spoken words serving as his main commodity—he frequently leaves the preserve for public speaking engagements at festivals, educational programs and other events, and a two-hour buggy ride with Eustace at Turtle Island runs $75. And he didn’t acquire 1,000 acres within miles of resort areas with, well, acorns.
Yet, for anyone looking to escape the materialistic excesses of modern civilization and to live a simpler life closer to the land, Eustace’s experience is unquestionably exemplary.
There is no “mountain man” gene, of course, though many claim the mountains to be “in my blood.” A mountain man, Eustace quite simply remarks, is a man who lives in the mountains—“you could be a mountain man that’s a stockbroker from your own room in your house.” Any characteristics attributed to the mountain man—independence, self-sufficiency—were shaped by the remote environments in which they lived. Were.
“Our people are changing. Culture always changes,” said Eustace. “The mountains and mountain people have been identified as a different sect of people no matter what mountains in the world you’re from, and that’s historically been that way. But there’s something happening right now that is making that different. And that is … the technology, the changes. People are overpopulating the mountains. Now you’ve got people from Boca Raton that have their house on top of a mountain and they want their grocery store to be five minutes away.
“What is a mountain man? That is changing at this moment.”
Turtle Island PreserveTriplett, N.C.828.265.2267
Turtle Island offers summer camps, a family camp, school camps, an adult camp, workshops, retreats, horse-drawn carriage rides and open house days. All visits are by appointment only.
Guests stay in log houses or primitive tents, use the preserve’s outhouses and receive hands-on experience in living in the natural world, whether harnessing a mule, blacksmithing or killing a rooster for supper.