Eustace Conway has all of the physical skills necessary to be an American hermit. He has lived for years in the Appalachian Mountains in a tepee, without running water or electricity. He can assemble and maintain his own clothing and tools. He can survive from edible plants and forest animals. He can make a fire from scratch. He has survived the rugged terrains of southwestern desert and Alaskan winter.
Eustace could easily be a hermit, but he is “the last American man,” in the estimation of his biographer Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote a book about Eustace Conway by that title.
That title refines the hermit possibility in Eustace with the frontier imagery of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, undoubtedly established survivalists but also shrewd politicians and entrepreneurs in their own right. Eustace is no bumpkin, either, with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and English, and long a meticulous keeper of a personal journal.
Eustace had ambition, and focused it on creating the thousand acres he calls Turtle Island Preserve, dwelling on a mere sliver of it (now with working farm and solar power) to highlight simplicity and ecological wholeness to a paying public that manages to support him a little and to maintain his wilderness near Boone, North Carolina.
So Eustace Conway is not a solitary in the strict sense, but this is probably the result of the horrible psychological abuse he suffered as a child from his father. Ambition comes, then, from his grandfather, who ran a wilderness skills summer camp, and from the compensation of achieving success to refute his father. Eustace’s benign mother encouraged his acquisition of native American skills but could not rescue him from psychological abuse. And as Gilbert’s book painfully shows, Eustace has had a hard time getting along with people up close. The grand irony is that Eustace was undoubtedly driven by this psychological baggage to create the environmental vision of Turtle Island Preserve.
At the preserve, Eustace teaches simplicity, self-sufficiency, and an alternative to modern life. He runs kids camps, survival workshops for adults, horse-training, and friendly small group tours and open houses.
Eustace is not optimistic that people will put his ideas and model life into practice. His optimism has waned over time. Daily reports about climate change, peak oil, and consumerism only confirm Eustace. Though biographer Gilbert describes enough painful experiences in the social turns of Eustace’s life, one can still see the original hermit in his longings.