The Last American Man

The Last American Man

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking Press

During one of my stints in graduate school, I had the good fortune to secure employment at a Western Union office. My boss, a rustic and a cracker, was a lot like Eustace Conway, the focus of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, The Last American Man. Both sought life in the great outdoors, both barely suffered fools gladly and both could walk out the back door of their houses into the wilderness and live there for days, months or even years. At the time, I felt considerable disdain for spending my time in the humid, mosquito-infested air, but I had a grudging respect for my employer. Anyone who could tell what plants to eat and what not to, how to skin animals and make clothing out of their hides or build a suitable shelter out of palm fronds and mud was a man in my book. So too do I feel the same way about Eustace Conway.

As Elizabeth Gilbert reveals in this biography, Eustace Conway is almost the avatar of some lost romantic ideal of the American wilderness. She frequently alludes to and contrasts his actions and experiences with such legendary explorers as Davy Crockett, yet throughout, she paints Conway’s portrait with a deft touch. Listen to how she begins this biography with characteristic wit that captivates the reader and holds their attention rapt throughout.

“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty handed, built himself a shelter and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams and dressed in the skins of animals he had hunted and eaten This move occurred in 1977, by the way. Which was the same year the film Star Wars was released (1).”

Born and raised in North Carolina, from an early age, Eustace was taught how to respect and live in the wilderness. It was a love that his mother instilled in him and a pursuit to which is father drove him. Frequently the subject of outbursts and tirades against him by his father, by the age of 17, Eustace had escaped his father’s dominion and headed for the outdoors. By the age of 19, he had hiked the Appalachian Trail, surviving by only eating what he could kill or scavenge from the sides of roads. He also had kayaked around Alaska, alone. In his thirties, he set a world record by riding horseback across the entire United States. Yet, for each barrier he conquered and each extreme he drove his body to, there remained the refrain: More, More, More.

He offset the costs of attending college by living in a homemade teepee. For food, he would eat what he could steal from the dumpsters of grocery stores or scavenge from road kill. His expenses were limited strictly to his textbooks and course fees. He would teach his fellow classmates Native American hunting techniques, and during his first day at a university, he astounded them by illustrating the best way to skin and prepare a rabbit.

“It’s not like deerskin, he explained as he made a neat incision from the hind foot down to the anus and back up to the other foot. Deerskin is strong and supple and useful for dozens of purposes, Eustace said, but not rabbit. You can’t get a wild rabbit’s skin off in one piece and then just fold it over and make a mitten out of it… Eustace passed the pelt around the classroom so that everyone could handle it. The students asked what one could do with such a fragile strip of fur. Naturally, he had the answer (72).”

As Eustace grew older, he gradually worked and toiled by offering nature programs and wilderness education to children and young adults in order to follow his true dream, creating a 1000-acre nature preserve he called Turtle Island. Yet it is his dream of creating this utopia that at times bedevils, and occasions Conway’s greatest sorrows. As Elizabeth Gilbert illustrates time and time again, Conway’s success in establishing his goals often come at a perilous price, and results in a series of ruined friendships and failed romances.

The exacting standards that allow Eustace to survive in the wild are those same qualities that damn his relationships with those who get close to him. A relentless perfectionist who expects a complete and total commitment to his vision, Conway’s personal life is best exemplified by a series of tortuous and bitter relations. His relationship with his volunteers fares little better. At times dependent on those who would willingly give up two years of their time to work for him, his charisma and quasi legendary status guarantees that those who are drawn to him are, time and time again, those most ill suited for his demands. While he exemplifies a brash individualism and a sense of “You Can Do It,” those who seek him out are most often those “Who Can’t Do It.” They are those who don’t want to work or feel the sting of criticism but expect a hybrid of Deepak Chopra and Paul Bunyan.

I have to admit though, that I too am one of those drawn to him, like a proverbial moth. For all his relentless standards and having the privileged position of seeing his flaws, there is something appealing to know that there are still men like Eustace Conway alive. Those of us feeling the dread of the modern work week and who spend our lives in the meaningless pursuit of numbers, stuff and things feel a real sense of solace in knowing that somewhere, Eustace is out there. In the vast American night, there are those like Eustace, who remember the essential truths of life. Gilbert elaborates this in a moving passage on how Conway teaches children how the forest is alive.

“‘The woods are alive,’ he said, but he could see that the children didn’t quite get it. Then, he asked a question. ‘Who wants to be my helper?’ When a small boy stepped forward, Eustace — with the help of the children — dug two long shallow trenches in the forest floor. And he and the little boy lay down in the trenches and the other children buried them so that only their faces were sticking out of the ground looking straight up… They lay there for some time in the soft forest duff, Eustace and a five-year-old child, and described what they saw and felt. How the sun hit their faces for a little while and then the shade came with the waving branches above them. They described dead pine needles falling on them and the drops of moisture from past rainfall landing on their cheeks and the insects and spiders marching over their faces. It was amazing and the children were mesmerized (113).”

In many respects, reading this biography is a lot like sharing time with those children and learning to understand the world in many different ways.

As it stands, The Last American Man should share a shelf alongside Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into The Wild. Together, they both probe the hearts of young American men coming of age at the end of the twentieth century and looking for the raw purity of the wilderness. Gilbert’s work stands as a testimony of the inherent irony of this project; that Conway’s desire for solitude and privacy necessitates his dependence on those who are incapable of reciprocating or matching his ideals. Whereas, for Krakauer, the pristine allure of the wilderness and its siren call to self-testing masculinity can just as easily serve as a cruel and expedient suicide for those who fail to heed warnings or adequately prepare. While we may all wish to attain the ideal found in Eustace Conway as Gilbert portrays him, in truth, we are far closer to the reality of Christopher McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s work.

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