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The Last American Man

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Elizabeth Gilbert begins her book 'The Last American Man' with some astounding facts about an astounding individual: '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.' And this is only the beginning! For next Conway traveled on the Mississippi River in a handmade canoe, hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail with scant provisions, and set a world record for riding horseback across America. From the start of this biography it’s clear that Eustace Conway is a man like no other, but while Gilbert labels Conway the ‘Last American Man’ perhaps it’s better fitting to call him the last American Frontiersman. Hard to believe there is such an American man, born in 1961, who is engaged in and viewed as an expert in long-forgotten skills of living off the land.

Eustace Conway, a man of destiny – and he believes he is one – has one purpose in life, to save America from its downward spiral. One of his main goals focuses on having Americans look at themselves and then ask the hard questions: Have we completely lost the American spirit? Do we have no connection with nature anymore? Is it too late to save that hardy and wild spirit that was once the character of America? 'Break out of the box!' Eustace emphatically asserts. Break out of living, working, driving in, and eating out of boxes. 'Break out of the robotic existence in sterilized surroundings.' So, how does Conway do this, get us to abandon our boxes and live in the circle of nature? On a 1,000-acre farm/nature education center in North Carolina, named Turtle Island, Conway teaches students and apprentices the basic skills for living off the land. With a Native American approach, Conway attempts to bring back the wilderness spirit that once pervaded this country.

While reading 'The Last American Man,' one may wonder, 'Is Eustace Conway a nature freak, a mountain man relic from the past, or a spiritual guru?' Perhaps this combination is exactly what makes this man exceptional and a popular leader. But Conway isn’t easy. His relentless work ethic without much encouragement or praise drives many of his 'apprentices,' even lovers, away (and lovers he has many). But his strict and disciplined reputation doesn’t deter newcomers; people travel from all across America to learn and work alongside this legendary woodsman. Even the author of this biography (and good friend) Elizabeth Gilbert challenges herself to participate in some of Conway’s projects, knowing she’ll work without rest.

Besides the personal information concerning Eustace Conway: his dysfunctional upbringing, his physical accomplishments, his numerous lovers, and the formation of Turtle Island, Gilbert brings to light the similarities between this modern mountain man and others like him: Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, John Frémont, and Davy Crockett. All strong men and ambitious leaders, the parallel between them and Conway is uncanny: hard working, shrewd businessmen, large property owners, fatherless or having to endure abusive fathers. Clearly, Conway fits the mold. Of course, what’s unique about this man of destiny is he’s living the pioneer dream in the twenty-first century, which makes Eustace Conway seem a man out of time.

'The Last American Man' is refreshing in many ways, disturbing in others. To learn that someone like Eustace Conway still exists is like finding a rare flower that was thought to be extinct. Yet, even Eustace Conway, this unique man amongst the pedestrian, expresses serious concern about the trajectory of this country: '…I think this country is suffering a mortal emergency…and that we’re doomed if we don’t change. And I don’t even know what to suggest anymore. Maybe I’m too late with my message. Maybe I’m too early.' Only toward the end of the book does the reader learn of Conway’s frustration after years of educating adults and children to the ways of the wild. But, certainly we want to believe in what Conway is doing, attempting to get us to remember what made this country great. While the frontier was harsh and cruel, it remains our original identity.

For most readers 'The Last American Man' will resonate long after it is placed back on the shelf and for some it may even inspire a trip into the wilderness.

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Reader comments so far...

Leslie Trippy (not verified)
Great review, Eve! I remember reading this book a few years ago and found it truly fascinating. The author was the perfect guide on the ;Getting to know Eustace journey, too.

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February 14, 2019