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  1. #1
    Registered User Tennessee Viking's Avatar
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    Default Eustace Conway: Reality TV meets real world, 'Mountain Man' style

    By ALLEN G. BREED, AP National Writer
    TRIPLETT, N.C. — The way Eustace Conway sees it, there's the natural world, as exemplified by his Turtle Island Preserve
    in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And then there's the "plastic, imitation" world that most other humans inhabit. But the border between the two has always been porous — uncomfortably so these days.
    When Conway — known today as a star of the History Channel reality show "Mountain Men" — bought his first 107 acres in 1987, his vision for Turtle Island was as "a tiny bowl in the earth, intact and natural, surrounded by pavement and highways." People peering inside from nearby ridges would see "a pristine and green example of what the whole world once looked like."
    Since leaving his parents' suburban home at 17 and moving into the woods, Conway has been preaching the gospel of sustainable, "primitive" living. But over the past three decades, those notions have clearly evolved.
    Conway has ditched his trademark buckskins for jeans and T-shirts. Visitors to Turtle Island are as likely to hear the buzz of a chain saw as the call of an eagle, and interns learn that "Dumpster diving" is as important a skill as hunting or fishing.
    And then there are the TV cameras, which he's used to convey his message of simpler living for two seasons of "Mountain Men" — a role he concedes is inherently oxymoronic.
    "I think television's terrible," the 52-year-old woodsman says with a chuckle that shakes his long, iron-grey beard and braids. "So it's definitely a paradox."
    But it's all part of a complex dance. For Conway and Turtle Island, sustainability has come to depend on interns and apprentices, and on tax-exempt status from a regulatory system he openly despises.
    It also depends, increasingly, on a steady stream of paying campers. And that is where Conway's peaceful coexistence with the "modern world" broke down.
    Acting on a complaint about alleged illegal building, officials from the Watauga County Planning and Inspection Department raided Turtle Island last fall and found dozens of structures without required permits. Citing numerous potential health and safety code violations, the county attorney gave Conway three options: Bring the buildings up to minimum state standards, have an expert certify that they already met code and obtain proper permits, or tear them down.
    What ensued was more than just a battle of government versus an individual. It was also very much about the lines between what is real and what is "reality."
    County Planning Director Joe Furman says the conflict started in late spring of 2012 with an anonymous phone call, followed about a week later by an unmarked envelope containing a color-coded map. It showed buildings, road grading and wiring — all allegedly done without proper permitting, engineering or inspections.
    Unlike some of his fellow TV "Mountain Men," who toil high in the Rockies or far out in the Alaskan wilderness, Conway is hardly cut off from civilization.
    Turtle Island lies near the Tennessee border, just a few miles east of Boone, N.C., a county seat of 17,000 residents whose population doubles when Appalachian State University, Conway's alma mater, is in session. Just beyond the gravel road that leads into the 1,000-acre preserve, spacious, modern homes nestle on wooded lots within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
    Once through the gates, everything changes.
    After crossing a dancing stream, the road opens onto a meadow ringed by a blacksmith shop, open-air kitchen and dining room, a corn crib and other outbuildings. Dominating the scene is a massive barn, constructed of dovetailed logs and roofed with 5,000 hand-hewn, moss-covered shingles.
    The name Turtle Island comes from an American Indian creation myth about a great reptile that saved the world's creatures from a cataclysmic flood by supporting them on its shell. "In the figurative sense," Conway's website explains, "we are an island of wilderness in a sea of development and destruction."
    Not exactly, say local officials.
    After a cursory inspection, Furman says talks between his office and Conway broke down. So on Sept. 19, Furman came back with a warrant and sheriff's deputies.
    Inspectors found Conway's own home lacked minimum water and sewer connections. All of the buildings were constructed mostly of wood milled on site, not the marked, graded lumber required in the building codes.
    Solar panels run the equipment in Conway's little office, and a micro-hydroelectric plant installed by students from Appalachian State's Appropriate Technology Program powers a small workshop. Inspectors say they found wiring and junction boxes that were not up to code.
    The team noted a wood stove whose chimney was vented beneath a building's metal roof, not through it, and unpermitted outhouses intended for public use. Several buildings were not connected to the stacked-stone foundations supporting them.
    In his 78-page report, consultant W.O. Whaley concluded that many of the buildings were "not structurally sound."
    "The property in its present state presents a hazard to the safety of anyone near any of the structures," he wrote. "I would suggest obtaining a court order to vacate the property to protect the lives of the public and the interns."
    Conway and his supporters argued that Furman's office was missing the point. How, he asked, can he teach primitive living in modern, cookie-cutter structures?
    Humans have built their own houses for thousands of years, Conway says. "And now we can't even build our own house with our own material that grows on our own land? That's not some regulation that's just a county problem. That's a human rights issue."
    To counter Whaley's report, friends posted interviews with Drew Kelly, identified as a certified building inspector, on YouTube. Kelly said most of the buildings were constructed "above what they're wanting regular houses to be built at."
    "Do they fit modern-day building codes?" Kelly said. "No. Because they're not modern-day structures."
    Conway believes it's no coincidence that his trouble with the planning department began during the first season of "Mountain Men."
    "What do I do for a living?" he says in the premiere episode. "I live for a living."
    The show is mostly about man's struggle against nature. But in Conway's story line, a frequent adversary is "the government."
    In season one's second installment, titled "Mayhem," Conway opens his mailbox to find an official-looking letter inside. He slits it open with his pocketknife.
    "Motion to claim exempt property?" he reads from the court document in his hand. "This is crazy. Damn attorney is paying the sheriff to serve me. Going to take all my land? ... Basically, I just got a letter saying, 'Your life is over.'"
    In setting up the scene, a voiceover gives the distinct impression that it's the government that is coming after Turtle Island.
    "Eustace has always been able to survive living off his land," the sandpaper-voiced narrator growls. "But he always struggles to pay the tax man."
    For the remainder of the season, Conway and his interns split firewood and fence rails to raise the cash needed to lift the lien. In the climactic final episode, Conway and a friend make a dramatic ride into Boone — on horseback, rather than taking one of the many vehicles that dot the property.
    He arrives at the courthouse just in time "to make his final stand."
    But Conway's true nemesis is not "the courts" or some heartless "tax man." It's a 28-year-old woman who was injured during a visit to Turtle Island.
    In August 2005, Kimberly Baker of Wilmington came to the preserve on a retreat as part of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. She and the others were taking part in an orientation at Turtle Island's entrance when one of Conway's people pulled out a sling and began demonstrating how to hurl stones.
    A rock flew backward, blinding Baker's right eye. She sued.
    Baker settled with two of Conway's staff for a combined $400,000. In September 2009, Conway agreed to pay Baker $75,000, and to mortgage some of his land within a year to cover the amount.
    When the deadline passed without payment, Baker filed a lawsuit for breach of contract. Finally, in April 2012 — around the time those episodes were filmed — Conway paid up.
    Conway says his contract with the History Channel prevents him from commenting "about the correctness of that" depiction of events. But he avers that reality shows are about building suspense and drama, "And a lot of the life out here is not as dramatic as they want it or need it to be."
    He expressed much the same sentiment when he spoke with writer Elizabeth Gilbert for her 2002 Conway biography, "The Last American Man."
    "When I go out in public, I deliberately try to present myself as this wild guy who just came down off the mountain, and I'm aware that it's largely an act," Gilbert, who also wrote the best-seller "Eat, Pray, Love," quoted him as saying. "I know I'm a showman. I know I present people with an image of how I wish I were living. But what else can I do? I have to put on that act for the benefit of the people."
    As word of Conway's bureaucratic problems spread, hate mail inundated Furman's office.
    In a petition posted on, author Vicky Kaseorg made allusions to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
    "Are government officials upset that someone can survive without them?" she asked.
    Meanwhile, North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill exempting "primitive" camps and farms — including "sheds, barns, outhouses, doghouses" and other structures — from the building codes. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law on June 12.
    By month's end, Conway was back in business.
    On a recent sultry day, a dozen or so campers and interns listened intently as Conway held court in the breezeway of the main horse barn. The smell of wood smoke, stewing cabbage, manure and sweat mingle in the steamy air as speckled chickens scratch for food in the dirt around the teacher's feet.
    Conway points to the rounded rafter just above their heads, explaining how this "puncheon" construction, common during the 17th and 18th centuries, allows the flat surface of a split log to act as the floor above. The barn is one of the buildings singled out as potentially unsafe, and Conway can't resist a jab.
    "My problem with the government is they see that I'm teaching people about simple, natural living, and that doesn't jive with their corporate sponsors, you know?" Conway says. "So it's real important to realize that the model is something that we need to keep alive. And what I want you guys to do is go out and teach the rest of the world how to do it. Because it's our birthright as a human being."
    If Conway was a folk hero before, this incident has only increased his stock. Nick Rosen, who runs the site and included a chapter about Conway in a book about the movement, says what happened at Turtle Island "is part of a national trend to create obstacles in the way of people wanting to carve out their own freedom."
    But while many feel the government went too far, some think Conway is trying to have it both ways.
    He promotes a lifestyle, but he also runs a business — albeit a nonprofit one. Available records don't disclose how much the "Mountain Men" deal is worth, and Conway isn't saying. Fees he charges at Turtle Island vary. Those who just want to come and look around can pay $75 for a horse-drawn buggy tour. Paying campers can learn everything from basic blacksmithing to how to build a log cabin. Tuition for one of Conway's "Chainsaw Work-Studies" is $20 to $60 a day, "depending on how helpful you are."
    Conway also offers an unpaid, 14-month internship called "Work-Camp," a regimen of "4 or more days a week of full-on, focused work." Food and shelter are provided.
    Boone contractor Douglas McGuire grew up in these hills. Standing beside a stone fireplace in the modern log home that serves as his office, he says he understands the traditions of rugged independence and mistrust of government interference.
    But McGuire says this was a question of public safety, not private property rights.
    "What he is doing, 50 years ago, was a way of life," he says. "And people need to be taught to fend for themselves — to raise their gardens, to raise their crops. But I don't know that going back in time to accomplish that is the answer."
    A former intern expresses a different reservation about Turtle Island.
    Calling the buildings solid and the planning department's criticisms "off base," Justin McGuire (no relation to the contractor) says it's the camp's facade that's a bit shaky.
    The 31-year-old from Newnan, Ga., had hoped to learn how to live off the land, to live simply. He says that's not what he got.
    When the cameras were off, McGuire says, campers were using nail guns, bulldozers and backhoes. They ate mostly donated food, including condiments. "There wasn't a whole lot of agriculture going on," he said in a recent telephone interview.
    Although he quit his internship after six months and the show portrays their relationship as rocky, the young man says he still has a great deal of respect for Conway. He just feels that Conway has "kind of gotten away from what he originally was and what he originally stood for."
    Former Turtle Island apprentice Christian Kaltreider is now an engineer specializing in energy efficiency and renewables, He's dismayed — if not exactly mystified — by Conway's decision to take part in a reality show. "I think it's ego and a drive to teach the world," the Asheville man says.
    Conway once told Kaltreider that his dream was that those he touched would go home and create "hundreds of little Turtle Islands everywhere." Most have fallen far short of Conway's goals, Kaltreider says.
    But, he adds, "We're still trying to save the world."
    Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at!/AllenGBreed
    ''Tennessee Viking'
    Mountains to Sea Trail Maintainer
    Former TEHCC (AT) Maintainer
    Falls Lake Trail: 2011

  2. #2


    I never watched the show, but I read this story a few days ago. People just don't understand nature. They think they're living off the land...boneheads

  3. #3
    Registered User The Cleaner's Avatar
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    greeneville TN


    Thanks for the info. BTW while watching the show I caught a few shots of surrounding mountain tops that looked familiar as what you can see from the summit of Hump Mtn. Which I guess "as the crow flies" is not too far from Turtle Island. Maybe he should open a hostel for AT hikers....

  4. #4


    Anyone that thinks reality tele is not a scripted made for TV show pretty much gets what goo gets pumped in. That said, I've not only watched this show, but read parts of the book, "The last American Man" and I like this guy, he's doin his own thing, so what! and I begrudge him no thing in life as I would any.

  5. #5

    Default Eustace Conway: Reality TV meets real world, 'Mountain Man' style

    its just a reminder that we are not as free as we think we are

  6. #6


    Quote Originally Posted by The Cleaner View Post
    Thanks for the info. BTW while watching the show I caught a few shots of surrounding mountain tops that looked familiar as what you can see from the summit of Hump Mtn. Which I guess "as the crow flies" is not too far from Turtle Island. Maybe he should open a hostel for AT hikers....
    A "dirty little secret" about Turtle Island/Eustace Conway is that it is located off of the east side of the Blue Ridge, near Triplett, NC. It is thus technically in the foothills in a deep valley at about 2,200' of elevation. To call it an extreme mountain mountain is a real stretch.

    Triplett is nowhere near Hump Mtn or any part of the AT. The closest segment would be in the Mount Rogers area, and that's probably 30 miles as the crow flies, or an hour, hour-and-a half drive.


  7. #7


    Whoops, I meant to type "extreme mountain environment".

  8. #8


    Since I lived in Boone NC for about 30 years I had some interactions with Eustace. Back in 2009 I took a backpacking trip into TN and wrote this in my trail journal since I had Gilbert's book THE LAST AMERICAN MAN. From the journal---

    ** I first met Eustace back in 1983 when I was "homeless" and living out of a North Face pack in Boone, NC. I was sitting on the ASU campus by the old cafeteria and near the old Belk library when in the distance I saw a figure approaching with a full orange backpack and coming up the sidewalk from the gymnasium. We introduced ourselves and just as quickly parted ways.

    ** I next saw Eustace dumpster diving behind the old grocery store on King Street and we met several times as I too often went thru dumpsters for food. He had his little dirt bike parked nearby with the lashed-on back plastic milk crate for hauling his take. At one dumpster he told me the story of being inside when conked on the head by a jug of something thrown in and it knocked him out, or maybe this happened to CampTrails Bob. Dumpster stories sometime get confusing.

    ** Eustace and the Schiele Museum powwows.

    ** Eustace and the hit deer coming back from a powwow with Johnny B. (Eustace wanted the dead deer but the State Trooper wouldn't give it to him).

    ** Eustace at a Boone powwow with Preston and my comment about a fat participant and Eustace said, "Be nice."

    ** I did several visits to Eustace's tipi behind Howards Knob on Howards Creek road.

    ** A visit to Turtle Island with Johnny and Amy and met Hawk Hurst and the tipi photo.

    ** I went one time with a pair of binoculars I found while hiking and took them to Eustace and he wanted them so I traded a woolrich style wool shirt and Johnny thought I got ripped off. On that trip Eustace showed us the circling stovepipe inside his tipi and the car battery he used to power his tape deck.

    ** Another time a pretty girl named Daphne was working at his tipi tanning deer hides and Johnny and I wanted to get to know her a lot better.

    ** Eustace and the Harvard Ayers connection. Dr. Ayers was a professor of anthropology at ASU and they both organized several backpacking trips into Pisgah along Harpers Creek and I joined the group several times. They called it a "native american weekend" and Eustace built a sweatlodge by our camp near a creek and part of the trip included the sweat ceremony.
    I remember one peculiar student participant who refused to strip off his clothes down to his shorts and so he pulled the whole sweatlodge fully dressed in heavy pants and a shirt. Weird. Eustace went around camp teaching and giving pointers while Harvard brought some of his Sierra Club friends and a bottle of wine and strummed his guitar.

    ** Frank and Lori and the Overland Trek: One time I was sitting on campus with my backpack and two hitchhikers walked by and they stopped to talk and asked me how to find Eustace. I remember the girl, Lori, in particular cuz she was wearing the same exact pack I had, a North Face BackMagic with the external frame.

    "Yeah, I know where Eustace lives, right over that mountain called Howards Knob." So we head-shedded and I decided to lead them overland with our packs and climb up and over the Rich Mountain/Howards Knob ridge in a high gap and drop down the other side. I knew Eustace lived in his tipi somewhere off a long road on the other side called Howards Creek road, and so the 3 of us did the long hump and finally reached his lodge and his home before nightfall.

    I set up my tent by his tipi and we all had a good time talking in his tipi. It turned out that Frank was the guy Eustace thruhiked the AT with from Maine to Georgia, and Lori was his girlfriend. In the morning I packed up by myself and hitched to Boone. Have I exhausted my memories?

    ** The Union Grove powwow with Preston and Eustace. I saw Eustace dancing again in his regalia at this NC powwow and we said our hellos.

    JB and Bob had more interactions with Eustace than I, and have better stories, some ending in a falling out and disappointment. My old girlfriend and backpacking buddy Amy Willow (AT 2006) has even more stories of Eustace.

    Here are some book quotes written by Elizabeth Gilbert:
    "It seemed curious to me that somebody who eats possum and wipes his butt with leaves could have managed to acquire a thousand acres of pristine wilderness. But Eustace Conway was, as I would discover, a most cunning man. He had amassed that property slowly and over time with money he made by going into the local school systems and talking to riveted school children about eating possum and wiping one's butt with leaves." GILBERT

    "His teepee was wonderful--a fort and a temple, a home so satisfyingly light and transient that it had none of the psychological impact of a house's overstability." GILBERT. (This reminds me of my oft used words, "overbuilt house").

    Conway's words: "Then I moved into a teepee on a piece of land owned by some friends near the hardwood forest of Allen's Knob, and I lived there until the developers cleared away the forest for homes. Then I found an old mountain man in Boone named Jay Miller, and he let me put my teepee up on his beautiful Appalachian land. I loved it there."
    "I lived on the side of Howards Knob, a forest filled with bears, turkeys, and ginseng root. There was a natural spring just outside my teepee where I could drink every morning. And it was wonderful there until the day old Jay Miller decided to chase the mighty dollar, and he sold his land for lumber. And the timber company came and set up their sawmill right near me--a mill that got closer and closer as they dropped to the ground every last tree that stood between me and them."
    "I was finishing my senior year of college at the time, and I literally had to wear earplugs in order to study for my exams, the saw was so loud. By the time I left, the forest I had loved, where I had gotten my life and food and clothing, was nothing but a vast field of stumps. And the beautiful spring where I used to drink was spoiled and silted." QUOTE OF EUSTACE CONWAY FROM GILBERT. (I remember vividly this clearcut cuz I visited Eustace right in the middle of the rape and disgrace. I also know how it feels as my Stillwinds Tipi's adjacent ridge was bulldozed and logged in 1997, and it crushed the soul. "Pray For War" is the only mantra on your mind).

    I wonder if he had me or Johnny B in mind when he said:
    "Whenever I go into schools to teach, I tell people, 'Look, I am not the only person left in this country who tries to live a natural life in the woods, but you're never going to meet all those other guys because they aren't available.' Well, I am available. That's the difference with me. I've always made myself available, even when it compromises the way I want to live. When I go out in public, I deliberately try to present myself as this wild guy who just came down off the mountain, and I'm aware that it's largely an act. I know I'm a showman." CONWAY WITH GILBERT.

    "Dumpster Diving is a Conway family tradition." "Eustace Conway, naturally, had made Dumpster Diving into an art. He supported his appetites through college by subsidizing his blowgun game catches with the juicy remains of the supermarket alleys." GILBERT

    And finally, Elizabeth Gilbert sums it up well with these thoughts:

    "The history of Eustace Conway is the history of man's progress on the North American continent. First, he slept on the ground and wore furs. He made fire with sticks and ate what he could hunt and gather."

    "Then he moved into a teepee and became a more sophisticated trapper of animals. He made fire with flint and steel. When he mastered that, he used matches. He began to wear wool. He moved out of the teepee and into a simple wooden structure. He became a farmer, clearing the land and cultivating a garden. He acquired livestock. He cut paths into the woods, which became trails and then roads. He improved the roads with bridges. He wore denim."

    "He was first an Indian, then an explorer, then a pioneer. He built himself a cabin and became a true settler." " . . . Eustace will have become a villager. That's what he wants--to create a town."

    "He'll move out of the cabin and into a large and expensive show house full of walk-in closets and appliances and family and stuff. And he will have finally caught up with his time. At that point, Eustace Conway will be the paradigm of a modern American man." ALL QUOTES ELIZABETH GILBERT.

    Here's old Uncle Fungus in a tipi on Conway's Turtle Island.

  9. #9


    Revisiting and old thread I find some jewels to round out my day...a day that's just starting. Yippy ya hoo

    Well...I thoroughly enjoyed reading that Walter, thanks once again for your words of wisdom and story tellin, good stuffs!

  10. #10
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    "It turned out that Frank was the guy Eustace thruhiked the AT with from Maine to Georgia"

    So Eustace thrued? What year was that?

    "Chainsaw" GA-ME 2011

  11. #11


    Quote Originally Posted by Don H View Post
    "It turned out that Frank was the guy Eustace thruhiked the AT with from Maine to Georgia"

    So Eustace thrued? What year was that?

    He was 19 years old and born in 1961 so it would've been around 1980. Did he keep a trail journal of any kind? Who knows. But I heard he scavenged and ate wild edibles most of the way. True? Who knows.

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