Eustace Conway sees something he likes and thinks about picking it up. A nice Gucci wallet at the mall, perhaps? No, a gooey raccoon carcass by the side of the road. Finally Conway decides to pass up this prime roadkill and steers away in his horse-drawn buggy. "I'm thinking about collecting some for my trout pond," he says ruefully of the dead raccoon. "To feed the maggots."
Welcome to the happily primitive world of Eustace Conway, a modern-day cross between Daniel Boone, Grizzly Adams and a really buff Amish guy. Since moving into a teepee at 17, Conway has ruthlessly lived like an 18th-century frontiersman for more than two decades. Today, on a pristine 1,000-acre stretch of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, Conway, 40, clothes himself in the skins of animals he kills for food, uses extract from witch-hazel trees as medicine, sleeps in a wooden cabin he built himself and, needless to say, does not own the new Sex and the City DVD. His goal is to live a more meaningful life—and to inspire others to do the same. "He represents the kind of freedom we all secretly crave," says Elizabeth Gilbert, 32, whose new book, The Last American Man, celebrates Conway's pioneer spirit. "He runs his life on his own terms, and we all want that."
Which is not to say that we all want to stitch up our own busted lip by candlelight or dine on beaver, skunk and raw porcupine. Conway has also killed a deer with his bare hands, used animal brains to tan buckskin and braided 40 feet of rope from his own hair. For the sheer adventure of it he has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (part of it while wearing just a loin-cloth) and crossed the country on horseback in only 103 days. "My message is to aim for a higher quality of life," says Conway, who regularly puts several interns through a rigorous course in living off the land at his Turtle Island Preserve. "I don't really think that everybody is going to go back to this lifestyle, but I would hope that they would want to."
Just how did a fellow raised in suburban Gastonia, N.C., end up like Crocodile Dundee? By his account, Conway, the oldest of four children, was driven outdoors by his demanding father, Eustace, 77, a chemical engineer who regularly paddled his son for misbehaving. "I figured I could manipulate Eustace to be the way I wanted him to be," the older Conway told Gilbert. (He declined to comment for this article.) There was "bad stuff," allows Conway's brother Judson, 33, a fly-fishing guide. But today, the two Eustaces have reached a truce of sorts.
Says Judson: "I've seen more hugging lately."
Taught to love nature by his mother, Karen, 79, a now-retired teacher, young Conway found solace in the woods behind his home. After finishing high school, he began living in a teepee he kept in the woods near Appalachian State University, where he earned a degree in anthropology and English. Six years ago Conway built his cabin, which has no plumbing or electricity but pipes in clean water from a creek.
Single and unattached (he admits he has lost girlfriends because he can be impossibly demanding), Conway will soon see his message reach a wider audience now that Gilbert's book has been optioned by Hollywood. But he's not too worried about would-be Davy Crocketts stampeding into his woods. "People can get closer to nature in parks, or even yards," Conway says. "Sell your SUV and buy a smaller car. Turn off the TV or throw it away altogether. It's as easy as that." Heck, you don't even have to eat skunk.
Lori Rozsa in Triplett, N.C.
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