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What does it mean to be a man in modern America? Do men somehow better themselves when they leave civilization and head into the woods? The Last American Man is a cultural examination of contemporary American male identity and the uniquely American desire to return to the wilderness.
From the frontier West to American utopian communities, Elizabeth Gilbert has produced a history of American manhood as it has never been told before.
To illustrate her story, Gilbert uses the rich and fascinating case study of Eustace Conway, a man who has lived in the Appalachian Mountains since the age of 17. Conway has worked tirelessly to try to convince his fellow Americans to give up self-destructive modern lifestyles and return with him to the primal sanctuary of the wilderness. He is a living metaphor that challenges all assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America.
The Last American Man is at the same time an adventure saga and a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of man to the wilderness. It is also a reflection of masculine American identity in all its conflicting elements—energy, isolation, narcissism, inventiveness, audacity, and destiny.
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ELIZABETH GILBERT is an award-winning magazine journalist and currently writer-at-large for GQ. She is the author of Stern Men and Pilgrims, a short-story collection, that was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist and winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. Her work has been published in Harper's Bazaar, Spin, and the New York Times.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
What a wild life! What a fresh kind of existence!
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, considering the possibility of writing an epic poem about the American explorer John Fremont
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 the 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.
The following year, when he was eighteen, Eustace Conway traveled the Mississippi River in a handmade wooden canoe, battling eddies so fierce, they could suck down a forty-foot tree and not release it to the surface again until a mile downriver. The next year, he set off on the two-thousand-mile Appalachian Trail, walking from Maine to Georgia and surviving almost exclusively on what he hunted and gathered along the way. And in the years that followed, Eustace hiked across the German Alps (in sneakers), kayaked across Alaska, scaled cliffs in New Zealand, and lived with the Navajo of New Mexico. When he was in his mid-twenties, he decided to study a primitive culture more closely in order to learn even more ancient skills. So he flew to Guatemala, got off the plane, and basically started asking, "Where are the primitive people at?" He was pointed toward the jungle, where he hiked for days and days until he found the remotest village of Mayan Indians, many of whom had never before seen a white person. He lived with the Maya for about five months, learning the language, studying the religion, perfecting his weaving skills. But his coolest adventure was probably in 1995, when Eustace got the notion to ride his horse across America. His younger brother, Judson, and a close family friend went with him. It was a mad act of whim. Eustace wasn't sure if it was possible or even legal to ride a horse across America. He just ate a big Christmas dinner with his family, strapped on his gun, hauled out an eighty-year-old U.S. Cavalry saddle (rubbed so thin in places that he could feel the heat of the animal between his legs as he rode), mounted his horse, and headed out. He reckoned that he and his partners could make it to the Pacific by Easter, although everyone he told this to laughed in his face.
The three riders galloped along, burning away nearly fifty miles a day. They ate roadkill deer and squirrel soup. They slept in barns and in the homes of awestruck locals, but when they reached the dry, open West, they fell off their horses every night and slept on the ground where they fell. They were nearly killed by swerving eighteen-wheelers when their horses went wild on a busy interstate bridge one afternoon. They were nearly arrested in Mississippi for not wearing shirts. In San Diego, they picketed their horses along a patch of grass between a mall and an eight-lane highway. They slept there that night and arrived at the Pacific Ocean the next afternoon. Eustace Conway rode his horse right into the surf. It was ten hours before Easter. He had crossed the country in 103 days, setting, while he was at it, a world record.
From coast to coast, Americans of every conceivable background had looked up at Eustace Conway on his horse and said wistfully, "I wish I could do what you're doing." And to every last citizen, Eustace had replied, "You can." But I'm getting ahead of my story here.
Eustace Conway was born in South Carolina in 1961. The Conways lived in a comfortable suburban home in a new neighborhood full of the same, but there was a fine patch of woods, standing right behind their house, that had not yet been cleared for development. It was, in fact, a wild, undisturbed, first-growth forest without so much as a trail cut through it. It was an old world forest, still filled with quicksand and bears. And it was here that Eustace Conway's father-whose name was also Eustace Conway and who knew everything-used to take his young son to teach him how to identify the plants, birds, and mammals of the American South. They would wander together in those woods for hours, looking up into the trees and discussing the shapes of the leaves. So these are Eustace Conway's first memories: the cosmic scope of the woods; the stipple of sunlight slanting through a verdant natural awning; the enlightening voice of the father; the loveliness of the words locust, birch, and tulip poplar; the new intellectual pleasure of study enhanced by the distinct physical sensation of his wobbly toddler's head tilting so far back that he might have toppled over from the effort of looking up so hard at so many trees for such a long time.
As for the rest, and over the years, it was his mother who taught Eustace. She taught him how to camp, bait a hook, build a fire, handle wildlife, weave grasses into rope, and find clay in river bottoms. She taught him how to read books with wonderful titles, like Davy Crockett: Young Adventurer and Wild Wood Wisdom. She taught him to sew buckskin. She taught him how to execute every task with ardent perfection. Eustace Conway's mother was not exactly like the other mothers of the day. She was a little gutsier than the average mom in the American South in the early 1960s. She'd been raised like a boy at a summer camp that her family had owned in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She was an unrepentant tomboy, a proficient horseback rider, and a capable woodsman who, at the age of twenty-two, had sold her silver flute for passage to Alaska, where she lived in a tent by a river with her gun and her dog.
By the time Eustace was five years old, the forest behind his house had been leveled by the real estate market, but the family soon moved to a four-bedroom home in another suburban development. It was in Gastonia, North Carolina, and had its own dense forest standing behind it. Mrs. Conway let Eustace and his young siblings have the run of the woods from the time they could walk-barefoot and shirtless and without supervision-from sunup to sundown, every moment of their childhood, except for those few interruptions for mandatory schooling and churchgoing (because it wasn't as though she were raising savages).
"I suppose I was a bad mother," Mrs. Conway says today, not very convincingly. The other mothers of Gastonia naturally were horrified by this childrearing technique, such as it was. Some of them, alarmed, would call Mrs. Conway on the telephone and say, "You can't let your babies play in those woods! There are poisonous snakes out there!" Thirty years later, Mrs. Conway still finds their concern amusing and adorable. "For heaven's sake!" she says. "My children always knew the difference between poisonous snakes and regular snakes! They did just fine out there."
Briefly, the history of America goes like this: there was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier. It all happened rather quickly. There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities. Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody wanted it back. Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued (Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Frederic Remington's cowboy paintings) there came a very specific cultural panic, rooted in the question What will become of our boys?
The problem was that, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and was transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There, he shed his cosmopolitan manners and became a robust and proficient man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man.
This was a particular kind of man, this wilderness-bred American. He was no intellectual. He had no interest in study or reflection. He had, as de Tocqueville noticed, "a sort of distaste for what is ancient." Instead, he could sterotypically be found, as the explorer John Fremont described the Ÿber-frontiersman Kit Carson, "mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle and scouring bare-headed over the prairies." Either that, or whipping his mighty ax over his shoulder and casually "throwing cedars and oaks to the ground," as one extremely impressed nineteenth-century foreign visitor observed. In fact, to all the foreign visitors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American Man was a virtual tourist attraction in his own right, almost as fascinating as Niagara Falls or that ambitious new railroad system or those exotic Indians. Not everybody was a fan, of course. ("There are perhaps no people, not even excepting the French, who are so vain as the Americans," griped one British observer in 1818. "Every American considers that it's impossible for a foreigner to teach him anything, and that his head contains a perfect encyclopedia.") Still, for better or worse, everyone seemed to agree that this was a new kind of human being and that what defined the American Man more than anything else was his resourcefulness, born out of the challenges of wrenching a New World from virgin wilderness. Unhindered by class restrictions, bureaucracy, or urban squalor, these Americans simply got more done in a single day than anyone had imagined possible. That was the bottom line: nobody could believe how fast these guys worked.
German-born Gottfried Duden, who traveled to the West in 1824 to identify suitable homesteads for German families interested in immigrating to America, reported home in wonder: "In North America, construction jobs which the European countries do not accomplish in centuries are completed in a few years, through the voluntary cooperation of individual citizens." At the time of Duden's visit, for instance, the farmers of Ohio were busy constructing a 230-mile-long canal without the help of a single licensed engineer. Duden saw "beautiful cities" thriving where not even towns had stood two years before. He saw new roads, new bridges, "thousands of new farms," and "a hundred more steamships"-all new, handmade, ingeniously designed, and perfectly operative. Did the American Man need something done? Well, then, he simply made it happen. It was such an attractive idea, this notion of the bold and competent New World citizen. The English travel writer Isabel Bird, famous for her cool and detached prose, seemed scarcely able to keep from exclaiming hubba-hubba as she checked out the rugged men she kept encountering on her trip to America in the 1850s:
"It is impossible to give an idea of the 'Western Men' to anyone who has not seen one at least as specimen . . . tall, handsome, broad-chested, and athletic, with aquiline noses, piercing grey eyes, and brown curling hair and beards. They wore leather jackets, leather smallclothes, large boots with embroidered tops, silver spurs, and caps of scarlet cloth, worked with somewhat tarnished gold thread, doubtless the gifts of some fair ones enamored of the handsome physiognomies and reckless bearing of the hunters. Dullness fled from their presence; they could tell stories, whistle melodies, and sing . . . Blithe, cheerful souls they were, telling racy stories of Western life, chivalrous in the manners and free as the winds."
Look, I wasn't there. It's hard to know how much of this rhetoric was based on truth and how much was the product of an excitable foreign press eager to testify on the Next Big Thing. What I do know is that we, the Americans, bought the hype. We bought it and added it to the already hearty stew of our homegrown self-mythology until we cooked up a perfectly universal notion of who the American Man was and how the American Man was made. He was Pecos Bill. He was Paul Bunyan. He altered the course of rivers with the help of his mighty blue ox, he broke wild horses using rattlesnakes as reins, and he was an omnipotent hero created through revelatory communion with the frontier. Everyone knew that.
So Frederick Jackson Turner wasn't the only person who got nervous when the news came in 1890 from the Census Department that the American frontier was suddenly and officially closed. But he was the first to ask what this closure would mean to future generations. His nervousness spread; the questions expanded. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of our boys?
Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent.
Lord help us, they might become Europeans.
I first met Eustace Conway in New York City, of all places. This was 1993.
I met Eustace through his brother Judson, who is a cowboy. Judson and I used to work together on a ranch out in the Wyoming Rockies. This was back when I was twenty-two years old, acting as if I were a Western cowgirl-an act that took considerable pretense, given the inconvenient reality that I was actually a former field hockey player from Connecticut. But I was out there in Wyoming because I was seeking an education and an authenticity that I thought could not be found anywhere but on the American frontier, or what remained of it.
I was searching for this American frontier as earnestly as my parents had sought it two decades earlier, when they'd purchased three acres of land in New England and pretended to be pioneers-raising chickens and goats and bees, growing all our food, sewing all our clothing, washing our hair in a rain barrel, and heating our house (and only two rooms of it) with hand-split firewood. My parents gave me and my sister as rugged a nineteenth-century upbringing as they could manage, even though we were living out the Reagan years in one of Connecticut's wealthiest communities and our insular little frontier farmhouse happened to be located on a major highway only a mile away from the country club.
Well, what of it? My sister and I were encouraged to ignore this reality. We picked blackberries in the ditches alongside that highway in our handmade dresses while the cars raced by and the passing eighteen-wheelers shook the ground. We went to school with goat's milk dried on our sleeves from the morning chores. We were taught to disregard the values of the culture that surrounded us and to concentrate instead on this sacred and more ancient American tenet: Resourcefulness Is Next to Godliness.
It is probably not surprising, then, that when I turned twenty-two I decided that I would not be satisfied by going on to graduate school or settling into some respectable career. I had other aspirations. I wanted to learn the boundaries of my own resourcefulness, and these, I believed, I could learn only in a place like Wyoming. I was inspired by the example of my parents and by Walt Whitman's stirring advice to American boys of the nineteenth century: "Ascend no longer from the textbook! Ascend to your own country! Go to the West and the South! Go among men, in the spirit of men! Master horses, become a good marksman and a stron...
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