When the “Last American Man” Passes On, What Are We Supposed To Be?

As the 20th century lurched toward the 21st, Eustace Conway tried shepherding us instead into the seventeenth. In 1987, he founded Turtle Island Preserve—now over 1,000 acres of mostly pristine Southern Appalachian wilderness, serving as a preindustrial farm and education center.

[Conway] took up that elusive mantle that so many have before him: teaching humanity again how to live with nature rather than kill it. Lessons in squirrel-snaring, food-foraging, and fire-building were taught right alongside those in honor, frugality, and humility. Elizabeth Gilbert chronicled this mission in her 1998 GQ article and 2002 biography on Eustace, each christening him “the Last American Man.” The title stuck, and Eustace garnered something of a folk hero status. He spurred the many who flocked to his year-round programming to create islands of their own: pockets of moral and ecological refuge in an ocean of vice and sprawl. [(GQ, “Eustace Conway Wants to Retire. Can ‘The Last American Man’ Find His Replacement?”)]

This article’s author, Will Bahr, likened the life of Eustace Conway to that of tragic hero Christopher McCandless from the book Into the Wild. McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska, where he would die alone, detailing his regret for isolating himself so much. Conway himself kayaked across Alaska, cycled across Germany, and canoed across America. Truly, Conway is an archetypical Frontier American: Enterprising, ambitious, lonely, domineering, and unable to conceive that he is a product of our modernity, not an antidote.

As the oft-quoted John Donne poem goes: No man is an island. The adventurous modern spirit forgets this; Conway did as well, making a name for himself as an individual Mountain Man who could push himself to live as if it was the “seventeenth century” rather than accept the reality that we live in right now. He made escapes from our urban, industrial world to play in the small sections of woods that America has kept around. Feeling above the rest of us, Conway concluded that his way of living is the right way to live: pre-industrially, directly off the land.

His modern spirit, like L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand, and any other cult of personality built around an individual’s vision, constructed a promised utopia: Blue Turtle Island, 1,000 acres of escapism from reality. A Reality Distortion Field, as Steve Jobs followers would call it, where supposedly one is freed from the vices and failures of modern society. You don’t have to read much of the GQ article to see that the promised land has not yet arrived.

“Welcome to Turtle Island. I am a dictator.”

As Blue Turtle Island opened its doors, Conway quickly figured that accomplishing his objectives about old-style living required the help of others, as he was already overstretched in his duties—seventeenth century folks were quite busy surviving rather than going on media circuits, right? Reality set in for this dogmatic personality: compromises would have to be made to reach the current generations. Someone needs to carry the message beyond Conway’s lifespan, and inevitably they will have their own twists on it. But as long as he lives, Conway wants to micro-manage the heir to the throne of the Last American Man—until they lose their own individuality and simply become a clone of him. It is like the tragedy of the Christian God and Man, who is so powerless that it can only look angrily upon the Earth’s people as they break all of his rules.

Conway’s largest excuse for his failure to have changed the world:

“The young people are less and less capable every year,” he tells me. This isn’t your standard millennial bashing—to Eustace, modern Americans are “the most incapable people that have ever existed on the face of planet Earth in the last three million years of human existence. Period.”

In terms of Conway’s standards for human living, this is objectively true, and applies to more and more of our global society. However, Conway’s pessimistic bent on modern life is itself the curse of modernity: One may be able to construct the ideal self, but every time this self-construction has been forced upon groups or societies, they tend to fracture and become embroiled in what the ideal identity truly means. To serve a narrow and singular vision of the world, people have to constantly navel-gaze and affect their actions to fit the cookie cutter shapes this vision has created. Conway’s challenge isn’t the depletion of knowledge about simple living, but that his particular vision for it provides little value for those truly seeking a way out of modernity.

It wouldn’t take long before the young saw right through the veneer: Why are we forcing ourselves down Conway’s road when we could be doing this better, or differently, or doing something completely different?

The modernists of the world always fear these children, believing them to be signs of cultural decline. Conway already described himself as a benevolent dictator: What use does he have of the anarchic spirit of children? He is creating his utopia, not theirs.

Conway is seeking a simpler, pre-industrial life of local farming, living within Nature, and sustainable exploitation of the land. I enjoy such goals, but wouldn’t touch the dictatorship over Blue Turtle Island with a ten foot stick. I don’t see the results of a better life stemming from the Island, I see people giving up things in order to live an escapist experience, until, just like Conway, they buy a house, a housekeeper, and a smart speaker. That is the danger of modern society: It is always there as a fallback when you fail to transcend it. Always ready to pick you up and ask, “Well, did you shake that energy out, and are you ready to enter the default?” Some exhaustedly whisper “okay,” and enter the modern society with a whimper.

We need a new default. Eustace Conway’s Island could not serve as a default because it is structured as a quasi-dictatorship, an escape from modern society while also borrowing parts of modernity for its benefit. A new default doesn’t pretend for utopia, just as our reality doesn’t pretend that it’s a utopia: In fact, it’s downright ugly, but people fall back on it anyway. A new default accepts people as they are right now, and tries to experiment with any way it can to make our situation better.

A new default rests on partnerships and equal voices in a matter so that hierarchy is diminished and each person has equivalent stake in their adopted way of living. A new default is also not the one way to live: It is the realization that one must tap into the natural instincts of the human being, a being that is group- and band-oriented and that can’t manage hundreds of people at once; thus, the default is cultural decentralization, so small groups of people—communities—can partake in their own cultures and justice systems and economic exchanges and methods of belongingness. The default is realizing a community’s freedom of self-determination—so long as we have a centralized government, it would be the encouragement of support of this self-determination.

Perhaps Eustace Conway is the Last Domineering, Lonely, Rigid, Individualistic American Man—and this could be to everyone’s benefit as we move beyond the American and into the communal spirit that has been so strong for nearly 3 million years. Our spiritual capabilities to develop community and belongingness have not diminished, even if modernity attempts to challenge it with individualistic Mountain Man mythologies and promises of “utopia”. I’d recommend we consider people as they are now rather than what the Conways and the “dictators” of the world want us to be. These domineering personalities want you to build their pyramids, and you should be asking: Why do I need to build a pyramid at all?