When I’m out in the woods I like to carry a book with me, for those days when you get in to camp a little early and have some down time, or want to stay up to see or photograph the stars, and need to kill a few hours.
And when you’re out camping in the woods there’s nothing better than a book that deals with being out in nature in some way. So with that in mind, here’s a review of The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that Elizabeth Gilbert. This was written before Eat, Pray, Love).
This is a mostly non-fiction (more on that later) book about the life of one Eustace Conway, an outdoor wunderkind who was nailing chipmunks to trees with a thrown knife at age seven. Eustace continued in this vein for his adolescent life, living in a teepee, hiking the Appalachian trail while eating whatever he could scavenge, catch or gather along the way, and eventually ending up with approximately 1,000 acres of rural land in the Appalachians, called Turtle Island.
Gilbert does a good job of documenting Eustace’s adventures, and there are many of them worth reading about. Riding horseback across the US from East to West in record setting time, for instance, or a speedy circumnavigation of the Great Plains in a buggy, pulled by horses. And the minimalist hiking of the Appalachian Trail mentioned above, which I’m fairly sure no one would ever get away with in this century, at least the hunting and gathering part. There were also adventures in Alaska, South America, Europe and many other spots all over the world. An enviable life of adventure, to be sure.
A Less than Enviable Home Life
As enviable as Eustace’s life of adventure might be to some of us who like to spend time in the wilderness, the portrait of Eustace’s home life that Gilbert paints is less than enviable. Eustace’s father sees him as a constant source of disappointment, and isn’t afraid to share that opinion with his son.
Eustace actually ends up spending a great deal of time in the woods in part to get away from this home life. The somewhat ironic thing is that both Eustace’s father and grandfather were mountain men and outdoor enthusiasts to an impressive degree. What seems like something that would be common ground to bond over is anything but.
This childhood colors Eustace’s life to a huge degree, which comes across particularly strong in the book when Eustace’s dealings with the opposite sex are detailed. He very badly wants a family of his own, yearns for it, but seems to drive women away. This happens for a whole wide variety of reasons, but most seem to come back to him being exacting and demanding of the people in his life, particularly those women that would share it with him. Not at all unlike, Gilbert points out, the demands that Eustace’s father put on him and others.
What has become of the American Man?
The real meaning of the book is centered on this question of what could be described as the disappearance of the American Man, at least the American Man of centuries past, the one who carried a knife on his belt, knew how to skin a deer, build a fire by rubbing two sticks together and, let’s be honest, probably didn’t take any guff from his wife, who was back at home making dinner from that skinned deer and pumping out children.
One particularly telling part of the book is the end of chapter two where, Eustace having awed and enraptured yet another auditorium full of disaffected and disinterested students, has this exchange with Gilbert:
“Hey, what happened in there tonight. Do you get that kind of response everywhere you speak?”
“From all age groups; from all backgrounds?”
I thought this over. “So tell me specifically. Why do you think these teenagers were so hypnotized by you tonight?”
Eustace’s reply was so immediate, so uncompromising, and so coldly delivered that it sent a quick little chill right through me.
“Because,” he said, “they recognized right away that I was a real person. And they’ve probably never met one before.”
The idea here is that we, as a people, have lost our way. We’re more interested in our material possessions and what’s on TV tonight than we are in the whole wide world of nature all around us. And we’ve largely lost the ability to be in that world of nature, and to interact with it in any meaningful way. Which is something that probably speaks quite a bit to backpackers, campers and hikers, who actively seek out that interaction with nature, to varying degrees.
Eustace Conway’s mission in life is to correct that, one school group at a time, to be a one man force bringing us back in rhythm with nature. This is an ambitious plan, and it seems to be going about as well you might expect, which is not very well at all. Eustace does his best to be a living example of everything that he hopes we will all choose to become, but what can say, TV is rather entertaining.
One interesting bit of this book was not in the book, but rather in the Amazon reviews that I went and read after I’d finished the book. In particular this review of The Last American Man, that was apparently written by a former intern of Turtle Island (Eustace Conway regularly has several interns at any one time at his Turtle Island retreat, there to learn how to live off the land), and takes issue with how Turtle Island and Eustace Conway are portrayed, saying that the property is full of rusty cars leeching nasty things into the soil, interns are forced to use power tools (remember they’re there to learn how to live off the land) and many animals die of neglect, among other things. Another disgruntled intern chimes in later to say that this account is basically true.
All this should be taken with a grain of salt. Remember this is the internet, none of these claims are verified, and some people have nothing better to do than make up stuff like this. Still, if it is true it’s at best a rather forgiving glossing over of the facts of Turtle Island by Gilbert.
Perhaps a lot of what’s written in this book, at least when it comes to the realities of Turtle Island, is more fiction than non-fiction. I don’t think that takes away from the fact that the book is a great read. The subject material is very interesting and I think that the personal side of the story is fascinating, as is the larger idea of the evolution of the American Man, from enterprising and useful jack of all trades to mostly useless couch potato.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing is also excellent, and definitely makes you turn the page. I’ve not read any of her other books but have been looking at her other books on Amazon and considering picking one up (they’re not all about finding love and becoming a self-actualized person).
If you’re looking for a book to throw in your backpack, The Last American Man is a great choice.