This towering GQ piece, penned by Elizabeth Gilbert years before Eat, Pray, Love, is just a delicious slice of writing. The subject is simple, and Gilbert washes over the story with patience and care.
I really enjoy magazine profiles of obscure men and women – people far from the public eye who are just, you know, living their lives. Gilbert brings the reader into the life of Eustace Conway, who’s been living in the North Carolina wilderness for years, and illuminates much about the human spirit and the cultural trajectory of this country.
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 suddenly 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, a panic rooted in the question, What will become of our boys?
Problem was, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the utter opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There he shed his cosmopolitan manners and transformed into a robust man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of our boys?
Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent. Christ save us, they might become Europeans.
For obvious reasons, this is a terror that has never entirely left us. A century later, some of us are still concerned about the state of American manhood, which is why some of us are so grateful when we get to meet Eustace Conway.
Eustace Conway moved into the woods for good when he was 17 years old. This was in 1978, which was around the same time Star Wars was released. He lived in a tepee, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, and bathed in icy streams. At this point in his biography, you might deduce that Eustace is a survivalist or a hippie or a hermit, but he’s not any of these things. He’s not storing guns for the imminent race war; he’s not cultivating excellent weed; he’s not hiding from us. Eustace Conway is in the woods because he belongs in the woods.