TRIPLETT, N.C. — The way Eustace Conway sees it, there’s the natural world, as exemplified by his Turtle Island Preserve in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And then there’s the “plastic, imitation” world that most other humans inhabit.
But the border between the two has always been porous — uncomfortably so these days.
When Conway — known today as a star of the History Channel reality show “Mountain Men” — bought his first 107 acres in 1987, his vision for Turtle Island was as “a tiny bowl in the earth, intact and natural, surrounded by pavement and highways.” People peering inside from nearby ridges would see “a pristine and green example of what the whole world once looked like.”
Since leaving his parents’ suburban home at 17 and moving into the woods, Conway has been preaching the gospel of sustainable, “primitive” living. But over the past three decades, those notions have clearly evolved.
Conway has ditched his trademark buckskins for jeans and T-shirts. Visitors to Turtle Island are as likely to hear the buzz of a chain saw as the call of an eagle, and interns learn that “Dumpster diving” is as important a skill as hunting or fishing.
And then there are the TV cameras, which he’s used to convey his message of simpler living for two seasons of “Mountain Men” — a role he concedes is inherently oxymoronic.
“I think television’s terrible,” the 52-year-old woodsman says with a chuckle that shakes his long, iron-grey beard and braids. “So it’s definitely a paradox.”
But it’s all part of a complex dance. For Conway and Turtle Island, sustainability has come to depend on interns and apprentices, and on tax-exempt status from a regulatory system he openly despises.
It also depends, increasingly, on a steady stream of paying campers. And that is where Conway’s peaceful coexistence with the “modern world” broke down.
Acting on a complaint about alleged illegal building, officials from the Watauga County Planning and Inspection Department raided Turtle Island last fall and found dozens of structures without required permits. Citing numerous potential health and safety code violations, the county attorney gave Conway three options: Bring the buildings up to minimum state standards, have an expert certify that they already met code and obtain proper permits, or tear them down.
What ensued was more than just a battle of government versus an individual. It was also very much about the lines between what is real and what is “reality.”
County Planning Director Joe Furman says the conflict started in late spring of 2012 with an anonymous phone call, followed about a week later by an unmarked envelope containing a color-coded map. It showed buildings, road grading and wiring — all allegedly done without proper permitting, engineering or inspections.
Unlike some of his fellow TV “Mountain Men,” who toil high in the Rockies or far out in the Alaskan wilderness, Conway is hardly cut off from civilization.
Turtle Island lies near the Tennessee border, just a few miles east of Boone, N.C., a county seat of 17,000 residents whose population doubles when Appalachian State University, Conway’s alma mater, is in session. Just beyond the gravel road that leads into the 1,000-acre preserve, spacious, modern homes nestle on wooded lots within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Once through the gates, everything changes.
After crossing a dancing stream, the road opens onto a meadow ringed by a blacksmith shop, open-air kitchen and dining room, a corn crib and other outbuildings. Dominating the scene is a massive barn, constructed of dovetailed logs and roofed with 5,000 hand-hewn, moss-covered shingles.
The name Turtle Island comes from an American Indian creation myth about a great reptile that saved the world’s creatures from a cataclysmic flood by supporting them on its shell. “In the figurative sense,” Conway’s website explains, “we are an island of wilderness in a sea of development and destruction.”
Not exactly, say local officials.
After a cursory inspection, Furman says talks between his office and Conway broke down. So on Sept. 19, Furman came back with a warrant and sheriff’s deputies.
Inspectors found Conway’s own home lacked minimum water and sewer connections. All of the buildings were constructed mostly of wood milled on site, not the marked, graded lumber required in the building codes.
Solar panels run the equipment in Conway’s little office, and a micro-hydroelectric plant installed by students from Appalachian State’s Appropriate Technology Program powers a small workshop. Inspectors say they found wiring and junction boxes that were not up to code.
The team noted a wood stove whose chimney was vented beneath a building’s metal roof, not through it, and unpermitted outhouses intended for public use. Several buildings were not connected to the stacked-stone foundations supporting them.
In his 78-page report, consultant W.O. Whaley concluded that many of the buildings were “not structurally sound.”
“The property in its present state presents a hazard to the safety of anyone near any of the structures,” he wrote. “I would suggest obtaining a court order to vacate the property to protect the lives of the public and the interns.”
Conway and his supporters argued that Furman’s office was missing the point. How, he asked, can he teach primitive living in modern, cookie-cutter structures?
Humans have built their own houses for thousands of years, Conway says. “And now we can’t even build our own house with our own material that grows on our own land? That’s not some regulation that’s just a county problem. That’s a human rights issue.”
To counter Whaley’s report, friends posted interviews with Drew Kelly, identified as a certified building inspector, on YouTube. Kelly said most of the buildings were constructed “above what they’re wanting regular houses to be built at.”
“Do they fit modern-day building codes?” Kelly said. “No. Because they’re not modern-day structures.”
Conway believes it’s no coincidence that his trouble with the planning department began during the first season of “Mountain Men.”
“What do I do for a living?” he says in the premiere episode. “I live for a living.”
The show is mostly about man’s struggle against nature. But in Conway’s story line, a frequent adversary is “the government.”
In season one’s second installment, titled “Mayhem,” Conway opens his mailbox to find an official-looking letter inside. He slits it open with his pocketknife.
“Motion to claim exempt property?” he reads from the court document in his hand. “This is crazy. Damn attorney is paying the sheriff to serve me. Going to take all my land? ... Basically, I just got a letter saying, ‘Your life is over.”’
In setting up the scene, a voiceover gives the distinct impression that it’s the government that is coming after Turtle Island.
“Eustace has always been able to survive living off his land,” the sandpaper-voiced narrator growls. “But he always struggles to pay the tax man.”
For the remainder of the season, Conway and his interns split firewood and fence rails to raise the cash needed to lift the lien. In the climactic final episode, Conway and a friend make a dramatic ride into Boone — on horseback, rather than taking one of the many vehicles that dot the property.
He arrives at the courthouse just in time “to make his final stand.”
But Conway’s true nemesis is not “the courts” or some heartless “tax man.” It’s a 28-year-old woman who was injured during a visit to Turtle Island.
In August 2005, Kimberly Baker of Wilmington came to the preserve on a retreat as part of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. She and the others were taking part in an orientation at Turtle Island’s entrance when one of Conway’s people pulled out a sling and began demonstrating how to hurl stones.
A rock flew backward, blinding Baker’s right eye. She sued.
Baker settled with two of Conway’s staff for a combined $400,000. In September 2009, Conway agreed to pay Baker $75,000, and to mortgage some of his land within a year to cover the amount.
When the deadline passed without payment, Baker filed a lawsuit for breach of contract. Finally, in April 2012 — around the time those episodes were filmed — Conway paid up.
Conway says his contract with the History Channel prevents him from commenting “about the correctness of that” depiction of events. But he avers that reality shows are about building suspense and drama, “And a lot of the life out here is not as dramatic as they want it or need it to be.”
He expressed much the same sentiment when he spoke with writer Elizabeth Gilbert for her 2002 Conway biography, “The Last American Man.”
“When I go out in public, I deliberately try to present myself as this wild guy who just came down off the mountain, and I’m aware that it’s largely an act,” Gilbert, who also wrote the best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” quoted him as saying. “I know I’m a showman. I know I present people with an image of how I wish I were living. But what else can I do? I have to put on that act for the benefit of the people.”
As word of Conway’s bureaucratic problems spread, hate mail inundated Furman’s office.
In a petition posted on www.northcarolinanaconservative.net, author Vicky Kaseorg made allusions to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
“Are government officials upset that someone can survive without them?” she asked.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill exempting “primitive” camps and farms — including “sheds, barns, outhouses, doghouses” and other structures — from the building codes. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law on June 12.
By month’s end, Conway was back in business.
On a recent sultry day, a dozen or so campers and interns listened intently as Conway held court in the breezeway of the main horse barn. The smell of wood smoke, stewing cabbage, manure and sweat mingle in the steamy air as speckled chickens scratch for food in the dirt around the teacher’s feet.
Conway points to the rounded rafter just above their heads, explaining how this “puncheon” construction, common during the 17th and 18th centuries, allows the flat surface of a split log to act as the floor above. The barn is one of the buildings singled out as potentially unsafe, and Conway can’t resist a jab.
“My problem with the government is they see that I’m teaching people about simple, natural living, and that doesn’t jive with their corporate sponsors, you know?” Conway says. “So it’s real important to realize that the model is something that we need to keep alive. And what I want you guys to do is go out and teach the rest of the world how to do it. Because it’s our birthright as a human being.”
If Conway was a folk hero before, this incident has only increased his stock. Nick Rosen, who runs the site www.off-grid.net and included a chapter about Conway in a book about the movement, says what happened at Turtle Island “is part of a national trend to create obstacles in the way of people wanting to carve out their own freedom.”
But while many feel the government went too far, some think Conway is trying to have it both ways.
He promotes a lifestyle, but he also runs a business — albeit a nonprofit one. Available records don’t disclose how much the “Mountain Men” deal is worth, and Conway isn’t saying. Fees he charges at Turtle Island vary. Those who just want to come and look around can pay $75 for a horse-drawn buggy tour. Paying campers can learn everything from basic blacksmithing to how to build a log cabin. Tuition for one of Conway’s “Chainsaw Work-Studies” is $20 to $60 a day, “depending on how helpful you are.”
Conway also offers an unpaid, 14-month internship called “Work-Camp,” a regimen of “4 or more days a week of full-on, focused work.” Food and shelter are provided.
Boone contractor Douglas McGuire grew up in these hills. Standing beside a stone fireplace in the modern log home that serves as his office, he says he understands the traditions of rugged independence and mistrust of government interference.
But McGuire says this was a question of public safety, not private property rights.
“What he is doing, 50 years ago, was a way of life,” he says. “And people need to be taught to fend for themselves — to raise their gardens, to raise their crops. But I don’t know that going back in time to accomplish that is the answer.”
A former intern expresses a different reservation about Turtle Island.
Calling the buildings solid and the planning department’s criticisms “off base,” Justin McGuire (no relation to the contractor) says it’s the camp’s facade that’s a bit shaky.
The 31-year-old from Newnan, Ga., had hoped to learn how to live off the land, to live simply. He says that’s not what he got.
When the cameras were off, McGuire says, campers were using nail guns, bulldozers and backhoes. They ate mostly donated food, including condiments. “There wasn’t a whole lot of agriculture going on,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Although he quit his internship after six months and the show portrays their relationship as rocky, the young man says he still has a great deal of respect for Conway. He just feels that Conway has “kind of gotten away from what he originally was and what he originally stood for.”
Former Turtle Island apprentice Christian Kaltreider is now an engineer specializing in energy efficiency and renewables, He’s dismayed — if not exactly mystified — by Conway’s decision to take part in a reality show. “I think it’s ego and a drive to teach the world,” the Asheville man says.
Conway once told Kaltreider that his dream was that those he touched would go home and create “hundreds of little Turtle Islands everywhere.” Most have fallen far short of Conway’s goals, Kaltreider says.
But, he adds, “We’re still trying to save the world.”