Elizabeth Gilbert's book brough Eustace Conway to national prominenceEustace Conway, 51, has been called “The Last American Man.” He left his suburban upbringing and literally walked out into the Appalachian Mountains, where he has lived for 30 years. In that time, he’s faced down wild animals and entitled children. But the proprietor of Turtle Island may have finally met his match in the form of red tape.
That’s because, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Watauga County planning department has created a 78-page report detailing the various health and sanitary violations at Conway’s nature paradise.
"These buildings aren't fit for public use," Joseph A. Furman, county planning director, tells the WSJ, describing toilets made of sawdust and open-air kitchen facilities.
"Modern inspectors know how to measure a board, but not how to build a building," Conway shoots back, saying the very point of Turtle Island is to offer visitors an experience free of modern trappings.
"Codes don't apply to what we're doing," he said.
Conway’s supporters have started an online petition on Change.org asking North Carolina to exempt Turtle Island from the state’s building codes. That petition has already collected more than 10,000 digital signatures.
On the Turtle Island website, Conway explains his vision in offering a location where people can learn and practice the ways of the past:
“We orient to the basic foundation of where things come from and where things go. We plant and harvest in our gardens, milk goats, make butter, soap, bowls, spoons and tools of all size and description. We hunt and gather wild foods and medicines and natural resources abounding in our huge natural preserve. We cook on a fire, gathering our own wood. We completely made the many buildings of our farmstead; carved literally from the wilderness.”
However, Turtle Island is not entirely free of modern contraptions. For example, the scene has been the setting of an ongoing History Channel television series, “Mountain Men.”
There are also a number of trucks on-site and, as Watauga County Commissioner Perry Yates tells the paper, the open-air kitchen contains an oven range that could pose a serious fire hazard.
"If we are going to teach 1776, let's teach it the way it really was," Yates said.
Despite living the primitive lifestyle for his entire adult life, Conway was able to purchase the 1,000-acre Turtle Island location with funds raised from his numerous public speaking engagements and from offering paid courses to visitors who want to stay at Turtle Island for trips ranging from two hours to two weeks.
For his part, Furman says it’s not about forcing Conway and Turtle Island into the modern age. It's about making sure the visitors to his wooded paradise don’t leave with illness or injury, Furman says.
"There needs to be give and take on both sides," he told the WSJ. "We need to respect our ancestors' way of life, but we also need to do it in a sanitary manner."