NC Mountain Man struggles with off-camera image

Associated PressAugust 17, 2013 

— 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.”

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.

A complex dance

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.

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 in Western North Carolina, just a few miles east of Boone, a county seat of 17,000 residents whose population doubles when Appalachian State University, Conway’s alma mater, is in session.

A gravel road leads into the 1,000-acre preserve. 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.

‘An island of wilderness’

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.

“The property in its present state presents a hazard to the safety of anyone near any of the structures,” wrote codes consultant W.O. Whaley in a 78-page inspection report. “I would suggest obtaining a court order to vacate the property to protect the lives of the public and the interns.”

Conway believes it’s no coincidence that his trouble with the planning department began during the first season of “Mountain Men.”

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.’”

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 suit for breach of contract. Finally, in April 2012, Conway paid.

The legislature steps in

As word of Conway’s continuing bureaucratic problems spread, hate mail inundated County Planning Director Joe Furman’s office.

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.

A lifestyle and a business

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. 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.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service