I finished recently two books: The Last American Man and the Cat Who walks through walls. While entertaining, I wouldn’t call either great books. Airplane novels – a way to pass the time with text.
Last American Man is the bio of Eustace Conway, a modern day Daniel Boone or Davey Crocket. He’s pretty hardcore – living in the woods for seventeen years, hiking the Appalachian trail alone at 19, consisting on scrounged food (and the occasional roadkill delicacy). He rode across the country horseback, breaking the world record.
The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, writes the book in a mix of fascination and respect, but much of the book comes off as high school girl fawning over her secret crush. Her thesis goes something like this:
“Briefly, the history of America goes like this: there was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier.
“…while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and was transformed in to a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into he opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There, he shed his cosmopolitan manners and became a robust and proficient man.
“the only way modern America can begin to reverse its inherent corruption and greed and malaise is by feeling the rapture that comes from face-to-face encounters with what [Eustace Conway] calls “the high art and godliness of nature.
“It is [Eustace Conway’s] belief that we Americans, through our constant striving for convenience, are eradicating the raucous and edifying beauty of our true environment and replacing that beauty with a safe but completely faux “environment.” What Eustace sees is a society steadily undoing itself, it might be argued, by its own over-resourcefulness. Clever, ambitious, and always in search of greater efficiency, we Americans have, in two short centuries, created a world of push-button, round-the-clock comfort for ourselves. The basic needs of humanity-food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, transportation, and even sexual pleasure-no longer need to be personally labored for or ritualized or even understood. All these things are available to us now for mere cash.
“Which means that nobody needs to know how to do anything anymore, except the one narrow skill that will earn enough money to pay for the conveniences and services of modern living.”
She puts forth the concept of Man of Destiny – the quintessential American badass with strong arms, sharp mind and humble heart. It’s a worldview Eustace adopted from his camp-counselor grandfather who ran a boy-scout camp in the style of R. Lee Ermy. The book throws some interesting curveballs – Eustace had a verbally and emotionally abusive father, which pushed him to the woods. And though our hero can wrestle bears with his bare hands and construct two story barns from fresh timber and no metal tools – he still isn’t married (one of his remaining dreams). He’s plowed through girlfriends (Eustace’s love letter share a certain sticky attribute with coniferous trees).
So he’s got flaws.
Another interesting point is how similar this guy’s lifestyle mimicked some real whackos: Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolf. Both the bombers (Una/abortion), lived in the woods, disdained technology and thought of the modern world as lost. Gilbert tries to correct this view with the argument then Conway invites apprentices over to his farm. Unfortunately, the same charm that attracted his multitude of girlfriends turned into the “Man of Destiny” arrogance that netted him zero soul mates. Only one or two potential heirs to the Conway legacy have graduated the two year program.
For me, I enjoy a walk in the woods from time to time. Just this past Sunday I survived a brutal march along the Appalachian ridge tops, pelted by summer thunderstorms. I walked through the rhododendron tunnels, saw the sky and clouds roiling, the (breif) sunshine stretching through the canopy to play with the wildflowers and undergrowth. It was refreshing.
I met a bearded young guy running the Appalachian trail. He was shirtless and fit; not sweating or fatigued. He was on day 41 and was going to break the world record by almost five days. I calculated that he would have to run 50 miles a day to do the trail in 42 days. I hiked 15 and was dead tired and sore. Man of Destiny, or just a deranged superhuman?
On the way out, a skinny stray dog wept near our car. She was bruised and frail, with desperate look in her eye. Most probably starving. This was the real wilderness: unforgiving and alone. Those sorry specimens of life without the “Man of Destiny” ego curl up and die in the dirt. The hunter-gatherer mountain man motif might be romantic in the James Fennimore cooper novels or Russel paintings, but this was reality. Conway might be a fun character, but I’m sure I’d call him a smelly slavedriver in person.
We fed the dog a bagel and drove off, down the mountain and back to civilization.
(Cat who walks through walls review later…)