As crazy as I am about books, I can usually put them down when it’s time to dive into a meal or hit the hay. But this one I literally could not stop reading. Elizabeth Gilbert is a talented writer (she also wrote Eat Pray Love), and her subject – Eustace Conway – is one of the most compelling people I’ve ever encountered on the page or in person.
[The book images above or below will get you to Amazon if you want to grab it. It's worth it.]
Summarizing the book would be futile, so we’re not going there. But I managed to arrange to spend a few hours with Eustace in person last week, at his Turtle Island Preserve, and Eustace revealed something to me that made sense of so much about his story.
Here’s how it went…
After driving several miles from Boone (North Carolina), the entrance to Turtle Island Preserve loomed before me like a lost highway into the wilderness. All I could see was a gravel road twisting down into a valley swallowed by forest. As I cautiously urged the car forward, the gravel road seemed longer than the trip from Boone. I mean, you really have to WANT to get there, because it just keeps going down, and down, and down. For what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, it leveled off and I emerged into a clearing with several unusual wooden buildings, and an assortment of animals I can only see back in my Kansas City suburbs after inhaling too much paint thinner: horses, chickens, and goats, including a bunch of three-week old kids. (Kid goats, I mean. Very cute.)
I parked the car and was greeted by a smiling, helpful intern named Daniel. Interns are people who come to live and work with Eustace for a year or more, learning what he has to impart, and helping teach the collections of kids and adults who come there to discover how to live in harmony with nature.
These activities could include but are not limited to: growing stuff, tending animals, plowing, sharpening knives, building buildings with raw materials, making fires, cooking with wood stoves, managing forests, recycling everything including urine and manure, developing green power sources, and of course, pooping in environmentally correct outhouses.
I was a couple of hours early, so Daniel introduced me to some other friendly interns, including his girlfriend Kendall. The two of them, both Americans, had met in Amsterdam while getting masters degrees in various areas of brain science. After completing that, they went to the Max Planck Institute, where Daniel got a PhD in psycho-linguistics.
Psycho-linguistics, Daniel explained, is the study of the development of language in the brain, and his specialty was infancy and early childhood. This was exciting to me, because he was able to confirm my theory that the first sentence all little girls learn is, “Can we still be friends?”
(Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. Recent breakup.)
After all those years of studying brain scans and banging on computers, Daniel and Kendall needed a break, so they did a 180 and reverted to their natural selves. I was impressed.
They gave me an illuminating tour, answered all my questions about the place, and even found a baby wild turkey which they enthusiastically encouraged me to take home. Since this fuzzy little chick would have survived about three seconds in the company of my dog, I thought it best to decline. Although, it would have been fun to bring it aboard my flight home on Southwest.
Flight attendant: “What a cute baby chicken!”
Me: “Actually, it’s a baby wild turkey.”
Flight Attendant: “Even cuter! Would it like some peanuts?”
Me: “Only if they come with Wild Turkey.”
As the hour of my appointment with Eustace approached, his assistant Desere appeared with a warm smile. She and the interns began harnessing the horses for my two-hour horse-and-buggy ride with Eustace. I’ve spent some time around horses, but never observed anything like these buggy harnesses. They are the most complicated, bewildering, elaborate combinations of leather straps and metal I’ve ever seen. At least since the rigging my girlfriend used to keep in the closet for whoopee night.
But they managed to get the horses harnessed up with minimal difficulty, and it was enlightening to watch. All those straps and metal pieces actually had purposes, and somehow they knew where they were all supposed to go. Then, just as Eustace appeared and the horses were about to be hitched to one of his collection of twelve or fifteen antique buggys, it started pouring.
So he and I went inside one of the home-made, cleverly designed, open-walled, wooden buildings to chat and wait it out. The rain, however, never stopped, and I was forced to spend the next three hours talking with one of the most fascinating, unusual people I’ve ever met.
Eustace seems shy at first, but he has a big, disarming smile. When he laughs, his head tilts back and his whole body joins in. It makes you laugh too, and fortunately we laughed a lot.
We got onto the subject of horses and buggys, and he launched into a story about how he decided to – and did – set the record for the longest, fastest, horse-drawn buggy ride in history. Something like 2600 miles around the Great Plains in 56 days. It’s way too long a story to repeat here, but the main thing is everybody said it was impossible. They told him neither he nor the horses could manage it. But Eustace felt it could be done and that the horses would be fine. And he was right.
But this was an endurance feat of no small inconvenience. Fifty-six days of minimal sleep, minimal food (for the humans), repairs, brutal wind, biting cold, and double-digit hours every day in a stiff, backbreaking wooden buggy, staring at the rear ends of two large horses for numbing miles on end. On a trek like this, averaging 50 miles a day for almost two months, the horses have to be monitored every minute to make sure they’re doing okay. You don’t get to sleep in the saddle.
At about this point it occurred to me that normal humans don’t have these dreams. Anybody who even wants to do something this crazy is just wired differently, and I said so to Eustace. He laughed, and then got serious. He told me that I was exactly right. He said that recently he’d figured out that he has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome.
He went on to say that realizing this has explained many things to him about himself and his life: Why he’s obsessive in his pursuits. How he can just focus like a laser on one thing, one goal, to the exclusion of all else. How he can ignore the cold and the pain and the hunger and just ride for weeks on a buggy, or months on horseback (his previous coast-to-coast record setting ride). How he can be so obsessed about his mission to teach people how to live in harmony with nature at his preserve, despite always being underfunded.
He explained how this made sense of so many parts of his childhood, and his relationship with his father. And how finally knowing that has helped ease the pain of those experiences. He told me how as a child he didn’t like being touched, and really didn’t care to interact with people. He always preferred to be alone, outdoors, in the forest. But he was smart enough that he figured out how to adapt socially, even though it was hard and not at all natural.
Even now, he says, his preference is always to be alone. On his horse, in the woods, exploring on foot, or some other solitary adventure. But his obsession is to teach people about nature, so he adjusts. He’s figured out how to be with people and make it appear natural. And he must be very good at it, because I would have had no idea. Talking to me for hours seemed to me like the easiest, most natural thing in the world for him. He even gave me a couple of hugs.
When you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about Eustace, about the heartbreaking encounters with his father, how hard it was for him growing up, and his difficulties with some relationships and employees, you get the sense that he is a driven person. And like many driven people, hard to be with, hard to work for.
But Asperger’s explains it all so much better.
Earlier, when I was with Kendall and Daniel, I had asked them how Eustace was to work for. Because from the book you definitely get the impression that it could be challenging. Kendall said they had only been there a short time, but that from talking to previous interns, they felt Eustace had changed quite a bit. Older interns said he is more patient and accepting now. Kendall felt that maybe Desere being there for 6 years had something to do with that.
I’m sure she does, but I’m also sure that knowing what’s unique about your brain and the way it’s wired could be rather helpful. The thing is, we all want to know who we are, to be accepted, and especially: to accept ourselves. Knowing he has Asperger’s has brought a huge measure of that acceptance and understanding to Eustace. It’s got to be a big relief.
I encourage you to read the book, and if you have the chance, to go visit for a buggy ride. Maybe even stay for a few days and take a course. And if you’re so called, be an intern for a year or so. Your life could change. A lot.
Eustace will be featured later this month in a new series called “Mountain Men,” on The History Channel. See if you can find it.
And one more thing: they can always use more funding. It’s a great cause.
Here’s the link to Turtle Island Preserve, and the link to the book is just below it: http://www.turtleislandpreserve.com/home
© 2012 Greg Tamblyn