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Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

The Last American Man

BOOK: The Last American Man
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First published in Great Britain 2009
Copyright © Elizabeth Gilbert

This electronic edition published 2009 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

The right of Elizabeth Gilbert to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (including without limitation electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, printing, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

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eISBN: 978-1-40880-687-6

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THE LAST

AMERICAN MAN

ELIZABETH GILBERT
is the author of a short story collection,
Pilgrims
(a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award), a novel,
Stern Men,
and a book of non-fiction,
The Last American Man
(nominated for the National Book Award and a
New York Times
Notable Book for 2002). For many years she wrote for American GQ, where she received three National Magazine Award nominations
for feature writing. Her most recent book,
Eat, Pray, Love
– a memoir about the year she spent travelling the world after a bad divorce – is an international bestseller, with over
five million copies in print. Elizabeth Gilbert lives in New Jersey.

BY THE SAME AUTHOR

Eat, Pray, Love

Stern Men

Pilgrims

CHAPTER ONE

What a wild life! What a fresh kind of existence!

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, considering the possibility of

writing an epic poem about the American explorer John Frémont

B
y the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By
the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out
into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen,
he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design,
made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and
eaten.

This move occurred in 1977, by the way. Which was the same year the film
Star Wars
was released.

The following year, when he was eighteen, Eustace Conway traveled the Mississippi River in a handmade wooden canoe, battling
eddies so fierce, they could suck down a forty-foot tree and not release it to the surface again until a mile downriver. The
next year, he set off on the two-thousand-mile Appalachian Trail, walking from Maine to Georgia and surviving almost exclusively
on what he hunted and gathered along the way. And in the years that followed, Eustace hiked across the German Alps (in sneakers),
kayaked across Alaska, scaled cliffs in New Zealand, and lived with the Navajo of New Mexico. When he was in his mid-twenties,
he decided to study a primitive culture more closely in order to learn even more ancient skills. So he flew to Guatemala,
got off the plane, and basically started asking, “Where are the primitive people at?” He was pointed toward the jungle, where
he hiked for days and days until he found the remotest village of Mayan Indians, many of whom had never before seen a white
person. He lived with the Maya for about five months, learning the language, studying the religion, perfecting his weaving
skills.

But his coolest adventure was probably in 1995, when Eustace got the notion to ride his horse across America. His younger
brother, Judson, and a close family friend went with him. It was a mad act of whim. Eustace wasn’t sure if it was possible
or even legal to ride a horse across America. He just ate a big Christmas dinner with his family, strapped on his gun, hauled
out an eighty-year-old U.S. Cavalry saddle (rubbed so thin in places that he could feel the heat of the animal between his
legs as he rode), mounted his horse, and headed out. He reckoned that he and his partners could make it to the Pacific by
Easter, although everyone he told this to laughed in his face.

The three riders galloped along, burning away nearly fifty miles a day. They ate roadkill deer and squirrel soup. They slept
in barns and in the homes of awestruck locals, but when they reached the dry, open West, they fell off their horses every
night and slept on the ground where they fell. They were nearly killed by swerving eighteen-wheelers when their horses went
wild on a busy interstate bridge one afternoon. They were nearly arrested in Mississippi for not wearing shirts. In San Diego,
they picketed their horses along a patch of grass between a mall and an eight-lane highway. They slept there that night and
arrived at the Pacific Ocean the next afternoon. Eustace Conway rode his horse right into the surf. It was ten hours before
Easter. He had crossed the country in 103 days, setting, while he was at it, a world record.

From coast to coast, Americans of every conceivable background had looked up at Eustace Conway on his horse and said wistfully,
“I wish I could do what you’re doing.”

And to every last citizen, Eustace had replied, “You can.”

But I’m getting ahead of my story here.

Eustace Conway was born in South Carolina in 1961. The Conways lived in a comfortable suburban home in a new neighborhood
full of the same, but there was a fine patch of woods, standing right behind their house, that had not yet been cleared for
development. It was, in fact, a wild, undisturbed, first-growth forest without so much as a trail cut through it. It was an
old world forest, still filled with quicksand and bears. And it was here that Eustace Conway’s father—whose name was also
Eustace Conway and who knew everything—used to take his young son to teach him how to identify the plants, birds, and mammals
of the American South. They would wander together in those woods for hours, looking up into the trees and discussing the shapes
of the leaves. So these are Eustace Conway’s first memories: the cosmic scope of the woods; the stipple of sunlight slanting
through a verdant natural awning; the enlightening voice of the father; the loveliness of the words
locust, birch,
and
tulip poplar
; the new intellectual pleasure of study enhanced by the distinct physical sensation of his wobbly toddler’s head tilting
so far back that he might have toppled over from the effort of looking up so hard at so many trees for such a long time.

As for the rest, and over the years, it was his mother who taught Eustace. She taught him how to camp, bait a hook, build
a fire, handle wildlife, weave grasses into rope, and find clay in river bottoms. She taught him how to read books with wonderful
titles, like
Davy Crockett:
Young Adventurer
and
Wild Wood Wisdom
. She taught him to sew buckskin. She taught him how to execute every task with ardent perfection. Eustace Conway’s mother
was not exactly like the other mothers of the day. She was a little gutsier than the average mom in the American South in
the early 1960s. She’d been raised like a boy at a summer camp that her family had owned in the mountains of Asheville, North
Carolina. She was an unrepentant tomboy, a proficient horseback rider, and a capable woodsman who, at the age of twenty-two,
had sold her silver flute for passage to Alaska, where she lived in a tent by a river with her gun and her dog.

By the time Eustace was five years old, the forest behind his house had been leveled by the real estate market, but the family
soon moved to a four-bedroom home in another suburban development. It was in Gastonia, North Carolina, and had its own dense
forest standing behind it. Mrs. Conway let Eustace and his young siblings have the run of the woods from the time they could
walk—barefoot and shirtless and without supervision—from sunup to sundown, every moment of their childhood, except for those
few interruptions for mandatory schooling and churchgoing (because it wasn’t as though she were raising
savages
).

“I suppose I was a bad mother,” Mrs. Conway says today, not very convincingly.

The other mothers of Gastonia naturally were horrified by this childrearing technique, such as it was. Some of them, alarmed,
would call Mrs. Conway on the telephone and say, “You can’t let your babies play in those woods! There are poisonous snakes
out there!”

Thirty years later, Mrs. Conway still finds their concern amusing and adorable.

“For heaven’s sake!” she says. “My children always knew the difference between poisonous snakes and regular snakes! They did
just fine out there.”

Briefly, the history of America goes like this: there was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier. It all happened
rather quickly. There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities. Nobody was really paying attention
until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody wanted it back. Within the general spasm of
nostalgia that ensued (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Frederic Remington’s cowboy paintings) there came a very specific cultural
panic, rooted in the question
What will become of our boys?

The problem was that, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the
city and was transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the 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. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man.

This was a particular kind of man, this wilderness-bred American. He was no intellectual. He had no interest in study or reflection.
He had, as de Tocqueville noticed, “a sort of distaste for what is ancient.” Instead, he could sterotypically be found, as
the explorer John Frémont described the
über
-frontiersman Kit Carson, “mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle and scouring bare-headed over the prairies.” Either that,
or whipping his mighty ax over his shoulder and casually “throwing cedars and oaks to the ground,” as one extremely impressed
nineteenth-century foreign visitor observed.

In fact, to all the foreign visitors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American Man was a virtual tourist
attraction in his own right, almost as fascinating as Niagara Falls or that ambitious new railroad system or those exotic
Indians. Not everybody was a fan, of course. (“There are perhaps no people, not even excepting the French, who are so vain
as the Americans,” griped one British observer in 1818. “Every American considers that it’s impossible for a foreigner to
teach him anything, and that his head contains a perfect encyclopedia.”) Still, for better or worse, everyone seemed to agree
that this was a new kind of human being and that what defined the American Man more than anything else was his resourcefulness,
born out of the challenges of wrenching a New World from virgin wilderness. Unhindered by class restrictions, bureaucracy,
or urban squalor, these Americans simply got more done in a single day than anyone had imagined possible. That was the bottom
line: nobody could believe how fast these guys worked.

German-born Gottfried Duden, who traveled to the West in 1824 to identify suitable homesteads for German families interested
in immigrating to America, reported home in wonder: “In North America, construction jobs which the European countries do not
accomplish in centuries are completed in a few years, through the voluntary cooperation of individual citizens.” At the time
of Duden’s visit, for instance, the farmers of Ohio were busy constructing a 230-mile-long canal without the help of a single
licensed engineer. Duden saw “beautiful cities” thriving where not even towns had stood two years before. He saw new roads,
new bridges, “thousands of new farms,” and “a hundred more steamships”—all new, handmade, ingeniously designed, and perfectly
operative. Did the American Man need something done? Well, then, he simply made it happen.

It was such an attractive idea, this notion of the bold and competent New World citizen. The English travel writer Isabel
Bird, famous for her cool and detached prose, seemed scarcely able to keep from exclaiming
hubba-hubba
as she checked out the rugged men she kept encountering on her trip to America in the 1850s:

“It is impossible to give an idea of the ‘Western Men’ to anyone who has not seen one at least as specimen . . . tall, handsome,
broad-chested, and athletic, with aquiline noses, piercing grey eyes, and brown curling hair and beards. They wore leather
jackets, leather smallclothes, large boots with embroidered tops, silver spurs, and caps of scarlet cloth, worked with somewhat
tarnished gold thread, doubtless the gifts of some fair ones enamored of the handsome physiognomies and reckless bearing of
the hunters. Dullness fled from their presence; they could tell stories, whistle melodies, and sing . . . Blithe, cheerful
souls they were, telling racy stories of Western life, chivalrous in the manners and free as the winds.”

Look, I wasn’t there. It’s hard to know how much of this rhetoric was based on truth and how much was the product of an excitable
foreign press eager to testify on the Next Big Thing. What I do know is that we, the Americans, bought the hype. We bought
it and added it to the already hearty stew of our homegrown self-mythology until we cooked up a perfectly universal notion
of who the American Man was and how the American Man was made. He was Pecos Bill. He was Paul Bunyan. He altered the course
of rivers with the help of his mighty blue ox, he broke wild horses using rattlesnakes as reins, and he was an omnipotent
hero created through revelatory communion with the frontier. Everyone knew that.

So Frederick Jackson Turner wasn’t the only person who got nervous when the news came in 1890 from the Census Department that
the American frontier was suddenly and officially closed. But he was the first to ask what this closure would mean to future
generations. His nervousness spread; the questions expanded. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of
our boys?

Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent.

Lord help us, they might become
Europeans
.

I first met Eustace Conway in New York City, of all places. This was 1993.

I met Eustace through his brother Judson, who is a cowboy. Judson and I used to work together on a ranch out in the Wyoming
Rockies. This was back when I was twenty-two years old, acting as if I were a Western cowgirl—an act that took considerable
pretense, given the inconvenient reality that I was actually a former field hockey player from Connecticut. But I was out
there in Wyoming because I was seeking an education and an authenticity that I thought could not be found anywhere but on
the American frontier, or what remained of it.

I was searching for this American frontier as earnestly as my parents had sought it two decades earlier, when they’d purchased
three acres of land in New England and pretended to be pioneers—raising chickens and goats and bees, growing all our food,
sewing all our clothing, washing our hair in a rain barrel, and heating our house (and only two rooms of it) with hand-split
firewood. My parents gave me and my sister as rugged a nineteenth-century upbringing as they could manage, even though we
were living out the Reagan years in one of Connecticut’s wealthiest communities and our insular little frontier farmhouse
happened to be located on a major highway only a mile away from the country club.

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