Outside magazine, September 1999
The Low-Tech, High-Speed, Retro-Manic Simple Life
Join us, friends, for the epic buggy adventure of Eustace Conway, world’s fastest postmodern mountain man
By Florence Williams
Photographs by Daniel Peebles
Eustace Conway and his girlfriend Patience Harrison
Oh, to gallop strong and sure o’er the waving sedges of the plains! to drink in the sage-scented wind, to hold the reins in capable, callused palms! To streak gloriously—man and horse together—across the continent’s flat heart, traveling in the very wheel-ruts of pioneer wagons, the very hoofprints of proud Sioux ponies. The
freedom! The glory!
“Whoohee!” shouts Eustace Conway. “Canada! We’ve made it to Canada! Whoohee!” And by God, we have—up ahead, the border station between North Dakota and Manitoba looms above the wheat. Eustace Conway, brave redeemer of the tattered quilt of frontier values, wants the world to know that he has traveled farther and faster by horse-drawn buggy than any human ever,
and is well on his way toward achieving nothing less than the first-ever circumnavigation of the Great Plains!
Luckily, Eustace, who is on leave from his day job as a North Carolina backwoods primitive and mountain man, doesn’t mind the precious ticks of the sundial lost to border paperwork—a mere blip of bureaucratic pettifoggery in the unfolding drama of his retro-agrarian studliness. For their part, Curly and Hasty, Eustace’s gelding steeds, seem grateful for the
break. In only 17 days, this buggy has come 358 miles! Only 1,908 to go!
Are we there yet? With 600 miles behind then and only 1,900 miles to go, Eustace and Patience throw the buggy into high gear on yet another lonely farm road.
It is a windy day on a lonely stretch of highway, the laser-straight gravel roads we’ve been traveling giving way at the border to cracked blacktop. A few scattered trees, a clump in Canada, a clump in the States, lean slightly to the east. Muddy fields stretch in all directions, devoid of sentient life, save a few pintail ducks and two dough-cheeked Canadian border
agents standing under their flag, grinning.
Their names are Dan and Bill, and they have never seen anything like this. “In my 12 years here, I have never seen anything like this,” Dan says. “Have you, Bill?”
Bill shakes his head. Then he scratches it.
It’s true. Here is one man’s revivalist fantasy: a longhaired, windburned guy in a beaver-felt hat; at his side, his lissome, longhaired, windburned girlfriend, Patience Harrison, sans hat; and two tuckered horses hitched up to a refurbished 1830s wooden buggy, all followed by a rangy panting mutt named Spotticus.
Eustace lets loose his hillbilly guffaw. “I bet you haven’t seen too many buggies cross this border!” he tells Dan and Bill.
Dan pulls out a Polaroid and takes our picture.
“Where’d ya start out from, then?” Bill asks with a faintly Northern European lilt.
“Well, we started 17 days ago in Hyannis, Nebraska, and came up through the Dakotas,” Eustace drawls, launching into the same song and dance he has repeated daily for two weeks. Since I joined them a few days ago, Patience and I have been taking turns driving a temporary support truck and riding with Eustace in the buggy, like a polygamist’s wives heading West.
Eustace always gets to ride in the buggy, because this is, after all, his inspired idea, and he’s the one trying to set a land speed record. (Not that there’s any existing record to break, not that the Guinness people have the slightest interest in a guy carving big buggy doughnuts around the Plains.)
“And now we’re heading west through Canada till we hit the Rockies,” Eustace explains, “then south through Montana and Wyoming, then back to Nebraska.”
Bill lets that sink in. “You’re making good time then, eh? How far do you go in a day?”
This is the part where people either simply don’t believe Eustace or think he’s some sort of tormentor of horseflesh. “Between 30 and 60 miles a day,” Eustace announces proudly.
Bill and Dan look at each other, incredulous. In case you don’t know much about horses and pioneers, some perspective: Westward settlers were lucky to make eight to 12 miles a day, and they took Sundays off. And they were driving covered wagons. Horses harnessed to a light buggy, Eustace will tell you, can actually trot longer and go faster than under saddle. But 60
miles? Today, endurance horseback races might cover 50 or even 100 miles, but the races typically last only a day. This trip could take two months.
“Oof,” says Dan.
“Uff-da,” says Bill.
It’s a perfect world: A man, a woman, two horses, and a dog clop off into history
To strive to do that which has never been done, to gain enlightenment through physical suffering and prowess, to teach the misguided minions of industrialization a simpler life in unity with nature, to be loved and admired for all of these things, and someday—this is where the aptly named Patience might fit in—to impregnate a fair, worthy lass and raise
robust progeny: These are the humble goals of Eustace Conway, 37.
When Eustace was 17, he walked out of the suburbs of Gastonia, North Carolina, and into a tepee in the woods, where he lived for the next 17 years as a hunter-gatherer. He gave up basic, inalienable American rights like TV and trash pickup. On Turtle Island Preserve—the 1,000-acre subsistence farm he muscled over the years out of the mountains near
Boone—Eustace teaches workshops in primitive living and polishes his vision of a back-to-the-future agrarian utopia. His fervent hope is that his prairie odyssey will—never mind exactly how—spur folks to reconsider the wonders of an equine-powered economy and a simpler existence.
Eustace has been chasing heroic visions since the age of six, when he collected 140 pet turtles—more, he figured, than any other six-year-old on earth. In 1995, he and his brother Judson rode horseback across the country in a blistering 103 days. They ate roadkill. They set a world record. (“I asked around,” says Eustace. “I found that nothing even came
close.”) He and his college buddy Preston Roberts—Eustace commuted from his tepee to Appalachian State University—followed up with a march around the Carolinas, setting another unofficial speed and distance record, this time for travel with a fully loaded pack mule. Eustace has told tales of these and other exploits to legions of schoolchildren and public
radio listeners, because, like some flint-knapping performance artist, Eustace likes an audience. And audiences like him: He tells them about catching trout with his bare hands and sewing up a wound on his own face. A tentative book deal is in the works, and he is documenting this summer’s buggy ride with a camcorder lent to him by Ron Howard’s Imagine Films. At first
Eustace stared at the camcorder the way Geronimo might have, but when he found the record button and the mini-screen gizmo that replays what he’s shot, he whooped and hollered. “Dang!” he cried. “Look at that!” Now he’s an eager point-and-shoot auteur.
“Most people would really hate this,” says Eustace as he commands the horses to resume their trot after the border. Patience is idling along behind us in the truck. “Boys, trot!” he says, and they do. It’s a marvel. Curly, a hardy blond American Bashkir, is pressing on despite a limp, bobbing his tired head like an oil rig. Hasty, a 15-year-old Morgan and former
national endurance champion, is holding up fine after trotting for nearly 600 miles. There’s no set itinerary or schedule: Each day at dawn, Eustace and Patience break camp, usually in a farmer’s field, and then stop every ten miles or so for Indy 500–style water breaks. In the afternoons, when they rest for a couple of hours, the horses are so tired that they
sometimes eat lying down and fall into a deep sleep. Then it’s back in the harness till darkness falls, around 10 p.m.
When Eustace says, “Most people wouldn’t understand why I keep driving this hard day after day after day,” he’s got that right. It’s not that Eustace wants to achieve some deeper understanding of the pioneer experience. Though such matters interest him, Eustace would not even undertake this trip if it weren’t for the stopwatch chance to do something better and
faster than anyone else. “If this kind of thing had been done before,” he says, “I wouldn’t be interested. I have to do something exceptional.”
We’re back on the gravel now. A souvenir Canadian flag from our border buddies flaps in the breeze. The weather is nice today, and riding in the open air is fun, the perfect combination of smooth and springy. Perhaps the best part is the noise, the sound of shod hooves clacking along the gravel and the rhythmic wheeze of Spotticus as he trots along behind us.
“Grasslands are made for ungulates!” Eustace cries, warming up to his spiel. “The horse could solve so many of our modern problems—fossil fuel, traffic, social alienation.” I’m straining to see it. I imagine myself wearing a prairie bonnet and clutching the Book of Mormon, and squint to summon up vistas of belly-high grass and herds of bison. But they’re not
here. A single-engine crop-duster plane shuttlecocks over a brown field, trailing chemical plumes. A coal-fired power plant on the horizon spews whorls of yellowish steam. There isn’t even much grass left on this agro-savanna, just decayed stubble from last season’s monocrop.
No matter. Eustace doesn’t seem to notice the postapocalyptic feel of the place, the palpable weight of rust and disappointment and low crop prices. Farm after farm in the region has gone belly up, and families have abandoned their homesteads in droves. In Eustace’s eyes, though, the failed prairie experiment has its bright side: The rural Plains are no more
populated today than they were 100 years ago, when the frontier was declared closed. It is once again dead air, white space, the big blank. Eustace loves this.
“I had no idea it was so empty up here!” he crows.
The responsibilities of a celebrity primitive, even one in a hurry, include community outreach. News of our caravan has preceded us, and Eustace and Patience have been invited to speak to students in the tiny Manitoba farming town of Waskada: 98 kids, grades K-12, in a school due to close soon because of declining enrollment. Eustace hates to take time away from the
road, but after one farmer feeds us a pork roast and another one puts us up in the bedrooms of his grown children, he feels obliged. Once in front of the kids, though, he’s in his element. His twang becomes ever more slo-mo as he offers up a simplified version of his Thoreauvian mission: “The goal of my life is to set an example,” he tells the children. “To say to
people, ‘Hey, you can live like this too, and there’s something better to living without electricity than with it.’ I want to get people’s attention so they can follow their dreams.” He describes his tools and accoutrements (including ax and knife, omitting sunglasses and Leatherman), the horses, the nice people everywhere they go. Most of the kids are rapt. Some are
“Why are you going around in circles?” a kindergarten girl asks.
“Doesn’t your dog get tired?”
“Don’t you ever get sick of each other?”
Picture this, kids: 12 hours a day, day after day after day, in some of the most god-awful wind and rain to hit the Plains in years. You wear one or two layers of long underwear, a layer of fleece, two wool sweaters, a hooded and lined Carhartt jacket and jeans, a lined raincoat, a poncho, rainpants, and three silk scarves. You pile on a wool blanket that a Sioux
gave you in South Dakota, a heavy ripstop-nylon buggy skirt, and a blue tarp. You want to sit out the prairie-flattening storms, but you can’t, because one of you is trying to set a world record for a category that does not exist. It’s enough to send most of us into couples therapy. It’s enough to make you want to rip each other’s eyes out.
Patience and Eustace are no exception. They met three years ago, when Patience, then 23, was teaching second grade in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Eustace came to speak at the school. His lecture, about living in touch with nature, made her cry. When she visited Turtle Island, Eustace took her for a buggy ride through a homemade obstacle course and handed her the
reins. “That’s what I like about her,” he says. “She’s game for anything.” Last year she quit teaching to travel in Africa before moving to Turtle Island to try out the Eustace lifestyle.
Now she can pluck turkeys and apply horse liniment and wash her clothes in a bucket. Patience, who grew up in Philadelphia and was once captain of Duke’s field-hockey team, possesses two characteristics that Eustace values in women and horses: perseverance and a high threshold for pain. “We complement each other well,” muses Eustace, lapsing into his
animal-husbandry vocabulary when Patience is out of earshot. “That’s why I thought I’d like to mate with her.”
In the meantime, however, Patience is happy to play the role of Eustace’s gregarious ambassador. It’s Patience who waves to passing cars and makes cheerful conversation with farm families. Patience who does all the cooking and cleaning and horse-feeding and brushing.
But as Patience has been discovering, Eustace has some, well, outdated ideas about men and women, along with some pretty outsized ideas about himself. “Eustace demands a lot of the people around him,” she confides to me. “He likes to give orders, because that’s just the way he is. I don’t think he realizes how it sometimes sounds.
“He did once read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus in an effort to understand his control thing,” Patience continues. “It was really sweet. For a while he said things like, ‘I can see I’m not validating your opinion.’ He sort of got over it, though.”
To fully appreciate Eustace’s transformation from suburban Southern boy to mighty overlord of animals, nature, and women, you have to go back to 1924, when his grandfather, “Chief” C. Walton Johnson founded Camp Sequoyah, a boys’ camp outside Asheville, North Carolina, “Where the Weak Become Strong and the Strong Become Great.” Eustace spent his summers there,
soaking up old Boy Scout manuals and Davy Crockett stories. His first words were “oak” and “maple.”
If Camp Sequoyah succeeded in making Eustace Strong and Great, his relationship with his father, Eustace III—once a Sequoyah counselor, Eustace’s Cub Scout leader, and now a retired chemical engineer who at 73 still runs up a local mountain twice a week—may have instilled some of the anxiety and insecurity requisite for any self-respecting
record-breaking obsessive. “I cannot convey the extremity of my experience with my dad,” says Eustace of his arcadian oedipal drama. “That’s why I can push myself. Once, I was painfully cold on a camping trip and he said, ‘Just run up and down.’ That was all he said. Like he couldn’t acknowledge that I was this little boy who needed his help. I entered manhood at four
The natural world became both Eustace’s solace and his Olympian arena. At 18, he helped lead a boys’ group down the Mississippi River at flood stage from St. Louis to New Orleans in an Indian war canoe. At 19, he hiked the Appalachian Trail wearing a loincloth and living off snared grouse. He has never bought a roll of toilet paper in his life.
“Eustace always was different,” sighs his mother, Karen, a former schoolteacher. “His father wishes he were more normal, and that’s why he’s always been so hard on him.” The youngest of their three boys, Judson, makes his living as a guide in North Carolina and Alaska. Middle son Walton imports Russian art. Karen and her eldest have remained close, now that she has
learned to accept wooden spoons as Christmas presents and the fact that Eustace will always be, as she puts it, “self-absorbed.”
“He’s such a good boy,” she says, “but he was always headstrong and very demanding, wanting me to get him tomahawks and Indian outfits and wanting them right away. I certainly gave in a lot. Maybe it’s my fault he turned out like this.”
After a week of rain and wind and crop dusters, small breaks in the monotony of the Plains take on wondrous proportions. The blue-winged teal swimming in the flooded ditches, the occasional patch of grass, the clopping sounds of nineteenth-century travel.
Ever since we crossed into Canada, Curly has been limping, and Eustace figures he’ll just stop and borrow a stand-in. While Patience tends to Curly and Hasty, Eustace and I drive over to see an enterprising man who’s farming a trendy, if not appetizing, crop: pregnant mare urine, a key ingredient in estrogen pharmaceuticals. Walking right into the barn, Eustace
introduces himself. “Mah name’s Eustace, rhymes with ‘useless,’ ” he announces in his fetchingest voice. Dan Meggison is a tall, lean redhead in his late forties, with gaunt cheeks and a wilted handlebar mustache. He studies Eustace, and then me with my pen in hand. “You’re not them animal rights people, are you?”
Eustace laughs. “I’ve got to worry about them myself.”
Dan relaxes and shows us around, and drama ensues. A new colt has somehow gotten on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence from his mama, so while Dan parts the wire strands, Eustace coaxes him back through. It is in gestures like these that men like Dan and Eustace establish their common language, where Eustace proves himself not just a throwback Appalachian
eccentric but a Man Who Knows Horses. Dan rewards him: “I’ve never had a colt named Eustace before.” And this very minute, in the back pasture, a mare is lying on the ground, writhing and groaning. Dan slashes the amniotic sac with a pocketknife, grabs the foal’s hooves—soft on the bottom, like lobster meat—and yanks. Out she splashes: Florence.
Hunkered over the wet filly, we are all rather proud of ourselves. Dan agrees to let Eustace borrow his draft mule, Clint, while Curly vacations at the farm for a few days. Mules are strong and tough, and Eustace is elated. He rubs his hands together like he’s making fire and smiles. We celebrate over a lunch cooked by Heather, Dan’s wife.
“Good sausage,” I say, taking two more of Heather’s offerings. Really, it’s not that good, but I’m trying to be nice. “What is it?”
Dan pauses. “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask,” he says. I’m thinking, Please don’t tell me, please don’t tell me, but he does anyway.
Eustace starts laughing.
Clint, it turns out, is a complete wanker. Not only won’t he trot or pull the buggy, he acts as a drag on Hasty, who is battling some soreness of his own. Eustace is just about beside himself. It’s already 3 p.m., and we’re only six miles from the Meggisons’ place. “Come up, boys,” he pleads. “Step up.” He prods Clint with the whip, but Clint is simply not
interested. Finally another sympathetic farmer offers to lend us his family’s mare and to trailer Clint back over to the Meggisons’ farm. The substitute mare, Prairie, is terrified of the buggy, terrified of the few cars passing, and terrified of Eustace. Which means she runs. Fast. Even with Eustace holding her back, we are tearing down the road. So of course Eustace
is now in a really good mood.
Amazingly, we make 39 miles before we pull over at a lonely wheat farm near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border at dusk. The land is as flat as a Frisbee, the only lines breaking the horizon are the hulls of combines and aluminum silos and, way off, the tilted silhouettes of long-abandoned farmhouses.
Eustace pops a Strohs. “Dang, girls, that’s good!” He takes off his beaver hat and leans against the truck. “As my brother Judson would say, it’s a perfect world.”
Not for long. When we call Prairie’s owners, they can’t believe how far we’ve driven their mare. Thirty-nine miles! They are having a family coronary. She’s not in shape! She hasn’t trained for this! They want her back tonight, and they’re going to pick up Curly and trailer him out for a horse exchange.
Sitting on the tailgate in the moonlight, Eustace’s mood plummets. People just don’t get Eustace, and this bugs him. “I am one of the most misunderstood men in the world,” he says. Prairie looks just fine to him. “I love horses. I respect them, but I’m not lovey-dovey about it. They’re work animals. I’ll yell at them, I’ll bite them, kick them in the nose with my
knee. Horses want you to be dominant.” He sighs. “Patience and I have both pushed ourselves extremely. Me, to tears and to near death. I wouldn’t feel right asking these horses to do anything I hadn’t done myself.”
I try to picture Eustace biting a disobedient horse. I have to admit, I can see it. It’s Eustace’s dark side, the rage he reserves for keeping things in line. “Hasty wasn’t a buggy horse at first,” he told me earlier. “Even the Mennonites rejected him. But I turned him into one.” I can imagine the relentless training, the sheer power of Eustace’s will over that
trembling champion, now a docile and efficient machine. Eustace lets you know, over and over, why his methods and worldview are the righteous ones, but the strange thing is that even when Eustace is being impossibly didactic, he’s so damn likable. By and large, the good people of Saskatchewan are delighted with Eustace. They stop their Ford F250s by the side of the
road and offer up bottles of wine and jars of homemade black-currant jam. And in turn Eustace seems delighted with everyone he talks to, every school group, every farmer, every woman.
But in the end, Eustace and these latter-day farmers couldn’t be more different. One couple told us they took a vacation once, on their honeymoon, to Sioux City, Iowa. They bought a heifer. Eustace’s primitivism, on the other hand, is uniquely contemporary, funded by the suburban school lecture circuit, college-enhanced, and enabled by the media. He’s also not as
one-dimensionally Cro-Magnon as people sometimes want him to be. Parts of the modern world fascinate him, like Redford movies, ripstop nylon, and duct tape. He positively gushes over the technological perfection of the five-gallon plastic bucket. When it comes right down to it, Eustace is an opportunist. And he’s ambitious. “If I were really a Wall Street stockbroker
instead of a mountain man, I’d be the leanest, meanest, richest one. That’s just the way I am. I am a Type A mountain man.”
Not surprisingly, it’s hard to find a woman who will put up with a Type A mountain man for any length of time. After all, this is a man who didn’t brush his teeth for ten years.
And one who is itching to fulfill his genetic destiny. Yep. Eustace is ready. He is dying to procreate. “I’d be happy to have at least seven kids,” he tells me.
This alarms Patience. “I’d say it’s just a little bit of pressure,” she says one night while we’re washing dishes, camped under the shadow of a cell-phone tower. She rolls her eyes. In fact, I catch Patience rolling her eyes quite a bit, like when Eustace tells her she can’t bring along that jar of pickled peppers because it’s too heavy, or when he dismisses her
suggestion that maybe the horses should walk for a bit one evening. “I tend to be a controlling person also,” she says, “but with Eustace, it’s much easier to give up.”
It seems clear that Eustace’s central problem is that he has prehistoric needs but a modern libido. He needs to shack up with someone who can churn butter all day and follow orders. But he digs, really digs, the Spunky Modern Babe. Eustace got a big boost last year when GQ published an admiring article that emphasized his sheer
red-blooded manliness. Since then, he has received more than 100 letters from adoring women.
Eustace admits to me that some of these women sound pretty intriguing. “Patience is not ready for commitment,” he adds. “She doesn’t truly understand me.” It’s late at night. We’re sitting in yet another bright farmhouse that has kindly taken us in. It’s been raining, and we smell like wet wool. Patience is out in the barn. Eustace looks up from his beef stew and
says, “The woman I really want to marry is Sacagawea.”
“What about Pocahontas?” I ask. “She was from your neck of the woods.”
He considers. “Pocahontas was romantic, which I like. But she had no backbone.”
Leaving the buggy party as it trots west, I head back home to Montana for a while. I fly to Colorado and back. I see the new Star Wars movie. I paddle two clear mountain streams, eat sushi, and buy an outrageous pair of chunky black sandals at a mall.
When I next hook up with them, Eustace and Patience have been sitting in the buggy for 41 days straight. They’ve cut south through Montana, and we meet near a busted mining town called Musselshell, population 65. The horses look even bonier than before; their hair has rubbed off in spots under their harnesses, and Hasty’s blood vessels wrap his body in long ropes
thicker than my thumb.
“I’ve already blown any record out of the water!” Eustace proclaims, doing that fire-making thing with his hands again. “In the history of people with horses, not one’s ever done what we’ve just done, ever. Period. Zero. We’ve done 1,500 miles now averaging 50 miles a day, and every day and every mile that we keep going just adds icing on the cake.”
With only 988 miles and 18 days to go, Eustace has already begun plotting his next scheme, a buggy crisscrossing of New Zealand (because they really appreciate horses there) with Preston. Patience won’t be joining them. She will probably not be joining Eustace on any more journeys, ever. Period. Zero. Patience has just about had it with Eustace. She puts this
gently: “I think my parents don’t quite believe Eustace is the right man for me, and my parents are usually right.”
Alas, for now, one last ambition will have to go unfulfilled. “I don’t see any babies happening anytime soon, unfortunately,” Eustace mournfully tells me one morning as we trot past yellow fields of sweet clover. “If I could find the right woman to have babies, I’d be working on that.”
So instead he’s working on making it across two more states full of wheat and opportunities to spread the Eustace gospel. “I want to maintain a simple life,” he insists, “even if I become famous, even if I make a movie or whatever. I still want to maintain a peaceful, quiet life in the forest.”
As I step down from the buggy and say good-bye, I watch the simple life—complete with scrawny horses, future ex-girlfriend, box of camcorder cassettes, and yet another bad night’s sleep—clop on into the sunset.
Outside correspondent Florence Williams lives in Helena, Montana.