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Reality TV meets real world, 'Mountain Man' style

Monday - 8/12/2013, 4:13am  ET

Eustace Conway sits near horse-drawn farm implements at his Turtle Island Preserve in Triplett, N.C., on Thursday, June 27, 2013. People come from all over the world to learn natural living and how to go off-grid, but local officials ordered the place closed over health and safety concerns. (AP Photo/Allen Breed)

ALLEN G. BREED
AP National Writer

TRIPLETT, N.C. (AP) -- 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." People peering inside from nearby ridges would see "a pristine and green example of what the whole world once looked like."

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.

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.

What ensued was more than just a battle of government versus an individual. It was also very much about the lines between what is real and what is "reality."

___

County Planning Director Joe Furman says the conflict started in late spring of 2012 with an anonymous phone call, followed about a week later by an unmarked envelope containing a color-coded map. It showed buildings, road grading and wiring -- all allegedly done without proper permitting, engineering or inspections.

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 near the Tennessee border, just a few miles east of Boone, N.C., a county seat of 17,000 residents whose population doubles when Appalachian State University, Conway's alma mater, is in session. Just beyond the gravel road that leads into the 1,000-acre preserve, spacious, modern homes nestle on wooded lots within sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Once through the gates, everything changes.

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.

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.

After a cursory inspection, Furman says talks between his office and Conway broke down. So on Sept. 19, Furman came back with a warrant and sheriff's deputies.

Inspectors found Conway's own home lacked minimum water and sewer connections. All of the buildings were constructed mostly of wood milled on site, not the marked, graded lumber required in the building codes.

Solar panels run the equipment in Conway's little office, and a micro-hydroelectric plant installed by students from Appalachian State's Appropriate Technology Program powers a small workshop. Inspectors say they found wiring and junction boxes that were not up to code.

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