BOONE A road that peels off the Blue Ridge Parkway curves around mountain slopes until, at a keep-out sign, it turns to gravel and plunges downhill through the forest into a world nothing like yours and mine.
The buildings scattered in a clearing at the road’s end look like they might have been raised by pioneers. Massive, dove-tailed logs cantilever under wood-shingled barns and workshops. A whimsical treehouse built like a boat floats 30 feet off the ground.
No structures at Turtle Island Preserve, a 1,000-acre outdoor education center, came from an architect’s drawing board and few of their parts from Lowe’s. That’s become a problem for its nationally known founder, Eustace Conway, who doggedly lives in the old ways and teaches thousands a year how they can, too.
The problem is that, like Conway, his buildings don’t square with modern times. Erected without permits from lumber cut and milled on site, they don’t meet construction codes. Health authorities have cited violations. Watauga County has ordered Turtle Island to stop accepting visitors.
“Basically, they shut us down,” Conway said this week.
Lawyers and engineers are working on his behalf, searching for a solution. Nearly 10,000 people have signed petitions asking the N.C. Building Code Council to change codes or exempt Turtle Island. Conway will appear before the council Monday in Raleigh.
Council members will meet a 52-year-old man in graying braids who took to the woods at 17 and has lived there since.
Conway grew up in Gastonia, the grandson of Walton “Chief” Johnson, who founded a mountain camp for boys in 1924.
In that tradition, Conway has crossed America on horseback, lived with the Navajo and, himself, in a teepee for 17 years. He has walked the streets of Manhattan in buckskins and toured the monuments of Washington, D.C., barefoot, disgusted by the wads of chewing gum other tourists left. Conway was also the subject of a 2002 best-seller, “The Last American Man.”
He bought the first 107 acres of Turtle Island cheaply in 1988. Conway now owns 500 acres and friends another 500. It’s a working farm and outdoors center where visitors come for off-the-grid learning about nature and traditional living.
Conway, who has a degree in anthropology, views building shelter as a 3-million-year-old tradition. Watauga County, he contends, is threatening the most basic of human rights.
“I think it has nothing to do with public health and safety,” he said. “I think it’s more likely the egos of small men with limited vision.”
Supporters question why, after the preserve has operated 26 years, the county is only now enforcing building codes there. A county official denies that Conway’s appearances on the History Channel’s “Mountain Men” focused its attention.
“We had no reason to go out there,” said Joe Furman, Watauga’s planning and inspection director. “People come in and get building permits and we go out and inspect them. He never came in and got a building permit.”
Conway says county inspectors visited a decade ago and labeled the preserve an agricultural use.
Last spring, a neighbor complained that Conway was building without permits. A detailed map followed by mail.
“It showed a lot more going on than we knew,” Furman said. “We know about it. We’re compelled to enforce the code.”
Solar panels, wood stoves
The visitors who stay overnight at Turtle Island, in addition to unpaid interns who live there 14 months at a time, make the primitive structures a public-safety issue, Furman said.
The visitor quarters have no plumbing, as codes require. Solar panels run a small office and a micro-hydroelectric power plant supplies a workshop. Food cooks on a wood stove or over coals in an open-walled kitchen.
After an initial visit by county inspectors in June, talks broke down. Building and health officials armed with a search warrant appeared Sept. 19 for a full-blown inspection.
The code consultant the county hired concluded the property “presents a hazard to the safety of anyone near any of the structures” and recommended that several be condemned.
He documented dozens of problems: foundations resting on stones; lumber that had not been inspected and graded; no guard rails; haphazard wiring; an unvented stove pipe.
In mid-October the county attorney gave Conway 30 days to apply for building permits. She told him to keep the public away from the structures.
The Appalachian District Health Department ordered the preserve to stop serving food, lodging or primitive camping to the public.
Conway said the preserve falls under state “primitive experience camp” sanitation guidelines and is inspected annually. The district’s environmental health supervisor did not return the Observer’s calls but told the Watauga Democrat newspaper the preserve has buildings he didn’t know about that need new permits.
Watauga County gave Conway three options: Bring the buildings up to code; tear them down; or have a licensed engineer certify that they meet codes. It threatened fines or condemnation if those conditions weren’t met.
Two structural engineers who have looked over the buildings at Conway’s request say they’re safe but would need modifications to meet codes.
“Think about the number of old houses that were built on rock foundations that are still standing,” said Boone engineer Patrick Beville, who specializes in nonconventional construction. “The cantilevering he builds is typical of construction methods used in Europe for hundreds of years.”
But Beville added, “There’s no code that addresses what he does.”
Chris Noles, an N.C. Department of Insurance official who serves as secretary of the N.C. Building Code Council, agrees that no codes that specify materials and design standards apply to Turtle Island. It could instead fall under performance-based commercial codes that ensure buildings are sound.
The state building code allows alternative designs or materials that meet the “equivalent level” of safety that is required. It also allows independent experts to do inspections.
‘A very hard decision’
The preserve is hushed this time of year. A blue-eyed mutt silently greets a visitor. A rooster crows somewhere. Work horses shuffle in their stalls. Yokes and bits hang in a barn, wagons and buggies parked in its broad overhang.
Conway has deep misgivings about updating the place to meet modern standards, fearing the work would ruin the authenticity of what he’s created. “It’s absolutely the antithesis of what we’re about,” he said.
“I live in a different world. The world you live in, that the building code lives in, is a sad world.… Not the home of the brave, the home of the scared. Not the home of the free, the home of the controlled.”
The preserve already has capitulated on health issues, he said, agreeing not to feed visitors some of the food it produces or let them sip from its springs.
After the county orders, the preserve temporarily took down its website and canceled upcoming horse-working and blacksmithing classes and visits by two Boy Scout troops.
Watauga County says it’s ready to talk further with Conway.
“Our goal is not to close down Turtle Island or harm him in any way, but rather to have the buildings compliant with the code,” Furman said. “I’m not going to say it’s not possible. It might be costly.”
Conway frets over chores not done while he deals with regulators he doesn’t trust. It’s time to plant lettuce, and the horses’ feet need tending.
“I’d be willing to compromise if it doesn’t compromise my reason for being,” he said. “It’s a very hard decision.”