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Fan Girling

Coming to a city of a quarter-million people, I was sure I'd find plenty of interesting things to do during my five week stay. I didn't expect to hit the jackpot my first weekend in town though. When I saw that the independent bookstore Bookmarks was holding its 16th Annual Festival of Authors and Books, I was thrilled. The main event was Saturday, but there was four days of events, including a book trivia night, an expo, and live Appalachian music.

Winston Square on a sunny day

Several of the speakers I was interested in, such as Kirstin Valdez Quade, opted out of travel and presented virtually, but most were live, including an author I've wanted to see for a long, long time. I found out about the festival only a few weeks prior to the event, and I couldn't believe there were still tickets available for the keynote. I think a combination of the ever-looming presence of COVID and the requirement to be vaccinated to go inside any of the building to listen to the speakers must have kept people at bay. A local woman I spoke to said she's gone to the festival every year, and most speakers are standing room only. All the talks I went to were only 25-75 percent full.  

So who is this mystery speaker? Lauren Groff! Author of my favorite novel ever, Fates and Furies. I think she's just brilliant and was so happy to discover that she has the loveliest personality. She almost cried when she talked about how happy to was to be doing a live event again. She talked about how she comes up with book ideas, especially the one for her most recent novel (shown in the picture below), which has been brewing in head for two decades. She's clearly someone who is ever curious about the world and always reading and learning. She talked about all the failed novels she wrote before she finally found success with a short story and how she lets herself take years off without writing because that's how she needs to operate creatively.  

small box and a white tote bag from a festivalLauren Groff giving a talk
There was no live book signing or meet & greet for obvious reasons, but that's okay. I had a front row seat and couldn't have been any happier. 

The second super exciting opportunity I've had out here was going to Turtle Island Preserve. I've had an obsession with Eustace Conway and Turtle Island ever since I read The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert. I can't recommend this book enough, but you can also read the short version in this GQ article. Long story short, Eustace Conway is a real mountain man who canoed down the Mississippi, rode horseback across America, and lived in a teepee for 17 years and taught himself all the survival skills: foraging, natural medicine, hunting, skinning animals and making his own clothes. You can read more about him and see his TEDx talk here, but seriously, read Gilbert's book.

knife, sticks, and leaves

Turtle Island is a 1,000 acre preserve that Conway bought in Western North Carolina, so of course I had to make a visit happen while I was in the area. I would have taken any class they were offering, even leaf raking or nose picking. It just so happened they were running a fire skills course. The instructor was Spencer Bolejack, who has apprenticed under Conway and has a long list of credentials. 

The full day course, including a delicious hot lunch in the outdoor kitchen, was only $80, which included a $20 discount for snail-mailing in a check and not registering online. We learned everything  from wood chopping techniques to multiple fire lays and the pros and cons of each to how to properly build a fire, starting with shavings and fuzz sticks, culminating with a challenge of getting our fire going with a single match. We also learned about other techniques of fire starting, including the old friction method. 

The day included an hour of free time to wander the grounds, at your own risk. From the minute you get to Turtle Island, staff and volunteers let you know that it is a place for people who live in a mindset of self-responsibility. No whiners or blamers allowed. There are lots of old buildings around the place, but they aren't in good shape. Horses and random dogs roam freely. Poisonous plants grow wild and untamed. There are outhouses, but you're encouraged to do your business in the woods. Have a great time, but remember that you are responsible for your own safety. Be alert and don't be an idiot. I approve! 

The other big message that was communicated at our orientation to the preserve is that Turtle Island is an inclusive place. It is a place for people who want to learn skills so they have choices in life. People who go there to learn have that in common, and guests should focus on what they have in common and encourage and learn from each other. It is highly discouraged to talk about politics and stir up controversy and animosity. Cell phone usage is also highly discouraged (not there there is really service out there) because they want you to be in the moment, focus, build community by talking to others and not burying your face in a gadget, and not take pictures that have other people in them without asking first. I also approve of all this!

woman in front of cabin the woodshorses in front of old barn
I did not get to meet Eustace. I knew the odds were slim that he would be on the property that day or, even if he was, make himself seen. But again, as with not getting to shake Lauren Groff's hand, I wasn't disappointed. The class I took was really well done and I felt giddy just being at Turtle Island, knowing that places like it exist.