My path to this book feels so very obvious: I have become a big fan of Edward Abbey, and of The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it seems a very natural step to pick up Walking It Off. Peacock was one of Abbey’s closest friends, viewed him as a father figure of sorts, and this memoir focuses in part on their relationship, which was made pricklier by publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang: Peacock was the model for the hero-character George Hayduke, making Peacock a cult figure unto himself. Therefore nothing could be more natural, as I read up on Abbey and his ilk, than to read Peacock. I wonder how many people come to Walking It Off on other paths? There are other paths, of course. First of all, I must give Peacock credit for being a gifted writer himself; it’s not just that he has a powerful story to tell. Nor is Abbey the only object of consideration here; another subject is Peacock’s experience as a Green Beret in Vietnam (which he shares with Hayduke, of course) and the PTSD he suffers ever after. And finally, it is a lovely piece of nature writing, and a contemplation of death – not for the first time am I reminded of Hemingway, who like Abbey spent much time and ink meditating on the meaning of death, preparation for a “good” death, and considering suicide.
The subtitle of this book is “A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness,” and that it is. Abbey is a thread that Peacock picks up and puts down, but more constantly, we follow him through wilderness walks and his process of trying to live with what he experienced in Vietnam. I would not have thought that there would be such a connection between war and wilderness, but it makes sense now that I’ve read this book.
After my war, home was the Rocky Mountains. I wasn’t looking for grizzlies but found them anyway. What was invaluable was the way the bears dominated the psychic landscape. After Vietnam, nothing less would anchor the attention. The grizzly instilled enforced humility; you were living with a creature of great beauty married to mystery who could chew your ass off anytime it chose.
Over the course of this memoir, Peacock walks and camps in various wild spaces; we jump around in time, revisiting a mountain-climbing trip in Nepal that nearly killed him. We revisit Abbey, too; early on, Peacock describes Abbey’s death in a fair amount of detail, and the burial, and the conflict of not wanting to let go of a dearly beloved friend who was more ready for his own death than Peacock was ready to lose him. Later, he remembers Abbey, reads some of his journal passages for the first time, and finally, many years after its publication, he struggles to read Hayduke Lives!, the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang. But it turns out that Abbey plays a smaller role than I had perhaps expected, and that is more than okay, because this book has so much to offer. I’m doing my own considering of wilderness, its value to us urbanized humanfolk, and the appropriate treatment of our natural spaces, and Peacock gave me still more to think about. From Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:
All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.
Which is a very fair point about limiting our use. From Peacock:
You don’t visit the Grizzly Hilton for the salve of gentle nature, a relief from your real life at the office. Here, you live within the land with all its creatures; you engage with it. You have no choice in this realm but to enter the ancient flow of life. This is not the sort of place to compose a wilderness journal of self-reflection.
The Grizzly Hilton is Peacock’s name for a tiny haven of perfect grizzly habitat that he likes to visit; his first book was the result of many years studying the bears, called Grizzly Years and recommended by Phil Connors. Virtually all the action in this book takes place in wilderness areas, on wilderness walks, most of them solo; it’s only inside Peacock’s head, in his contemplation, that we see war, Abbey, other options. We see his first marriage end, and we see him struggle to be the best father he can be. Peacock is a difficult character, a difficult man. How much of this we attribute to the PTSD is I suppose a cause for debate; I would imagine a lot, but perhaps it’s a moot point.
The aging warrior was weary of his own predictable behaviors and emotional tightness fueled by senseless rage. I detested this legacy of anger and, aware that its deeper roots lay in war, knew it wouldn’t be easy to shake. I wanted to stalk this elusive center, using my primitive tools of self-examination – walking, solitude, wildness – to reach back in and touch the source of my wound. Of course I was a poor candidate for a meditative life. My life was a catalogue of psychotic twitches and addictions: official government-sanctioned post-traumatic stress disorder, a combat disability, borderline attention deficit disorder, marginal Tourette’s syndrome, occasional depression, a borderline schizoid paranoiac, a history of alcohol abuse. Guys like that don’t become Zen masters.
But it’s funny, because in a way he does offer Zen. Peacock’s musings on wilderness are thoughtful, beautifully composed, and rooted in history, considerate of ancient cultures and of differences. This is an intelligent book, a lovely consideration of war and its ugliness and also nature and its beauty – and, as a necessary corollary, the ugliness again of humans’ and industry’s effects on nature. Walking It Off is Peacock’s continuing quest for redemption and peace. It is much better than I expected, and I recommend it.