Walking Off the Vietnam War with Doug Peacock

Doug Peacock’s reputation frequently precedes him as does that of his late, larger-than-life friend and father figure Edward Abbey. The author is known for his close encounters and near relationships with grizzlies. Abbey his known as a wild voice of the wilderness. Peacock takes us along on a curious and often painful walk with the eccentric and unique pair in his book Walking It Off ­ A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Memories.

Roaming from the arid, scorching vastness of the Sonoran desert to his beloved Grizzly Hilton along the western edge of Glacier National Park to burying his friend in the southwest, the author reveals with admirable and uncommon candor his innermost torments including those of trying to define his relationship with Abbey, who did much to make Peacock famous by basing his character Hayduke on him in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. The author is ambivalent, to say the least, about this literary notoriety that seeped into nearly every corner of his life. Along the way in Walking It Off Peacock includes an interstitial story about his experiences in the Himalayas of Nepal. A nice touch that lends depth through both a variance in pace and setting and by the addition of a companion narrative.

A Midwesterner at birth, Peacock volunteered for an intense combat tour in Vietnam as a Green Beret medic. Ike many of his fellow soldiers, he returned home greatly changed to an equally troubled America. Happenstance joined him up with a group of desert rat wilderness anarchists led by Abbey.

Abbey subsequently based George Washington Hayduke, the central character in his best-selling environmental classic. Despite their stormy, almost father-and-son relationship, Abbey and Peacock traveled and explored some of the planet’s wildest places, including the Cabeza Prieta desert and the Escalante wilderness.

Having lost a dear friend who was considerably older than me, I can understand the turbulent dynamics of things between Peacock and Abbey. Are we equals? Father and son? Or what?

After burying his friend and mentor in the Southwest desert in 1989, Peacock embarked on a risky trail of adventure and discovery. With his war experiences returning with horrific fury and his domestic life unraveling, he turned to the wild country to confront death and ultimately renew his life.

Peacock, who lives in Livingston, Montana with his wife Andrea, is widely known for his excellent book Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, an account of many seasons spent studying the grizzlies of the West. He’s become an articulate environmental individualist writing about and dedicated to preserving the last remaining wilderness.

As Pulitzer Prize winner and Vietnam veteran Phil Caputo says of the author and this book, “Doug Peacock is a direct literary descendant of Thoreau, with a few genes from Audubon and his mentor Edward Abbey, thrown in for good measure. His response to the natural world is visceral, intellectual and spiritual at the same time. In this book, he writes about it beautifully, in prose that begs favorable comparison to the best of Peter Matthiessen Walking It Off shows that wilderness, like a great work of art, possesses an intrinsic value in its power to restore, revitalize, to heal the stricken soul. His meditations on war and wilderness are painfully apt today.”

Writing about the aftermath of the war and what he is experiencing was one of the most interesting and intriguing aspects of the book. I grew up during Vietnam and was nearly drafted. Many of my friends were not so fortunate. A number of them (I sometimes think the lucky ones) were killed over in those jungles. Others came back ravaged by heroin addiction, maimed, disfigured, mangled emotionally. I’ve never known what to say or ask them.

Was the country pretty? How was the food? Do you still have nightmares and assorted other innanities.

Instead I’ve kept an uneasy and somewhat guilty silence in these men’s presence. Peacock’s passionate and truthful writing on this has answered some of my questions and given me at least the beginnings of insight into the hell our Vietnam veterans face. That in itself makes Walking It Off worthwhile.

As a result of his war experiences and other life incidents involving the land and the environment, Peacock writes with great insight concerning about the harsh nature of reality.

“In war, as in myth, no mortal can look at the naked face of reality and escape unscathed, innocence becomes impossible. It remains for men to complete this passage; the dark wisdom is absolutely relevant, the perfect time for all warriors, men as well as women, to return ­ if they can endure it ­ with the story of their journey.”

He also writes with equal passion, precision and beauty of the natural world.

“I see the entire drainage I have traversed, open scrub fields sweeping up beyond timberline to the gentle summits ­ several square miles of prime grizzly habitat. In afternoon light, the color is magnificent: red and yellow slopes punctuated by golden larch and subalpine fir; mountain ash all crimson and heavy with red berries. ”

In the end, Walking It Off is a damn good book written from the heart by a good man trying to make both his way and his peace with the world.

JOHN HOLT is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: hunted@wispwest.net

This review originally appeared in the California Literary



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