When Doug Peacock went off to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he returned broken and hollow, haunted by too many memories of death and destruction. In a moment of synchronicity, his last helicopter flight to Danang, from where he left for home, carried him over the village of My Lai as American troops massacred the inhabitants. When he found out about the incident later it seared his consciousness.
Upon Peacock’s return to America, he found himself adrift in a culture that he no longer understood. His only solace was to head to the wilderness. He headed to the Rockies and then to the deserts of the Southwest. In his travels he met Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, and later, The Monkey Wrench Gang. They became friends, at times bickering and feuding, fellow explorers and drinking buddies. Peacock’s new book recounts their friendship, interspersed with flashbacks to Vietnam and accounts of rambles through the wilderness to “walk off” the aching pain that so disabled him, and to end his hard drinking. Abbey had used Peacock as a role model for Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and the act created a great tension between the two men.
Peacock carries us through his death vigil for Abbey and to Abbey’s illegal bootleg burial in the Arizona desert. Abbey had been a cranky, cantankerous, even misanthropic person, and Peacock spends most of the book trying to sort through the love he felt for the man. All of this is juxtaposed with Peacock’s own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that rendered him unable to find a place in American society. Though Abbey may have been a guide in some areas of Peacock’s life, he was of little use in this area of dealing with society. For both of them, wilderness was the only refuge, their last, best hope for a kind of sanity.
Peacock writes with a clear, lucid prose that is able to place the reader in the scene with him. I found myself wanting to wander the desert landscape with him, to be able to take in some of the secret places and hidden ancient ruins, far from the machinations of the world. Peacock also takes us to the Himalayas, where on a trek he nearly suffers the same fate as Abbey.
The weakness of the book lies in its jumpy nature. There are still things that Peacock does not let us in on. Why did he volunteer to go to war, even though he was something of a campus activist? We know nothing of his youth and life motivations. There are still levels of depth that he refuses to let us see.
This background depth would probably have provided the means to smooth the jumpy quality of the writing. The book is important though, not only for its connection to the iconic Abbey, but also for its honest account of a man’s attempt to deal with the pain engendered by our society’s destructive nature. In this time of cynicism and irony, its important to have an example of a passionate man who has never given up in his quest to “walk off” his personal demons and to move on to some larger understanding.