Doug Peacock, Walking It Off: A Veteran’ Chronicle of War and Wilderness (Eastern Washington University Press, 2005)
Doug Peacock lost his in innocence in Vietnam. As a Green Beret medic, he held a dead baby and cursed God. Haunted by death, he comes back from the war and hangs out in the American West, developing a contentious friendship with author Edward Abbey. Walking It Off is Peacock’s attempt to understand life in light of the death of Abbey, the breakup of his marriage, and his experiences in Vietnam. In the book, Peacock tells us about a number of his hikes right before and following Abbey’s death and what each hike taught him. One hike in particular, through Nepal, serves as the unifying thread throughout the book. Peacock tells about a near death experience he has in Nepal, where he has this great desire to live and see his children again. When he makes it out alive, he feels he has a new lease on life. After that hike, he returns to an area in Montana where he had studied Grizzly Bears to again confront these giant bears. Then he takes a solo desert hike along the Arizonia/Mexico border through a off-limits bombing range and the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, where he reads Abbey’s last book (Hayduke Lives) as well as Abbey’s notes on his own hike through this same country. Abbey based his Hayduke character on Peacock (Hayduke first appears in The Monkey Wrench Gang). There are similarities, but as is evident from Peacock’s writings, Hayduke is a fictional character. Noting the difference between Hayduke and Peacock, one friend commented about Abbey’s creation of Hayduke, “Friends don’t do that to one another.”
Peacock is part philosopher, part naturalist, part psychologist. Throughout the book, he expresses his difficulties dealing with post-traumatic stress from his Vietnam years. The talk of new wars in the Gulf bring conjure up memories and old dreams. Peacock finds his true home in the wilderness, which he calls the “remnant of the homeland we never entirely abandoned.
There was a lot I could relate to in this book. My Appalachian Trail hike essentially helped me over a depressed time in my life. When I turned 40, I hiked the John Muir Trail. When I don’t know what to do, I often take a hike, even if it’s just a stroll through town or out in a nature preserve or in the nearby state forest. I was reading the last chapters in this book last Friday night when I got the call that a friend and mentor had killed himself, which brought Peacock’s dealing with death into a personal sphere.
I recommend this book to those who have read Abbey’s writings as well as those interested in wilderness or in the struggles combat veterans have reintegrating into society.