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A Quest for Good

This memoir by Ed Abbey's protégé offers a bit of hope despite the gloom

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In 1975, Edward Abbey published a maverick novel that laid the foundation for a sea change in the environmental movement. That book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, set the stage for the rise of the so-called radical environmental movement. The group Earth First!, inspired by The Monkey Wrench Gang, was part guerilla theater, part anarchistic posturing and part Luddite-inspired vandalism, and it dramatically reframed the environmental discussion.

The rallying cry, "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth," struck a chord with a group of young people, born and raised with Earth Day and recycling and ecology, who were frustrated with the ongoing, unabated destruction of the planet around them and what was seen as the lack of any real progress in protecting the planet from its despoilers.

One of the main characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang, a sweaty, hairy, beer-swilling military vet fascinated with weapons and explosives and named George Washington Hayduke, became a symbol of this idea of refusing to compromise in the war to save the planet.

I don't remember who it was who wrote that "good writers imitate; great writers steal," but great writers often steal the ideas, stories, lives and secrets that are the raw material for their craft. I thought of this standing over John Steinbeck's quiet nondescript grave in Salinas, Calif., a while back, a place where he was reviled for years by the locals for stealing their darkest secret of all--their very souls. I thought of the phrase again as I read and tried to come to terms with Doug Peacock's brave new memoir.

Walking It Off is about a man struggling to regain love in the overwhelming face of death, war, loss, the end of innocence and not a small amount of identity theft.

In 1969, Ed Abbey had been introduced to and became friends with a young Green Beret paramedic newly returned from a year-and-a-half in Vietnam named Douglas Peacock. They met at a party in the Tucson home of writer William Eastlake, and eventually hit it off, sharing jobs, camping out and traveling together. It was a scene from a buddy movie: the wise, iconoclastic, idiosyncratic writer, and his protégé, the lost young warrior seeking to regain his bearings and channel his fierce passion into a quest for good in a world gone bad. Their early wanderings across Arizona and Southern Utah led to the formulation for The Monkey Wrench Gang.

As it turned out later, the resemblance of Hayduke to Peacock was more than coincidental. In fact, Abbey inscribed a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang to Peacock, writing "To Douglas, who is of course the hero of this here book."

Peacock notes, referring to his alter ego in The Monkey Wrench Gang: "The only thing worse than reading your own press was becoming someone else's fiction." He is deeply troubled by this appropriation of large pieces of his identity, and the conflict is a theme that corkscrews throughout his memoir.

The book begins on a trek in Nepal, then quickly moves to Isla Tiburon in Mexico's Gulf of California, Arizona's Cabeza Prieta, Southern Utah and elsewhere in the Southwest. The "walking it off" of the title refers to Peacock's propensity for moving across vast distances on foot. He frequently takes "big walks" of 100 miles and more over difficult terrain, a technique he credits to Abbey for helping discover "new possibilities and combinations."

Their relationship had a father-son aspect to it, no surprise given their 15-year age difference. But it was give-and-take as well, with Abbey mining Peacock's personality and store of military survival knowledge for his novel, and Peacock (fighting what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder) trying to make sense, with Abbey's friendship and support, of a world blown apart by his experiences in Vietnam.

Abbey died in 1989, blowing yet another hole in Peacock's world. Much of Walking It Off wrestles with this loss. It is one of the most touching descriptions of the death of a friend ever written.

Peacock's memoir ultimately is the tale of a survivor. It's self-indulgent at times--what memoir isn't? But this man, this tough guy, who survived the hell of Vietnam, lost his wife to divorce, endured the death of close friends and even for a while lost his bearings, has in this story exposed a sensitivity and vulnerability that highlight his utter frail humanity. Peacock has faced the quandary of how a person can know all that is ugly and evil and bad in the world--war, loss, pain, death--and yet still love.

Doug Peacock stands out as a monument, a beacon of hope for the future. His book teaches us to never give up.

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