Once during a trip on the rim of Escalante Canyon in Southern Utah, Doug Peacock first played Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 132 for his friend, Edward Abbey. In a journal entry not long before his death, Abbey remembered the opus fondly: “My heart is heavy. Very heavy. Opus 132 by lvb suits my mood exactly. Music—my rampart. Good ol’ Ludwig, old courage-giver, hero of Western man.”
And for Peacock, who incorporates this and other passages of Abbey’s journal into the ending of his new memoir, Walking It Off, the reference to Opus 132 appears to be poignantly appropriate. Beethoven wrote it after a serious bout of influenza that came close to killing him, and the quartet itself is said to convey the feeling of someone precariously close to death.
Peacock, a Vietnam vet and former Green Beret medic who now resides in Livingston, is known for his environmental radicalism, his work with grizzly bears and, perhaps most of all, for his difficult and profound friendship with Abbey, who used Peacock as the model for George Washington Hayduke, a protagonist in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey’s most famous novel. Undoubtedly, the friendship between Peacock and Abbey will draw many readers to Walking It Off. Indeed, the book is a kind of ode to Abbey and their friendship, with Peacock’s description of Abbey’s death and its immediate aftermath serving as a tender emotional centerpiece.
“The very last time—it was just before dawn—Ed Abbey smiled was when I told him where he was going to be buried, and I smile too when I think of this small favor, the final duty, this last simple task friends can do for one another.” Peacock goes on to explain how—per Abbey’s request—he and three other companions drove to Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta desert with Abbey’s body and secretly buried him. It was a maneuver as unlawful as it was touching. Peacock and the others illegally transported a body that had not been officially certified as dead and trespassed without permits onto land where it is illegal to inter bodies. Despite the urgency of the task, however, Peacock took a moment to lay in the freshly dug grave before lowering Abbey’s body into it. He wanted to check the view: “bronze patina of boulder behind limb of palo verde and turquoise sky beyond branch of torote; then receiving a sign—seven buzzards soaring above joined by three others, now all ten banking over the volcanic rubble and riding the thermal up the flank of the mountain, gliding out and over the distant valley.”
Despite the dominant image of Abbey—ghostly and otherwise—throughout much of the book, Walking It Off is a memoir that belongs thoroughly to its author. With an opening chapter printed entirely in italics, Walking It Off opens in Dhaulagiri, Nepal, where a 50-something Peacock has come to trek up the high valleys north of the area. He’s come here in search of a better life, better health and, perhaps, new beginnings. “I followed the Abbey method: go to the wildest place you can find, alone if possible, open your mind, and walk.” Interspersed throughout the rest of the book are chapters that tell the entirety of the Nepalese journey (always in italics, lending a kind of whisper-in-your-ear tone) and, in a way eerily parallel to Abbey’s death, the trip pushes Peacock dangerously close to his own mortality.
The experience seems to have been the tipping point for the rest of the book, wherein Peacock comes to terms with the personal loves and demons that have marked him throughout his adult life, including his love for bears and the wilderness, his depression following the failure of his first marriage, his experiences during the Vietnam War and the maddening Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that followed and, of course, the origin and complexities of his friendship with Abbey—their mutual passion for the environment and their evident disdain for the developers who threaten it.
Admittedly, there are times when Walking It Off appears structurally incoherent. With the exception of the Nepalese chapters, much of this personal story is told without chronology, and without a clear idea as to the book’s intent. Is this a book about friendship? A book about a midlife crisis? Few writers can get away with such elusiveness, but Peacock is one of them. The experience of reading Walking It Off is the experience of following Peacock through a wilderness that is both literal and figurative. This is a book written as much for its author as for readers. While Peacock’s mind wraps itself around his experiences of the last 30 years, we get caught up in his intense emotional energy, his epic adventures and his friendships. At its end, Walking It Off leaves the reader a little exhausted, very awakened and very much in tune with a voice that is as angry as it is gentle, and as wild as it is humane.