It was somewhere late in our pilgrimage to see Doug Peacock, after the buffalo traffic jams of Yellowstone but before we reached the tiny Montana town of Emigrant, that I realized I was wearing shorts. Shorts are a common enough summer fashion choice for me, but I suddenly saw them in a new light, a light in which they looked very wrong. This was not the sort of thing you wore to meet a man who had lived with bears.
Earlier my 9-year-old daughter, Hadley, and I had driven north into Yellowstone, then hurtled through the park, barely stopping to take in the famous geysers, late for our date with the Grizzly Man. Not the over-the-top, aspiring actor from L.A., Timothy Treadwell, who had been the subject of the Werner Herzog documentary, and who was eventually killed with his girlfriend when he got too close to the bears he claimed to love. No, we were going to meet the real Grizzly Man.
or most people, Doug Peacock is best known as the character, or caricature, that the writer Edward Abbey created out of the raw materials of the man’s life. Peacock grew up in Alma, Michigan, but during his three tours as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam he dreamed of the American West, clinging to a map of Montana like a secret and a promise. When he finally got home, he headed out into the western backcountry to try to make something out of the remains of his life. Shaken by all he had seen, numb but at the same time full of unnamed rage, he turned to a new hobby, to monkey-wrenching, or environmental sabotage, cutting down billboards, putting sugar in the tanks of bulldozers, and using more explosive means to disarm the machines that were despoiling the land he loved. It was a hobby that he shared with a new friend named Ed Abbey, who would eventually transform Peacock into a fictional character, the heroic but primitive George Washington Hayduke, the central figure and driving force in Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
But Peacock’s own life would take a turn that Hayduke’s did not. He would come to spend time deep in the Wyoming and Montana wildernesses, passing months living with grizzly bears. A gun-lover, he refused to carry firearms when among the bears. At first he didn’t study the animals so much as get to know them, learning their ways. Meanwhile, his fictional alter ego was growing into a legend around the West. That legend still grows. Earlier in our trip, looking out at Monument Valley from the Muley Point overlook in Utah, I had seen, painted in big black letters on the concrete barrier, the words “Hayduke Lives!”
I was nervous about meeting Peacock. All I had to go on at that point was a curt email that read: “If you’re around come on by.” Well, I would be around, I’d make sure of it, even if it required driving 800 miles out of my way. That morning he had given me directions to his house in Emigrant, along the Yellowstone River about an hour north of the park, and we had agreed to meet at 5. I looked at the map and figured the mileage, but what I hadn’t counted on was winding our way through Yellowstone and stopping every mile or two for an elk or buffalo. There was an irony, of course, in bombing through one of America’s most beautiful parks to go and meet a wild man.
However, it wasn’t irony but anxiety that started to fill me as I realized just how late we were going to be. I called again, telling him where we were.
“All right, shit,” he said and then paused. At that time I still took his swearing personally, not yet aware that for him it was simply punctuation.
“Well, you can’t come up here to the house then,” he continued.
I’d blown it, I thought. His tone was curt, brusque, definitely irritated.
“Maybe we can meet at the bar. Yeah, let’s do that. We’ll meet at the bar.”
He gave minimalist directions to a bar called River’s Edge: you get into the town of Emigrant, cross the river and you’ll see it.
“Sounds good,” I said.
But by the time we crawled through Mammoth Hot Springs and escaped the park to the north we were even later, and Hadley sensed my uneasiness. She had been focusing on the checklist of animals she was given when we entered the park—buffalo, check, elk, check, but no wolves, her favorite animal, yet– but now she turned her attention to me.
“I’m worried about seeing this guy,” I said.
“Is he famous?” she asked.
At that point in my life I was rarely star-struck, but Doug Peacock was different. I didn’t have many living heroes left; Peacock was one. It wasn’t just his lofty place in the Ed Abbey firmament. It was the fact that I was a great admirer of “Grizzly Years,” which was as packed full of wildness as any book I had ever read. Abbey’s own “Desert Solitaire” had set the standard, describing a Thoreauvian year in a trailer in Arches National Park. But while Peacock was not primarily a writer, in some ways the disciple had outdone the master: There were scenes in “Grizzly Years” wilder than any Abbey ever wrote. In places it felt less like a literary work than the notes of a mountain man: Peacock almost freezing to death before dipping into one of Yellowstone’s thermal pools, Peacock returning the skull of a bear he knew from its place as a trophy in a bar back to its den, Peacock out watching the bears during a blizzard. The writing would sometimes jump-cut from these wild scenes to terse and direct descriptions of Vietnam, and the relative awkwardness of the jumps back and forth between the war and the bears was, for me, part of the book’s beauty. Peacock’s felt like a book more lived than written, a book that made you want to put it down and get right out into what was left of the wilderness.
Peacock got to know individual bears, like the Pelican Creek Bear or Happy Bear (check him out on YouTube and you’ll see the frolicking that gave him his name). He also spent countless hours observing and filming the bears, but it wasn’t just natural history that he was after. In his brilliant essay “The Importance of Peacock,” the writer, mountain guide and environmental thinker Jack Turner describes those years in the wilderness as something greater, no less than an “attempt to integrate the wild and self by myth.”
One other thing was established during those years. Peacock was no armchair environmentalist. He was the real deal, a brave man who would get out into it. And who would regularly risk his life. “Peacock makes other environmentalists look like they are playing in an upper-class bridge tournament,” said the novelist Jim Harrison.
Now, as we drove along the Yellowstone River, I heard myself saying something to Hadley that my mother used to say to me but that I don’t think I’d ever said before in my nine years as a parent:
“We have to make a good impression.”
“OK,” she said.
Make a good impression. What exactly did that mean when you were talking about a man who’d lived with bears?
That was when I glanced down at my clothes, at my shorts and T-shirt and flip-flops.
“I can’t wear this,” I said.
“You can’t?” Hadley asked.
Even though we were late, I pulled over at a rest area and dug into my bag. I found some jeans and grabbed my hiking boots. I considered a flannel shirt but it was too hot so I opted for a rattier T-shirt than the one I had on. I felt a little better when I got back behind the wheel, costumed now more like someone whom Doug Peacock might talk to.
“Why do we have to see this guy?” Hadley asked.
“Because we have to,” I snapped, though I’m not a snapper.
“I hope he doesn’t get angry like a bear.”
Of course I got lost, crossing the river but not seeing the bar, at least not at first pass, driving five miles down the road before doubling back and finding it.
We walked out of the sunlight and into the dark of River’s Edge, a plain, square room where the walls were decorated with antlers and the heads of animals. In the middle of the room sat Doug Peacock and a woman I assumed was his wife, Andrea. He was wearing a baseball cap, a gray sleeveless T-shirt that revealed muscled, freckled arms, and he squinted up at us. Andrea wore glasses and was younger than he was, prettier too, and she smiled kindly. I pushed Hadley in front of me like an offering. Then I began to babble about the traffic. I noticed a stuffed mountain lion nearby, and the skins of two baby bears on the wall.
Two things saved the day.
A friend had told me that Peacock liked whiskey, so I’d brought a bottle of Maker’s Mark as a gift. The bottle made Peacock smile, and he wasted no time popping it open, right there in the bar.
He took a slug.
“Good stuff,” he said. “Thanks.”
He handed it to me and I followed suit.
The second thing that saved us were the dogs. River’s Edge allowed canine as well as human customers, and dogs roamed all over both the bar and the outdoor dining area, where we soon moved to. Hadley was ecstatic, chasing and hugging the slobbery Saint Bernard and cuddling the shy doberman. Her delight seemed to delight Peacock, and certainly delighted Andrea, who followed her around the grounds on a dog tour.
I drink fast when nervous and both Peacock and I were doing double duty, gulping down our beers while sipping the whisky from paper cups I’d picked up at the bar on our way outside. I stared across the picnic table at him. He must have been close to 70, but still looked strong. The squinting I noticed was apparently habitual, and he had more than a few other tics. I also noted that he said the word “fuck” a lot, and when I asked if I could use the tape recorder he said, simply, “No.” He didn’t say it in an unfriendly way, but he was the first person on the whole trip to refuse.
I asked him how he felt when “The Monkey Wrench Gang” came out.
“I was fucking furious,” he said. “Abbey’s publisher made him write me a letter. Assuring me that only the good parts of Hayduke were based on me.”
I understood why the character Abbey portrayed would have bothered Peacock, despite the fame it brought him. George Washington Hayduke was a caricature, a wild, hairy, passionate, deranged primitive who spoke in caveman phrases.
We ordered another beer and I told him about my current project, which was to follow the ghosts of Abbey and Wallace Stegner around the West.
He said he didn’t care for Stegner.
“He never wrote anything close to ‘Desert Solitaire.’”
He was opinionated; of course he was, he was Doug Peacock. But the conversation seemed to be going well, maybe due to the alcohol but maybe because we were actually somewhat hitting it off. He knew I had grown up in Massachusetts and suddenly we were talking about Cape Cod, of all places. It turned out he had lived in the town of Brewster for a while, after chasing a woman to Boston. I was amused by the idea of Doug Peacock in Massachusetts, but of course he did it his way, living by hunting and scavenging, eating mostly quahogs, clams and oysters.
“If you like, you can come up to the house and have a beer,” he said after a while. “And you could sleep in the trailer out behind the house.”
Hadley was about 50 yards away, shooting baskets on a court with a girl around her age. Three dogs chased the two girls as they played. My wife and I had made a last-minute decision in Denver that Hadley would not use the second half of her ticket to fly home to North Carolina with her mother, but would come on the rest of my Western adventure with me. Now when I gathered her up, I saw that my daughter’s face was covered with dirt. It occurred to me, as we drove the mile or two across the river and up the hill, readying to spend the night in a trailer behind the bear man’s house, that this was exactly what her mother had been worried about, and maybe expected, when she left the girl with me.
We pulled up at Peacock’s house and headed inside. But first I pointed out the doormat to Hadley.
“Come back with a warrant,” it read.
* * *
If you want a quick immersion course in all things Peacock, you can do worse than watch a video from the classic TV series from the ’60s and ’70s, “The American Sportsman.” The episode chronicles a week that Peacock spent in the backcountry of Yellowstone looking for grizzly bears with none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is a younger, more innocent Arnold, pre-superstardom and politics and scandal, fresh off his early “Pumping Iron” and “Conan” fame, and one of the pleasures of the clip is the odd couple factor. There is Peacock in archetypal Wildman mode, spouting his radical enviro-philosophy—including some great lines about his goal of “preserving an element of risk in wilderness” by spending time around an animal that can kill humans—and there is Arnold, kind of stiff and silly at first, but gradually getting more and more into it. To add yet another surreal element to the video, you slowly notice that the show is being narrated by a voice you have known forever: Curt Gowdy’s. They see no bears, only tracks, on the first day, but that evening they stand in the smoke of the fire to disguise what Peacock calls their “foul human scent,” after which Arnold says: “I hope the whole week is going to be as strange as the first night.” The next day Peacock pontificates while Arnold trots behind, wearing a camo jacket and chewing gum. When they finally do see grizzlies, a sow and its yearling, Arnold’s whole face lights up with a goofy enthusiasm and he begins to mutter things—in an accent you can likely imitate– like, “This is fantastic” and “This is unbelievable, Doug.” Peacock is clearly pleased, though he tries not to show it. In a way the not-yet Terminator perfectly embodies Peacock’s main point: that we feel more alive when the threat of death is near.
This confluence of wildness and celebrity has few matches in our country’s history, topped perhaps only by the three nights that another toothy political megastar, Teddy Roosevelt, spent camping in the Yosemite backcountry while in office with that most arch of druids, John Muir. It reminds us of the truly wild streak that has always, until recently, at least, been such a part of the country’s character.
If Arnold’s eventual celebrity would shine far brighter than Doug Peacock’s ever would, there were certain worlds in which Peacock was the far bigger star. In environmental circles in the American West, no one has more cachet than Peacock, except for his late friend, the writer who created Hayduke, Edward Abbey. Abbey joked that he was an “obscure writer” and claimed he was often called “Edward Albee” in the East, but in the West his face could have been chiseled on a literary Mount Rushmore. Not only did “The Monkey Wrench Gang” spur an entire movement, inspiring the creation of the extreme environmental group Earth First, but “Desert Solitaire” was considered by many eco-critics to be the closest thing to a modern Walden, a book that readers often describe as life-changing. But most remarkable of all was the way that Abbey’s fantasy of Hayduke and his gang of eco-fighters would be translated into reality by some of the book’s readers. Many people not just took the book seriously but began to see it as a kind of training manual or how-to guide for eco-sabotage. The book, which sold over a million copies, was read by every Western environmentalist with even the vaguest of literary inclinations. As late as 1991, when I arrived in Colorado, 16 years after the book was published, I had among my own small circle of friends a man who made it his business to smash the light bulbs that were annually set up for Christmas display on Flagstaff mountain (how environmental this protest was is another question), another who had had the course of his life determined by Abbey’s books and would soon begin a career as the director of a land trust, and, more mysteriously, another who kept the book “Eco Defense” on his bedside shelf and received the Earth First! newsletter, but refused to talk at all about monkey-wrenching, no doubt, we assumed, for fear of implicating himself or his band of fellow saboteurs.
Peacock’s star has always been hitched to Abbey’s. In fact, for two men who prided themselves on being ornery, solitude-loving individualists, it’s amazing how often they are still mentioned together. To the outer world they were seen as great chums, and they were, but Peacock has written about the “patriarchal haze” that sometimes “clouded the friendship.” Though they camped, drank and monkey-wrenched together like characters in a buddy movie, Peacock was in fact 20 years younger, and wrote that “there was a touch of old school paternalism to our brotherhood.” Abbey was not just a friend but a father figure, and the writer’s death in 1989 rocked the younger man.
But Abbey clearly still lives, at least in the West. Fresh off the press the same week I visited Peacock was an article in the Mountain Gazette, a journal in which Abbey himself often published, in which M. John Fayhee, the editor, took no small delight in mocking the still-devoted Abbey fandom: “They wore clothing that looked like what Abbey wore. They drove vehicles that would meet with Abbey’s approval. They tossed beer cans out of truck windows because Abbey did.”
“I’m not much into hero worship,” said another Western writer when I requested an interview to talk about Abbey and Peacock. I understood the writer’s hesitation. Abbey is not just a writer whose books you read; he is a literary cult figure who has followers. The skeptical reader recoils: “Oh, I don’t want to be part of that.” Like Abbey, Peacock’s life has been romanticized almost beyond recognition, emulated by thousands of young and bearded would-be Haydukes and re-created in art not just in Abbey’s books, but in those of Jack Turner and Rick Bass, not to mention famously caricatured by R. Crumb for the illustrated 10th anniversary edition of “The Money Wrench Gang.”
* * *
Once inside the house, Doug showed Hadley his grizzly bear skull collection. Hadley asked what the bears up here ate and he said mostly grass, and ants. To demonstrate Doug did a fine impression of a bear tuning over a rock with its paw.
“If I were going to live with an animal it would be wolves,” Hadley told him.
For me this wasn’t exactly breaking news—my daughter was a card-carrying member of Defenders of Wildlife and had recently thrown an Alpha and Beta-wolf-themed birthday party — but Doug seemed impressed.
Andrea was tired and said goodnight, and we set Hadley up in the living room with a Disney DVD. Once she was settled, we sat around the kitchen table and drank beer and talked about Edward Abbey for a while. They were friends, yes, but there was always that father-son thing going on. Though unlike most fathers, this one had a tendency to horn in on Doug’s girlfriends.
I asked him about Abbey’s last hours, about being with him as he died. I told him that I had been with my own father, holding his hand and listening to his last shallow breaths, when he died at the age of 56. I knew Peacock had been by Ed Abbey’s side.
“Abbey said he would never die in a hospital and he didn’t,” Peacock said.
The writer had, however, been hospitalized for two days already when, according to Peacock’s written account: “Finally, he pulled out all the tubes and announced, with the clearest eyes I have ever seen, that it was time to go.” Abbey’s wife, Clarke, and Peacock and two friends, Jack Loeffler and Steve Prescott, hustled him out of the hospital, and took him out into the hills near Tucson, granting his request to die in the wilderness. The problem was that once he was out in nature he didn’t die, but recovered. The morning passed and it grew hot and Abbey said he wanted to go home to die in his writing cabin. He survived the night and the next day, buoyed by blood taken from the hospital, blood that his friends used to “top him off.” He was surprisingly upbeat during his last day, but the night was full of pain and coughing fits, fits that only quieted after Peacock, relying on his medical training, injected him with a mix of Demerol and Compazine. Just before dawn, with his family gathered around him, Abbey’s breathing slowed, became deep and guttural, and finally stopped.
After Abbey died, Peacock and a couple of his friends, per the author’s instructions, placed his body in the back of a pickup, packed it in dry ice, forged a death certificate, and took him out on one final camping trip. They drove him deep into the Cabeza Prieta wilderness and spent the night there, with Ed in the truck. The next morning they dug the grave, which two of them climbed down into to test for “fit and comfort.” When they deemed it acceptable they buried their friend and poured beer on the grave as a final toast. His burial was, of course, completely illegal.
Abbey himself had chosen the inscription on the gravestone.
“No comment,” it read.
“It was the bravest death I’ve ever seen,” said Peacock.
It was also a death that pulled the rug out from under Peacock’s own life. He fell apart for a while, in a way he hadn’t when his real father died. With Abbey gone, he has written, he felt entirely alone.
I told Peacock that earlier in my trip I was pretty sure I was going to go in search of Abbey’s grave. It was part of the Abbey legend after all — that grave out there somewhere in the unknown wilderness. I knew I would likely be able to find the spot: I had good contacts, other friends of Ed’s, and thought it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out the location. But when I got down to Tucson I changed my mind. The plan had the whiff of grave-robbing to it, and, worse, of a stunt, and I decided, finally, that I would let the poor man rest in peace.
As we kept talking Hadley remained happily absorbed in her movie, but her head popped up over the couch like a prairie dog whenever she heard Doug say the word “fuck.” Which meant her head popped up a lot.
Peacock said it had been the same with his own kids. He had never been able to restrain himself when it came to that particular word. I mentioned that Abbey picked up on this in his portrait of Hayduke, and Peacock conceded that though Abbey exaggerated a lot, he had gotten that part right.
That was part of Hayduke’s appeal of course — his directness. Nothing was going to get in the way of fighting the assholes who were destroying the land. There would be none of the usual enviro-equivocating, no lawsuits, no guilt. As the character himself put it: “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. That’s simple, right?”
That was a deep part of his bond with Abbey, too. “The wild was what we had in common,” Peacock wrote in his 2005 book, “Walking It Off.” They were both instinctively attracted, not just to wilderness, but to wildness.
As the night wore on we talked about various things until, at one point, I asked, “Why grizzlies?”
He explained that after returning from the war he began doing a lot of camping in wild places. One of those places was the backcountry of Yellowstone and it was there that he started finding himself in the company of bears. During one of his very first encounters he had been soaking in a thermal pool when he was startled by a sow and her cub. The bear had treed him and Peacock had ended up naked and shivering up in the tree for over an hour.
Gradually, grizzlies became not the natural byproduct of his trips into the backcountry but the goal. Though he didn’t like the word, it was hard to say there wasn’t a spiritual aspect to his trips into grizzly country. He came to believe that many of our basic religious archetypes grew out of observing bears. After all, what better animal to embody resurrection, the death of a winter’s hibernation followed by the rebirth of spring’s emergence from the den?
Peacock loved guns and owned many but he refused to bring them along when he knew he would encounter the bears.
“That would defeat the purpose,” he said.
And what was the purpose? The purpose was to feel real humility, to be taken off the usual human pedestal. Which was easy enough when you were in the presence of an animal that might suddenly decide to eat you. Humility, Peacock came to believe, was the proper emotional backdrop for reason, and in the wilderness Peacock became at once more reasonable and more wild. He was always amazed at the way his senses grew sharper after only a few days out in it, the way he could see better and smell other animals. It was as if he clicked into being an older, more primal self. But manners were also important. At one point in the “American Sportsman” clip, he tells Arnold that he doesn’t bring guns into bear country because “it would be in poor taste.” Poor taste! I was reminded of something that Jack Turner said about Peacock in his essay. He wrote: “…his manners, as a guest in the wild, are impeccable.” (FN:102 AW) That too would be a result of the necessary humility of living near bears. This seemed fascinating to me: the man who was the model for Hayduke, one of the most famously rude of fictional characters, had actually learned to be polite in the wild. You can see those manners exhibited clearly enough in the video clip with Schwarzenegger (though it is worth noting that the one wilderness faux pas is Doug’s not Arnold’s, since it is the click of his camera that scares off the grizzly and her sow).
Before he was done talking bears, I remembered to ask him something I’d been thinking about on the drive up. In preparation for my trip, I had re-viewed Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man.” Watching Tim Treadwell prance about and speak to “his” bears in a sing-song, baby-talk voice, I couldn’t help wondering what Peacock thought of it. It irritated me for him, so I could only imagine how much it irked him. How strange too for Peacock that someone else, someone so unlike him, had claimed the “Grizzly Man” mantle. It seemed a classic example of an as yet unnamed but prototypical modern experience: when the world, and the media, usurps an experience that until then you have regarded as uniquely your own.
“I wonder what you thought of Timothy Treadwell,” I said.
I expected outrage, since Treadwell seemed like such a phony to me. Worse, the way Treadwell interacted with the bears seemed disrespectful, almost taunting. But Peacock’s reply was calm and considered. Polite, even.
“Tim came to me after one summer of living with the bears. But I don’t think he really wanted any advice. By then he had his own ideas about how to do it.”
He took a sip of his beer.
“The thing about Tim is that he had a big personality.” He paused before adding: “You really don’t want to have a big personality around grizzly bears.”
I had never thought about it that way. In fact, after I’d watched the movie again I had at one point questioned my own tendency to ridicule Treadwell while romanticizing Peacock. Could the difference between the two be merely stylistic? I admired Peacock for risking his life, but didn’t Treadwell do the same? Was it my own prejudice that led to a preference for the macho nature guy with the beard over the blond soprano actor with the Prince Valiant haircut?
But what Peacock said put it in a simpler light. The major difference between the two men was that Treadwell exhibited bad manners around the bears. He poked them; he barged into the places where they lived; he did not give them their space. His big personality impinged on the grizzlies. Meanwhile this man who had just said the word “fuck” 53 times within the earshot of my 8-year-old daughter had acted, when in the ursine community at least, with tact and restraint.
* * *
Most of us who were born in the East have stories about our first time seeing the Western mountains. My initial sighting came when I drove out here after college with two good friends, and from the far back of a Toyota Tercel, where I had been banished after falling asleep behind the wheel back in Alabama, felt my jaw drop upon seeing the hazy, trippy mountains of New Mexico. The next time I visited the interior West I came from San Francisco and the next on a train trip from Massachusetts to Denver where I pulled in at night. It was the fourth trip, my third from east to west, that stands out and retains something of personal myth. I was 30 years old and had spent the previous year back in my depressed and depressing hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. I was there because my girlfriend of seven years had, with my urging, chosen to attend medical school in Worcester, and I’d thought myself mentally strong enough to withstand a return to that dying place. I was wrong. The first few months I sunk into a morass of depression and unemployment, and that was before I found out I had testicular cancer. My operation occurred the week of my 30th birthday, followed by a month of radiation treatment, which sapped me of energy and hope. But it was in the midst of radiation that I was delivered from Worcester through a kind of deus ex machina. The December before I’d applied to graduate schools, but in keeping with the overall failure of that year I had been rejected by all of them. All except one. That one was in Boulder, Colorado, and by the next August, recovering now from radiation and growing stronger, I found myself heading there.
Declared clean from cancer, I was so excited that I drove across the country in little more than two days. My car, a Buick Electra, was overdue for inspection but it seemed to make no sense to register it in Massachusetts when I would soon be living in a whole new state. The unregistered car leant a western outlaw element to the trip, as did the fact that that each day, after my coffee buzz wore off, I turned to sipping beer. I drove through almost the entire second night in that manner, grabbing a hotel for a few hours near the Colorado line. Seeing the Rockies the next morning at dawn — the peaks white and full and completely unexpected — was one of the most elevated moments I have ever experienced. It hit me with a jolt: my new life! Had John Denver himself come on the radio I would have started weeping and whatever did come on I assure you I warbled along. I felt real joy then, and hope. It was a feeling of coming back from the dead, a feeling of renewal, and it is a feeling that I will forever associate with going west.
I came to Ed Abbey, and therefore Doug Peacock, relatively late, already 30 when I moved west to the little mountain town of Eldorado Springs. In this way I was spared the worst of the cultish emulation that tends to strike first-time Abbey readers: the buying of an old pickup, the entry-level monkey-wrenching, the constant over-the-top exhortations about fighting the man. It is true that I began to eat refried beans from a can during my first year living in the mountain town of Eldorado Springs, a dietary choice directly influenced by reading Abbey. But what attracted me to the man were not the externals but lines like this: “On this bedrock of animal faith I take my stand.”
And this: “I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.”
And: “Simply breathing, in a place like this, arouses the appetite.”
I liked the way the sentences rang out, an anthem, or so it seemed to me at the time, of my own return to animal health.
Abbey proved my gateway drug to Peacock, who seemed an even wilder, stronger animal. In “Grizzly Years” he writes:
I do not advocate anyone’s leaving the well-used trail systems. The more we leave wilderness places alone, the better. But I hate trails and love to bushwhack, though I have an indolent nature that keeps me thinking about nature more than living it. When I do step off the human-travelled trails, I find myself leaving behind conventional expectations, launching myself into the thicket, pawing at the brush with anticipation, smelling discovery.
Was there an element of hero worship as I began to gobble down this new, wilder literature? Of course there was. I was trying on a new Western identity: the once-sick, now healthy guy from the East who now lived in the mountains.
I understand that it is easy to mock the more rampant followers of Peacock and Abbey. But I also understand that the tendency to attach ourselves to writers is a not entirely unhealthy thing. Fandom may be laughable but it has its purposes. Abbey’s own teacher, Wallace Stegner, wrote of one of his heroes, Bernard DeVoto, that “father hunting had almost been a career for him.” He meant that DeVoto sought out older writers, and was eager to sit at their knees. It is easy to dismiss these relationships as mere hero worship, as Oedipal. But what underlies them is something better, I think. A hunger for models. For possibilities. For how to be in the world.
Certainly there was an element of father-hunting in Peacock’s relationship with Edward Abbey. Doug Peacock seems such an obvious individual that we can barely imagine him leaning on anyone else for his identity. But by his own admission, he did. Abbey was not just older, but smarter and better educated, a respected published author. Which made Edward Abbey’s betrayal through the creation of the troglodyte-like Hayduke character sting all the more.
Meanwhile thousands of readers over the last 30 years have leaned on Abbey and Peacock, hungry for any help the two writers can offer to their own frail selves. You would think their popularity would have died down by now, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. My first stop on this trip was at Eldorado Springs, the town I’d lived in when I first moved West, and when I walked into the ranger station there was “Desert Solitaire” open-spined on the ranger’s desk. Dead and enshrined, Abbey still does what he’s always done: He pushes people, usually but not always young people, to live wilder lives. Meanwhile Peacock, the one left alive, has ascended into, what David Quammen calls “an iconic figure, a secular prophet in the wildass American West.”
To which I would add, based on my visit, a pretty nice guy. A guy who, despite all the “fucks” and nervous tics, has fairly impeccable manners, manners he learned, it goes without saying, from bears.
* * *
When we finally said goodnight, Hadley and I made our way through the starry night out to the trailer. It was cramped inside but we each had beds built into the walls and Andrea had made them with sheets and blankets. Hadley was so excited about the accommodations that it took a while for her to calm down, despite the late hour. Eventually I heard her breathing slow, and then I followed her, drifting off into a deep sleep.
The next morning I got up early and left Hadley a big note before going on a bike ride down the hill. Hadley was up when I got back, but Doug and Andrea were not. We decided to leave them a note, thanking them. We tucked it under the “Bring a Warrant” doormat.
We drove back into Yellowstone and went for a hike in the woods. Hadley pointed out the signs that warned of bears, but we saw only elk and a gray jay who was interested in our trail mix. When I’d complained to Doug about the touristy traffic jams in the park, he said that that was true, but then added: “Just go a hundred feet off the road and it’s all still there.” After our hike, we explored the unearthly hot springs of Mammoth. I told Hadley the story of how Peacock once was lost and frozen and had saved his life by stripping off his clothes and soaking in one of the steaming pools.
I didn’t know why, exactly, and I didn’t know how to describe it, but sleeping in an old trailer behind Doug Peacock’s house, with my daughter in the other bunk, had done me a world of good. Better than good. I felt great.
Of course I knew that in some ways Doug Peacock was as dated as the external-frame backpack and bulky camera that he carried during his trip with Arnold. And that he was out of step with the times seemed undeniable. In an age of security and surveillance, he still wrote about independence and freedom; in an age of ever increasing computerization and industrialization, he spoke of the world and of the earth; and in an age of the tame and the virtual, he wouldn’t shut up about the wild and the real.
We were already heading north toward Livingston when I realized I had forgotten my binoculars at Peacock’s house. We called and he said come by and before I knew it we were back in the house and then, before long, were back at the kitchen table cracking beers.
I thought we were done talking about Treadwell but Peacock had one more thing to add.
“Sometimes I think that Werner Herzog made the whole movie so that he could say that line near the end: ‘When I look into the eyes of the bear I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.’”
He spoke the last sentence in a heavily German accent.
We laughed and then Peacock pointed his beer bottle out the back window, toward the mountains. He told me that he had always been a migrant, never a settler.
“I have no homing instinct,” he said.
I talked for a minute about my own troubles with finding a home, my sense of geographic uncertainty, how strange it was living in the South when I was from New England and loved the West.
“We all need different size territories,” he said. “For some it might just be their backyard. For me I require a slightly bigger backyard.”
Of course. That made perfect sense. My life, like almost anyone’s, is tame compared to Peacock’s. I once spent a year or two observing ospreys on Cape Cod, but they weren’t grizzlies and, despite their huge talons, I never had to worry too much about the birds suddenly turning on and devouring me. Back at home in North Carolina, my relatively domestic wildness consisted of daily walks in the woods, bird-watching, kayaking and two or three beers out in my writing shack in the evenings. Most of us are content with our little plots. But for Peacock the backcountry of Yellowstone had served as part of his territory. As had, to some extent, the whole American West. I would argue that one of the more important things that Peacock and Abbey still offer is that they make us uncomfortable with the size of the plots we have settled on. “It depends on how you are yarded,” wrote Thoreau. In an age of cellphones and computers and little contact with the elemental earth, most of us are yarded pretty tightly.
I thought of the pronghorn antelopes that Hadley and I had seen gliding across the prairie on the way up to Yellowstone. To see a pronghorn run is to want to run yourself. A more graceful animal is hard to imagine. Delicate and gorgeously bedecked with rich brown and white patterns, with small horns and snow white fur on their stomachs, they glide across the land. Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in the West, and the truth is it isn’t even close. I had told Hadley a fact I had learned from a friend: The reason pronghorns run so fast, much faster than any predator of theirs, is that they are outrunning a ghost, the long-extinct American cheetah, which centuries ago chased them across these grasslands.
I had been worried about all the barbed wire fences that blocked the pronghorns’ way as they roamed, at least until I saw one fawn jump a fence like it was nothing, flowing over it like water. But I knew there were sterner obstacles to their migrations. Before our trip I had read an article by a young journalist named Emilene Ostlind who had followed the migration of the pronghorns through one of their last remaining migratory routes through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. That 120-mile trip now includes “the Pinedale Anticline gas patch—an intensively drilled piece of public land in western Wyoming—a tricky highway crossing and a couple of subdivisions.” This migratory path is one of only two left since “residential and other development has stopped pronghorn from migrating through six of eight historic corridors.”
Of course it isn’t just pronghorns that live in a diminished territory. Most modern humans know exactly how those ungulates feel. With each generation we settle for less wildness, less freedom, less space. We begin to accept things we would have previously deemed unacceptable. That our emails will be read, that it’s OK for drones to look down on us, that it’s OK to stare at screens for hours, that only crazy or dangerous individuals seek solace by going alone into the wilderness. We shrug, half-accepting our limited lives and damaged land. What can we do about it, after all?
Edward Abbey wrote of the way that the dogs in Tucson react with both fear and a kind of primal jealousy when they hear coyotes howling on the edge of town:
They yip, yap, yelp, howl, and holler, teasing the dogs, taunting them, enticing them with the old-time call of the wild. And the dogs stand and tremble, shaking with indecision, furious, hating themselves. Tempted to join the coyotes, run off with them to the hills, but—afraid. Afraid to give up the comfort, security, and safety or their housebound existence. Afraid of the unknown and dangerous.
This quotation is from “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” and Abbey goes on to compare Thoreau to a coyote. Thoreau’s job, like Abbey’s and Peacock’s, is to howl wildly and make the rest of us uneasy. And to maybe stir in us the desire to push outward. To make our lives wilder. To enlarge our turf and territory.
“One thing I know is that the inward way is not the way,” Peacock said as we finished our beers. “That’s a trap. Anything that gets you outside of yourself is good. Don’t look inside for salvation. Go spend a little time alone in the wilderness.”
High-flown talk, and inspiring, but Hadley was bored as she had every right to be. At our next stop, the home of a friend of a friend in Big Sky, there would be kids and, we had been promised, a zipline. She tugged at my shirt.
Hadley and Doug hugged goodbye and I, minding my manners, walked over to shake his hand. But he just ignored my outstretched hand and then moved in for a hug instead, one that squeezed the air out of me.