It was thumping news in environmental circles when Yvon Chouinard gave Patagonia away last September, but not to Doug Peacock, whom Chouinard had called a year before to talk about his “will.” Peacock and Chouinard are old friends, their shared advocacy bonding them over decades even as Chouinard built a $3 billion company and Peacock struggled with uneven finances, sometimes earning barely a few thousand dollars a year. Such eccentrically parallel lives fly in the face of billionaires and their corporations that brag in advertising campaigns about their environmental consciousness but whose manufacturing practices and private jets exacerbate the problems they keep wringing their hands about. “Yvon pissed on them from a great height,” says Peacock, who has been doing the same for 50 years on a more limited budget from the ground up.
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
Picture them smiling together a couple of months before Chouinard’s announcement, maybe having a beer to celebrate Patagonia’s release of Peacock’s Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home. So what if it would be mostly ignored in New York and across the publishing landscape, even in San Francisco and Los Angeles? This is Peacock’s sixth book, and with the exception of the weak environmental press (and reliable PBS), he has never gotten serious recognition as both a gifted writer and one of our most fearless advocates for wilderness and wildlife. While Chouinard was piling up many fortunes laughing at slick (malodorous?) MBA thinking, Peacock was making the environmental movement look like a suburban PTA meeting to discuss crosswalks. Neither of them talk this way, but Was It Worth It? is a profound addition to the canon of environmental literature and a window on a most compelling figure in the past half century of the environmental movement. Make that the radical environmental movement, although Peacock always insisted, not unlike Thoreau, that whatever he was up to was well reasoned and the least that he could do. Simple, really: fight to protect what he loved in the face of arrogance and stupidity.
Peacock grew up roaming the old-growth pine forests and wetlands of Michigan, where he fished and explored, searching for arrowheads and traces of ancient people along the postglacial beaches of the Great Lakes. He was energized by nature, never tired. He studied geology at the University of Michigan, spending two summers as a research assistant under National Science Foundation grants, and was also drawn to politics, at one point running the university’s student speakers program, which brought Martin Luther King Jr. to campus. Tom Hayden was a mentor and friend, but Peacock’s reaction to the escalating Vietnam War was not to protest but to serve two tours as a Green Beret combat medic in the Central Highlands with the Fifth Special Forces Group (Airborne): Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry; Bronze Star; Soldiers Medal (for heroism).
His last day in the field was March 16, 1968. Choppering out of Ba To toward the coast that morning, his Huey took fire. No big deal. Peacock was shot at in helicopters all the time. But this time he was getting out. After two years of trying to save lives in the deafening chaos of firefights, he was fried and he knew it. Looking down, he recognized the village of My Lai, where he had been on the ground earlier in his second tour. He did not know that U.S. soldiers were raping women and systematically killing 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians below him.
He arrived in San Francisco at midnight days later, an emotional and spiritual wreck. No one was waiting. Maybe he should go back. A lot of guys did that. Hostile and sweating, he almost got into a fight with an MP. That was it. Expecting the worst from people, he eventually found his way to the solitude of wilderness areas in Yellowstone National Park, where he first saw grizzly bears, where he began to heal.
Early on, in a narrow spring meadow, Peacock came upon a 600-pound bear less than 30 feet in front of him. Noticing him, the bear lowered his ears and began grinding his jaw. Slowly drawing his .357 Magnum, Peacock saw the hair on the bear’s hump stand straight up. He sighted down the pistol’s barrel into the grizzly’s dull red eyes. They stared at each other for long moments until Peacock lowered the .357, knowing he was not going to pull the trigger. The bear and Peacock both looked away, a mutual understanding passing through them: “I felt my life had been touched by enormous power and mystery.” The grizzly turned toward the trees, and that was the last time Peacock carried a gun into the backcountry, as he came to know grizzlies as “beautiful, playful, intelligent, and fiercely dangerous.”
He spent his days observing, following bear trails, searching out what he calls his “humility before nature.” He camped out until the snow drove him south to Fort Lowell, on the outskirts of Tucson, where he worked as a “hippie mailman,” studied environmental reports, and brooded about grizzly extinction. It was there, in early spring, that he finally saw the Life magazine with photographs of My Lai. Soon after, he crawled back, deeper into the wilderness, to be with the grizzlies. He learned to stand tall, raising both arms to ear level to make himself look as large as possible, and to advance indirectly toward a bear while looking away and speaking softly, as if soothing a friend. If he got within 15 feet, the bear’s instincts gave it no choice but to charge or leave, almost always the latter. There were a couple of close calls, but as his confidence grew, the bears seemed to understand. Peacock was just another dominant animal that didn’t feel like fighting that day.
It would be another season before he slept anywhere but in his tent. Every night, he stared into his small fire and knew he had to do something. There had to be a plan beyond his anger. When he began to show himself and publicly advocate for the grizzlies, he was surprised. His passion and firsthand experience brought him quick notoriety. People were open to the possibility that bears and humans could understand each other and that Peacock had developed a grizzly-communication routine (at first for self-defense, but so what!). He was onto a new spectrum of grizzly behavior. The bears had saved him, and he wanted to pay them back. “If we can save these bears,” he told audiences, “we can save ourselves.”
In his first book, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, Peacock credits grizzly bears with restoring his soul, but that is getting ahead of the story. He had always read widely but had never thought about writing himself until he realized the power of it, writing as a way not just to make a point but to make things happen. He met environmentalists who were also writers, a not unusual combination, and many of the best would become lifelong friends. It all started with Edward Abbey, the already famous, and famously difficult, author of Desert Solitaire, a confrontational meditation on the sanctity of wilderness.
Peacock had read Desert Solitaire, and when the writer William Eastlake introduced him to Abbey at Eastlake’s house in Tucson, they talked deep into the night—about mountain lions mostly, but also grizzlies and Vietnam and the dumbass government and everything else too. Their hilarious, cantankerous, politically charged friendship led them to rumbling around the Southwest, measuring their pickup truck road trips in six-packs. Neither had a phone unless you count the pay phones in their favorite bars. They were both unattached, and in 1973, after spending a forlorn Christmas Eve drinking whiskey at a topless bar in Tucson, they drove Peacock’s ’66 Ford truck 150 miles west in the dead of night over treacherous Charlie Bell Pass into the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness and wished each other Merry Christmas. They felt better. From then on, Cabeza Prieta was a sacred place.
Abbey went on to use Peacock as his model for one of the main characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang. George Washington Hayduke is a Vietnam vet with a taste for ecologically motivated mayhem, starting with fence cutting and heavy-equipment sabotage, activities written with a distinct how-to subtext ultimately aimed at blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam. Hayduke and his companions’ monkey-wrenching was soon routinely cited as the original inspiration for environmentalist groups that defended nature by doing whatever it took: Earth First! tree-sitting to stop logging, Sea Shepherd ramming whaling vessels operating illegally in international waters. It was a macho world of self-proclaimed eco-warriors.
Eventually, someone in Abbey’s inner circle scolded him that “friends don’t do that to each other.” Peacock knew that Hayduke on the page could be “kind of a one-dimensional dolt,” but fuck it. He didn’t care until the greasy lawyers at J.B. Lippincott & Co. got Abbey to write him an ass-covering legal letter. There were hard, bad feelings until their friendship prevailed and they burned the letter together in a private cleansing ceremony on Mill Creek a mile or so downstream of Moab, Utah, which had become something of a home base. Their rowdy times picked up where they had left off—now ranging into Mexico and the uninhabited islands in the Gulf of California.
When Abbey was diagnosed with hepatic cirrhosis in 1989, Peacock was there at his bedside with all his medic skills. Peacock wrote later in Outside magazine that the last time Abbey smiled was when Peacock told him the place he had come up with for Abbey to be buried. The day Abbey died, at 62, in his home, Fort Llatikcuf (read it backward), Peacock and three friends put his body in his old blue sleeping bag and loaded it into the bed of a Chevy pickup packed with dry ice. After stopping at a liquor store for five cases of beer and some whiskey to pour on the grave, they drove deep into Cabeza Prieta—all according to Abbey’s wishes (and disregarding all state interment laws). They buried him on March 16, the date that Peacock now refers to as his personal Day of the Dead, exactly 21 years after he choppered out of Vietnam over My Lai.
Peacock was on the verge of credibility as a serious grizzly researcher in 1980 when I met him at a dinner in Paradise Valley in Montana. I had edited Abbey (calling him back at phone booths in Moab) and was aware of Peacock’s status in hipster environmental circles as the guy who talked to grizzlies, shouted them down, actually—crazy, yes, but always honoring them as the most impressive of North American species. Cool. A Hayduke move, for sure.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was also at that dinner, traveling with the writer Charles Gaines to do a segment for ABC’s The American Sportsman in Yellowstone Park—with Peacock hopefully introducing Schwarzenegger to some bears. The subject was Schwarzenegger, too, of course, part of the exposure and polishing that Gaines was giving the Pumping Iron star after making the film with George Butler. Gaines was introducing Schwarzenegger to U.S. culture, from Andy Warhol at the Factory to now Doug Peacock in this log house on the Yellowstone River. Schwarzenegger sat on the floor in front of the stone fireplace quietly smoking a cigar. Gaines was in the open kitchen, overseeing the work on dinner. Several local sportsmen and fishing guides were there, too, but mostly standing around the kitchen with Gaines, reluctant to engage with Schwarzenegger. Peacock watched all this with a kind of focused detachment, not like I imagined Hayduke at all.
I remember thinking he was making mental notes. Like most Vietnam combat vets, Peacock came home savvy about media and cameras, and he had been shooting grizzly footage with an old Bolex H16 that he had to wind by hand. It was all he could afford. He didn’t have a TV or even live in a house, but The American Sportsman was an opening to get the word out, and maybe slick footage from an Eclair 16mm would be replacing what he got with his noisy Bolex that kept him from getting closer to the bears. He would work something out.
The shoot was budgeted for two weeks, but Peacock led them into Pelican Valley and put Schwarzenegger with bears in two hours. Not surprisingly, he and Schwarzenegger got along, with Schwarzenegger advising Peacock (off camera) not to take any shit (“Just one more take…”) from camera crews, and part of the deal was he got to keep the Eclair. The resulting two-segment piece shows off both the bears and a charismatic young Schwarzenegger, whom Peacock now calls his favorite Republican. He has never pressed Schwarzenegger for support of the grizzlies because it wouldn’t be realistic, although he is not shy about such things, like asking his Montana neighbor Jeff Bridges to send a video message to President Barack Obama about keeping grizzlies on the endangered species list. Eventually, there would also be a film, Peacock’s War, that cleaned up awards on the festival circuit, and he would become no stranger to the national morning talk shows and appear on Sesame Street with Kermit.
There are still “Hayduke Lives” bumper stickers rolling around the deep West, and the words are scribbled on bathroom walls in bars from Missoula to Patagonia. Like Abbey, Peacock sometimes says he writes to “exasperate enemies and entertain friends,” but the subtext always has a hard edge. He writes with both clarity and style, and unlike so many so-called environmental writers, he is not prone to cliché. Nothing is ever incredible or unbelievable, but then of course it is: “In the Bosque del Apache on the Rio Grande, we squatted in the cattails while hundreds of red-winged blackbirds slammed into the bulrushes at eyeball level.”
When you read Was It Worth It? you will understand why Peacock has been fighting for grizzly bears for the past 40 years. You will also know that the FBI has knocked on his door and that he has been on the lam, but does not brag about any of that. He has made numerous literary friends whom he seldom talks about. He would take Jim Harrison camping in the Coyote Mountains and led Peter Matthiessen to the “Grizzly Hilton,” in a secret corner of Glacier National Park. Carl Hiaasen dedicated a book to him.
As the years pass, Peacock’s friendships and travels broaden the memoir. His trips are intrepid, and there is always redemption in travel, in getting to know the world. Friendships are sacred, even if there are tragic endings. Peacock was close to Doug Tompkins, who at 21 founded the North Face with his wife, Susie, and used his growing fortune to buy and conserve 2.2 million acres in Chile and Argentina, including Pumalín Park’s 715,000 acres of rainforest that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. Tompkins died in 2015 after the double kayak he was paddling with mountaineer Rick Ridgeway flipped in frigid water in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. Tompkins succumbed to hypothermia, and Ridgeway barely survived. Three months later, on Peacock’s personal Day of the Dead, he took Ridgeway deep into the desert wilderness to Abbey’s grave for an honoring ceremony: We pour wine down our throats and spit exploding whiskey into the fire. We howl at the owls and poorwills, and laugh and weep in the flickering light.… A meteor flashes out of Cassiopeia.
Peacock has returned the arrowheads he collected as a boy to the Michigan ground where he found them. He has walked point leading Montagnard tribesmen in Vietnam with a sawed-off M-16, looking out for Viet Cong, and in the Canadian High Arctic with a spear looking for polar bears to study. He knows that in the searing light of climate change, the grizzlies need exactly what we all need: the protection of undeveloped land around the globe. That’s all there is. He has seen bears dancing.•