The Real Hayduke: Doug Peacock’s Magnificent Obsession

In 1975, writer Edward Abbey published his fifth novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It’s a comedic romp about a serious subject. In it, four misfits come together to perform acts of sabotage against the machines of environmental destruction. These threats to the sanctity of the southwest wilderness included construction equipment, roads, bridges, dams, and anything else helping humanity encroach ever further into the untrammeled wilderness.

Ed Abbey plugs an intruder outside his writer’s shack in the Tucson Mountains, Arizona. Photo by Terrence Moore

The book spawned a new dictionary word: “Monkeywrench,” which means to sabotage equipment nonviolently. Abbey’s work is said to have laid the foundation for the Earth First! movement, a radical environmental action group born in the American southwest that has since spawned chapters worldwide.

The character of Hayduke, easily the most charismatic of the Monkeywrench Four, is based on writer and naturalist Doug Peacock. A longtime friend of Abbey’s, Peacock saw combat as a medic in Vietnam and came home a changed man. He started taking long solo tramps in the silent desert scrub of the American southwest, eventually discovering and falling in love with Yellowstone National Park.

Like his character Hayduke, Peacock is an unapologetic defender of wilderness and the creatures that dwell within it. But, unlike Hayduke, Peacock isn’t quite so gruff and cantankerous. While uncompromising in his ethics, he is affable enough to have a group of fast friends who enjoy his company and join him on crazy adventures in the remote wilderness.

Now settled in a house in the Yellowstone National Park area, Peacock has spent decades working to reintroduce grizzly bears into the park. Once the domain of these mighty bears, Yellowstone was home to just 136 grizzlies in 1975. Thanks partly to Peacock’s tireless efforts, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is now home to approximately 728 grizzlies (per a 2019 study). While an improvement, this is still a far cry from the pre-colonial population that once roamed this striking corner of the American west.

Doug walks point in polar bear country, Canadian High Arctic. Photo by Doug Tompkins

Peacock has spent a lot of time among the grizzlies: filming them, photographing them, studying them, and writing about them. His first book, Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (1990), chronicled twenty years of studying the grizzlies of Yellowstone. Armed only with camera equipment and notebooks, Peacock made startling discoveries about this apex predator: its habits, social hierarchy, communication methods, and placement in the wider ecosystem. Most importantly, Doug shares keen observations about the human-grizzly relationship. Having long ago immersed himself in the primal headspace of the wilderness; he shares his revelations about the grizzly soul and how these two apex predator species (us and them) regard each other when the playing field is leveled.

Ursus Arctos Horribillis. Photo by John D’Onofrio

In his most recent book, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home (2021), a compendium of his many adventures all around the world, Peacock tackles the question of grizzly safety: “Far more dangerously, grizzlies charged me a couple dozen times. About half of them were serious encounters: mothers with cubs or yearlings, often from nearby daybeds where they were sleeping during the middle of the day. This is the source of almost all human mauling by bears… attacks by mothers near or on daybeds when humans get too close and carelessly invade the space the bear feels she needs for her cub’s safety.

“The sow only cares for her cub’s safety. As long as you are perceived to be a threat, she will continue to charge; and if you do anything stupid, like run or try to climb a tree, she may start chewing on you. If you fight back, the mother griz will keep attacking you until you are no longer seen as a threat to her young. You could die.

“The advice to ‘play dead’ during a grizzly attack is sound. Many a victim of a mauling saved his or her life by ceasing to resist the attack by relaxing. Tough advice, but it works.”

Not content to limit his grizzly research to Yellowstone, Doug has gone further afield to find and study these fabled creatures as well as many other impressive beasts that spark his imagination.

In Was It Worth It? Peacock recounts adventures that span the globe, from the High Sonoran Desert of Mexico to the remote forests of Siberia. The details of these trips are not limited to his experiences in the outback; Peacock also writes beautifully about his strange and amusing interactions with the people he meets in the hinterlands of human society.

The team takes a break on the Bikin River, Russian Far East, 1992. L-R: Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Jib Ellison, Tom Brokaw, and Doug Peacock. Photo by Rick Ridgeway


Each chapter transports us to a corner of the world that Peacock felt compelled to investigate. He tramps the tropical forests of Belize in search of the wild jaguar and sails the inlets of British Columbia to spy on the rare Spirit Bear. He charts a course for the Galapagos Islands to chase Darwin’s odd birds, lands in the Russian taiga to seek out the reclusive Siberian tiger, and even heads south to the Baja Peninsula to find remnants of our primitive ancestors. Ultimately, he comes home to make peace with his youthful indiscretions.

Each adventure is presented in Peacock’s signature style. He can be brusque and even vulgar, then turn rhapsodic with beautiful prose in praise of Nature. There is some Hayduke in Peacock, but some Ed Abbey is in there, too. His knowledge of flora and fauna is impressive, and his skill at describing the sublime will move you with its immediacy.

About his trip to the Sierra Madre in search of the last grizzly bears of northern Mexico, he writes,“The next morning, we awake to a landscape of melting snow. Our sleeping bags are wet but not soaked. We hadn’t expected the snow. But what the hell, it won’t last; this is April in Mexico, not Montana. Clumps of wet snowdrop out of the trees and drip from the cactus. The green leaves of giant agave plants have triangles of decorative white snow wedged against the stalks. Bright painted redstarts, orange-bottomed bug-eating birds, flit in a nearby yucca, brilliantly contrasted against the green and white: Christmas in the Sierra Madre.”

While tracking the desert bighorn sheep in Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta Mountains, he writes, “The reason I sleep well in the desert is probably because I walk so much out there. Traveling over the land on foot is absolutely the best way to see the country, scent its fragrance, feel its heat, and get to know its plants and animals; this simple activity is the great instructor of my life. I do my best thinking while walking—saving me thousands of dollars in occupational counseling, legal fees, and behavioral therapy—and the Cabeza Prieta is my favorite place in the world to walk.”

General George Custer shot this Black Hills grizzly in 1874. Behind him are (left to right): Bloody Knife, Private Noonan, and Colonel Ludlow. Photo courtesy of The New York Historical Society/ Getty Images

About his first sighting of a black Spirit Bear: “A half mile downstream, we round a bend and freeze: on the right bank, a plump black bear browses on huckleberries. We drift motionlessly toward the bear, which hasn’t seen us. The bear checks out a chum salmon carcass but leaves it where it lies; the fishing is better downriver. He is walking atop a log, grazing on the streamside vegetation as we drift alongside him. His head reappears with a mouthful of grass and forbs, and we hold our breath: The bear, though fewer than twenty feet away, hasn’t spotted us yet. This is natural. Danger doesn’t drift down the Aaltanhash in a red plastic log in this bear’s universe. We float away from the bear, and, suddenly, he sees us. His ears pop up, his mouth falls open, and a mouthful of grass falls into the water. We suppress our giggles. After about thirty seconds of sizing us up, the bear decides to ignore us, and goes back to browsing. He behaves as if he has never seen a human, as if he has yet to learn to fear humans—a situation that may soon change.”

Each of Peacock’s adventures unravels with wit, insight, and devotion. Describing a place or an event isn’t too challenging, but bringing a reader into your consciousness and taking them along for the ride is something few writers capture well. At this, Peacock is superb.

So: how much of Hayduke is in Doug Peacock? Just enough.

If you have room on your nightstand, I strongly recommend Was It Worth It?

Because, yes: it was worth it, Doug.

Ted Rosen was a longtime Greenways Advisory Committee chairman and remains a steadfast defender of green spaces, both large and small. When he isn’t working his day job, he can be seen on local trails pointing out invasive species and complaining about litter. 

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