No. 11: “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen
Travel Blog • Rolf Potts • 05.21.06 | 10:00 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: the Himalayan Dolpo region of Nepal
Matthiessen’s Zen-flavored masterpiece is as much a classic of nature and spiritual literature as it is of travel writing. Documenting a 1973 journey into the remote Dolpo region of Nepal, Matthiessen officially sets out to help zoologist George Schaller study Himalayan blue sheep. As he takes the reader deep into the mountains, however, we realize that Matthiessen is using this scientific journey as a metaphor to reflect on much broader matters of life, death and existence itself. The famous irony of The Snow Leopard is that Matthiessen never spots the elusive creature during his adventure.
Thus, robbed of the climactic moment, the author leads us into the simple essence of his journey: “the common miracles—the murmur of my friends at evening, the clayfires of smudgy juniper, the coarse, dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do.” In this way, the spiritual lessons of this book aren’t relegated to romantic abstractions or heady epiphanies, but to a gentle reminder that life consists of what each moment brings us; that it’s futile to obsess on the workings of the past and future if you’re missing out on experience of the present moment.
Outtake from The Snow Leopard:
If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it, in the same way that I am not ready to resolve my koan; and in the not-seeing, I am content. I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed. That the snow leopard is, that it is there, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain—that is enough.
—Rolf Potts writes the Ask Rolf column for World Hum and is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.