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.

Published: 1978

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.

For more on Peter Matthiessen, visit his Wikipedia page, the New York Times and Orion’s video interview of him.

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.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


6 Comments for No. 11: “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen

Scott Ahlf 06.02.06 | 1:00 AM ET

A true masterpiece! Matthlessen at his best—
I can’t recommend this book more.

RABYN 05.27.07 | 1:58 PM ET

nice book! mention lot about Nepal.

Nick Bowles 12.16.07 | 9:55 AM ET

Wonderful, I read it when I was in my twenties and it made sense, now life is so busy theres not even time to read it again and if I did would I discover that the idealism of the young man has been replaced with a cynicism that makes the book unreachable?  Nick

Ian 07.03.08 | 7:45 PM ET

Sounds like a nice book on Nepal.

Jennyfer Dew 07.26.08 | 4:21 PM ET

You can reread this book again, again and again. It covers you every time with new wave of emotions!

Peter Monroe 09.10.08 | 5:41 PM ET

What is being done to protect the endangered species, Snow Leopard?  I have a paper due on wenesday, and I have to find out what is being done to protect and endangered species. I simply chose the Snow Leopard. I have used Google. Got anything new?

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