The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen

Mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, Peter Matthiesen joins George Schaller on a trek to Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and in hopes of glimpsing the rare Snow Leopard. His trek will take him from the slums of Varanasi to the roof of the world, both literally and figuratively, in Nepal.

Part contemplative travelogue, part Buddhist primer, The Snow Leopard reminds me often of [Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance], with the constant switching between observant travel writing and the pursuit of deep ideas. But it has a lot more zen than Pirsig’s book. He has a way of writing about Zen that encompasses both the deep philosophy of Zen and the esoterica that surrounds it, but also captures Zen in the daily moment:

My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments…for this present – even while I think of it – is gone.

The Snow Leopard is a deep book, by turns joyous, philosophical and melancholy. Matthiesen’s preoccupation with death runs through the book, starting on page 2 as he crosses paths with a dying old man in Varanasi.

The old man has been ravened from within. That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out.

I nod to Death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path. The ancient is lost in a shadow world, and gives no sign.

Matthiesen’s writing is evocative throughout. “There are no roads west of Pokhara, which is the last outpost of the modern world; in one day’s walk, we are a century away“. If I measure my interest in a book by dog-eared pages, my copy of the Snow Leopard might be one of my winners. Every 10 pages there’s something I marked when I read it. The book is all omens, dreams, portents, and deep thoughts, interspersed with the day to day minutiae of hiking, wet boots, blisters and snow blindness, together with encyclopedic descriptions of flora and fauna of his trip. He captures the dynamic of being on the trail with someone for an extended duration perfectly. After a particularly exhausting climb one day on a cliff, Schaller says something only mildly annoying, and Matthiesen remarks, not entirely joking one suspects, “How easy it would be to push him over“.

While The Snow Leopard is a book about a journey with an objective (seeing the Snow Leopard), as is usually the case, the journey IS the objective. It is a gorgeous book. If you have any interest in zen, hiking or travel, read it.

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