The Snow Leopard

After more than a year of reading everything Appalachian Trail related, I’ve finally have picked up The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen to read before I head out next month. I purchased the book for myself last Christmas and have been (very) slowly working my way through it. This book was recommended to me years and years ago by Bill, a hiker, former co-worker and bonafide writer.

Like poetry, and the excruciatingly long chapter in Moby Dick documenting Cetacea taxonomy, and all of the elfish ballads chronicled in the Lord of the Rings, I have been having a hard time getting through parts of The Snow Leopard. I find myself skimming through large passages of Matthiessen’s Zen Buddhist spiritual awakenings. I’m just not keen following dogmatic or theological revelations, especially in non-fiction.

But I’m totally getting into the journey.

Set in 1973 and published in 1978, this National Book Award winner tells the story of two scientists—field biologist George Schaller and the author—as they travel by foot in Nepal, high into the Himalayas in order study the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep. They also hope to glimpse the rare snow leopard. And maybe yetis.

With the exception of the geo-specific wildlife sightings and the journey’s purpose, the similarities between their quest and that of a long-distance hiker are striking. The day-by-day narrative recounts weeks of rain, blister-producing boots, heavy packs. Matthiessen has left family behind for months and finds himself subsisting upon a nauseatingly continuous diet of rice and potatoes.

Yet they remain undeterred by flooded rivers and snow blocked trails. Hardly a day passes that doesn’t include some remarkable moment or revelation. The author’s entry on October 18 includes these observations:

“Pine needles dance in a light breeze against the three white sister peaks to the northwest. I sit in silence, lost in the burning hum of mountain bees. An emerald butterfly comes to my knee to dry its wings, gold wings with black specks above, white polka dots beneath. Through the frozen atmosphere, the sun is burning…

 …My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions—mail, telephones, people and their needs—and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens.”  

Matthiessen continues his reflections the following day:

“Though these journals remind me of the date, I have long since lost track of the day of the week, and the great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from a future century. It is not so much that we are going back in time as that the time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning. I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space. In these mountains, we have fallen behind history.

I long to let go, drift free of things, to accumulate less, depend on less, to move more simply.” (October 19)

Although decades and continents separate our experiences, The Snow Leopard still speaks to a contemporary audience. Even as we become a more urbanized society, many of us continue to seek wild places or experiences where we are free to clear our heads of intrusions.

More than a century ago, naturalist and Sierra Club founder, John Muir wrote:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

The annual increasing percentage of people drawn to the Appalachian Trail alone reflects the still steady primal pull of nature.

Part of the allure of a long-distance, self-propelled trip, for me, is the opportunity to become immersed within another reality; to live life at a much slower pace while escaping the daily demands and expectations of what we know as normal civilization. We are getting a rare chance to pursue our own snow leopards.

I have several chapters left to read and although I gather Matthiessen has already discovered spiritual solace in the Himalayan wilderness, I have yet to learn if George Schiller experienced similar success conducting his field studies. It’s pretty clear, however, that Yetis have yet to be found.

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Comments 1

  • Irvin Valle (coach) : Mar 22nd

    I love your writing and continue to look forward to your update I can’t wait to see when you get on the trail.


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