I’m not entirely sure how to categorize The Snow Leopard. Travel diary? Nature writing? Guide to a Zen life? It’s a combination of those and more. Written in 1978, it precedes most self-help and personal journey books and even much of the nature writing genre, so Peter Mattheissen was surely ahead of his time in revealing his innermost thoughts and descriptions—essentially inviting the world into his head as he journeys through the remote Dolpo and Inner Dolpo region of Nepal at a time when the area was, more often than not, closed to outsiders. In the fall of 1973, Mattheissen and field biologist George Schaller traveled to this remote location to study the Himalayan blue sheep (bharal) and to catch sight of the elusive and rare snow leopard (Schaller did so on his way out, but Mattheissen never saw one). Mattheissen, though, seems to be on more of a spiritual quest. A student of Zen Buddhism, he fills his days with difficult trekking meditation, and reflection–usually in very cold conditions, His wife has recently died, and though they were considering divorce just five months before, he seems adrift with this new void. He left his eight year old son home and feels guilty for heading off to remote Nepal only a few months after his son just lost a mother. And therein lies my mixed feelings toward this man. Perhaps he needed this journey to clear his mind and move forward as a single dad, seeking out Buddhist monasteries and meditation as well as committing to a serious challenge with nature in all its beauty and harshness. But I couldn’t put aside my incredulousness. Your wife just died and you left your eight year old son at home for two months without a mom or his dad? Is anyone’s spiritual quest more important than being a good dad? Two months of wandering through mountains and pondering how to be better at living a Zen life seemed a little self-absorbed to me (especially since a tenet of Zen is to de-emphasize “I”). At one point he says “the purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event in ordinary life” (245) . I kept thinking that since he was trying so hard to be “in the present,” it might have been easier and better to be in the present at home with his son.
Nevertheless, his descriptions of his surroundings—including the Sherpas and porters with whom he traveled—are exquisitely detailed. I could feel the wet boots turned to ice, the cold penetrating his tent and sleeping bag and muscles; I could see the cerulean blue sky behind crystal white peaks, and I could sense the sun’s warmth soothing his face and the wind’s bite chafing it as he crossed the highest passes. And Mattheissen’s knowledge of biology, botany, history, religion, geography, sociology, and all the other -ologies is extraordinarily impressive. He embeds tangents that connect cultures and people across time and continents—each story deepened my understanding of the people around him and the terrain he traveled.
Through a quick Internet search, I see that one can follow the exact path of Mattheissen and Schaller using any number of trekking companies. This area of Nepal has been open to tourism since 1989, and though it is still rugged, remote country, I can only imagine how it has changed since 1973. The ancient monasteries with their colorful prayer flags are now part of the tour, and the nomadic people (of Tibetan descent who still follow the pre-Buddhist B’on religion) are clearly no longer surprised by the sight of outsiders. With the rise in tourism, I would hope the local people are also no longer going hungry in the winter. Mattheissen and Schaller may have been the last people to see this area untouched by the outside, modern world.