The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s melancholic and metaphor-laden Himalayan travelogue, a true story, is an essential, definitional work of 1970s American literature. It is also one of my favorite books of all time.
Here’s the set-up: Matthiessen’s wife has died. The marriage was strained. He leaves his kids behind to go hike in Nepal and Tibet and watch rare blue sheep called bharal jump around and procreate. He lists every plant and animal he sees on his journey. He expounds on LSD’s positives and its relationship to Buddhism and to oneness with nature. A big cat, the titular leopard, prowls around. She leaves behind her paw prints, her scat, her aura, yet remains elusive and unseen. She inspires questions: What does it mean to see? To exist? Is the leopard the meaning of life itself?
There are big ideas here. They are built around relatively affectless descriptions of plants and animals and weather that paint gorgeous, realistic landscapes evocative of the psychodrama beneath Matthiessen’s facade and the human experience in general.
This is an astonishing, at times gut-wrenching, book.
For anyone interested in Buddhism, spirituality, natural history, Himalayan cultures, psychoactive drug therapy, or armchair travel — give The Snow Leopard a read.