By DAVID GREEN
“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 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.”
That entry in Peter Matthiessen’s journal is dated Oct. 19, 1973. His notes from the trail were turned into a book called “The Snow Leopard.” Matthiessen and zoologist George Schaller embarked in September of that year for a journey into northwest Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep—and if they were lucky, to get a glimpse of the big cat.
It seemed a little nuts to take that long hike with winter coming on, but Schaller wanted to see the animals in rut. He suspected they were more goat than sheep, and he needed to see some action other than lying around and eating.
This is a book that Brad Whitehouse gave me last December. He hadn’t read it. He just suspected that I might be one of those wackos who would have a good time with the book, and I did. But I can’t think of more than three or four people to make it a reading recommendation.
“GS says, ‘Do you realize we haven’t heard even a distant motor since September?’ And this is true. No airplane crosses such old mountains. We have strayed into another century.”
The further they walked, the further they retreated into the past.
I suppose you could describe the story as a tale of suffering. It became very cold and their equipment from 40 years ago was so much more basic than what’s available today.
Some of the mountain paths they walked were only two feet wide, high above deep ravines. When the path was icy, it was all the more treacherous.
“These mountainsides of shining grass are so precipitous, so devoid of trees or even shrubs, that a stumbler might tumble and roll thousands of feet, then drop into the dark where the sun ends, for want of anything to catch hold of.”
Matthiessen was often surprised by pieces of the Himalayan culture that resembled Native American life, and characteristics similar to people living in the Andes of South America.
The travelers spent a night in the small village of Saldang and enjoyed a goat meat stew with turnips—their best meal in almost two months. Afterward there was a dance.
“The dance is a short rhythmic step well suited to small places, and very like Eskimo igloo dances, even to the jet-black braids and red-bronze faces and the shuffle of the soft, mukluk-like boots. The songs are melodious and wistful and I am reminded of the mountain huayno of the Andes.”
Matthiessen also mixes in thoughts and information about Buddhism, of which he was a student, and recalls the final weeks of his wife’s life. She died the previous year.
The reason I’m writing about this book is to mention how it grabbed me. I had read but a few pages since December (who has time to read with my job?), but I packed the book for our trip to Miami a few weeks ago.
I soon remembered how good it was to spend time with a good book. It almost seemed like a dangerous realization. What’s going to win out—writing newspaper stories or reading books? I have such a large pile of books that have my interest. I have piles of the New Yorker magazine filled with good features and fiction.
I want to read—it seems more appealing than writing—and I’m curious how this is going to work out.
When his trip was over, Matthiessen stayed in a hotel and became angry when his room was cold and there was no hot water. He went to the room next door for hot water, then, upon his return, discovered that the heat had returned to his room.
“Feeling silly and quite exhausted, I sit down on the bed and begin to laugh, but I might just as easily weep,” Matthiessen wrote. “In the gaunt, brown face in the mirror—unseen since late September—the blue eyes in a monkish skull seem eerily clear, but this is the face of a man I do not know.”