I recently reread Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a work of nonfiction published in 1978 that won the National Book Award for its depiction of Matthiessen’s spiritual explorations. I first read it 30 years ago: I was 23, trekking through Nepal, and looking for answers to questions that were not fully formulated in my mind. I was taken in by Matthiessen’s descriptions of his surroundings—the Sherpas he was traveling with, the topography of the Himalaya. I was also keenly interested in his Zen Buddhist musings, highlighting all the passages that spoke about intuiting “peace of mind.” I wanted peace of mind—serenity—but I didn’t know how to find it, didn’t even know what it looked like. Hiking through Nepal was a life-changing experience, but it didn’t provide the path to serenity, and reading Matthiessen’s book didn’t offer any answers to that younger version of myself.
I recall wearing a black t-shirt on that trek that had large white Chinese characters depicting the proverb “Better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books.” Over the past three decades I’ve traveled countless miles, I’ve read my fair share of books—and I’ve found some serenity along the way. It’s something, I’m convinced, that takes decades of pursuit, of knowing it when you see it and learning to move slowly enough to share its company.
What stood out most to me in my reread of The Snow Leopard was the simple fact that Matthiessen never saw a snow leopard. He left his eight-year-old son, traveled to the other side of the planet, encountered danger at every step, reached the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain—but he did not see a snow leopard. His friend, George Schaller, told him at the end of the journey, “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.” It’s this sentiment that resonates with me now. Maybe we don’t have to trek the Himalaya to find serenity; maybe serenity isn’t something you chase. Maybe mental clarity is always present, is possible if one only embraces its presence.
When Matthiessen met the Lama of the Crystal Monastery, the Lama cried out, “Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!” I highlighted that passage when I was 23. I like to think that this idea—to have no choice other than to be happy, to be serene—is one that I’ve been carrying around for the last 30 years. It’s good to reread books. It’s good to remember who we were when we first read them and compare that to who we are today, if for no other reason than to acknowledge the ongoing journey.
David Howell is the author of The Descent into Happiness: A Bicycling Journey over the Cascades and Rockies and across the Great Plains (Blue Ear Books, 2016). His new book The July Rides will be published in 2018.