I’m driving to my twice weekly visit to Mahle (they make air filters for cars), about 20 miles south of Lyon along the Autoroute du Soleil when I see Mont Blanc for the first time. I have driven this route perhaps 30 times, but never have I seen the Alps that now frame the windscreen of my Peugeot in such splendour. The brilliant sunshine bathing South Eastern France in golden light and the mountains sparkle.
Being so overawed by this scene is a response to recently reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, which charts his trip to the Himalayas with wildlife biologist George Schaller to study the rutting behaviour of blue sheep in 1973. I’ve never been sure what a travel book is meant to be: guide book, spiritual companion, cultural compass, or simply adventure material. The Snow Leopard is all of these and more. Much more. His humble and unpretentious prose style makes it impossible to think that any of it is made up in any way. The purity and serenity of the scenery – at the time almost untouched by Western civilisation – prevents him from indulging in glib fantasies to thrill his audience.
One of my favourite writers is Paul Auster, whose books generally start with, ‘Quinn walked into the New Mexican desert one morning and was never seen again.’ That sort of thing. Great stuff, I love it, but The Snow Leopard has opened an entirely different chapter in how I perceive the world and indeed writing.
In the book nothing actually happens, yet everything happens. They trek into the mountains, hang out for a few weeks, look at some sheep and then bugger off back home. No major incidents, no death, no injury, no debauchery, no nothing. Just sheep and ice. I’ll have to read more travel writing because it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Are the blue sheep really sheep and not just goats dressed up as sheep? I’m dying to know by the end, but I won’t ruin it for you, so do read this book. It’s gripping stuff.
For perhaps the first time in my life, a book was under my skin night and day. During this period, I thought of little else except of the mountains and the mythical Snow Leopard. In my classroom, I’d catch myself gazing across at the hills that overlook Lyon. I’m not on the 13th floor of La Tour Part Dieu teaching Monsieur Demange the structure of the third conditional. I’m in the Himalayas with George Schaller looking for the Snow Leopard. Great Stuff!