The Many Lives of Peter Matthiessen
Credit: Photograph by John Midgley
Matthiessen's path to Zen Buddhism began with "a yearning for the lost paradise you have as a child," he said, the innocence that "gets crusted over with emotions or opinions or greed." The long road to enlightenment wound through a grand tour of mind-altering substances. The absurdist writer Terry Southern turned him on to hash in Paris. While reporting The Cloud Forest in Peru, Matthiessen experimented with the herbal psychedelic ayahuasca. ("That was a powerful one," he said.) He purchased what he believed was opium from a Cambodian peasant, only to discover back at his hotel near Angkor Wat that he had actually ingested a sizable dose of crude heroin. In 1962, an architect friend put him in contact with a "sort of renegade psychiatrist" known as Dr. John the Night Tripper, who had access to pharmaceutical LSD manufactured by Sandoz in Switzerland. "He gave me acid for the first time out in Palo Alto," Matthiessen said. "I'll never forget really hearing Bob Dylan for the first time on that trip. 'Mr. Tambourine Man' did some capers that day."

He dabbled further in hallucinogens throughout the Sixties, with his then wife, Deborah Love, often coming along for the ride, "adrift on the same instinctive search," as he later described it. When trips she took on mescaline and acid went badly – "She had a horrible time," Matthiessen said – she began to seek answers through Zen Buddhism. The day he returned home unannounced from a seven-month-long trip to Africa, Matthiessen said, "there were three Zen masters in my driveway," teachers from whom his wife was taking instruction. Soon he was as well. One Saturday, after an all-day meditation session in New York, he returned to their accommodations and Love opened the door. "Perhaps because I had been in meditation since daybreak and my mind was clear," he wrote in The Snow Leopard, "I saw at once that she was dying."

Matthiessen had mixed feelings about The Snow Leopard, his account of a 250-mile trek he made through the Himalayas of Nepal. More than anything else he wrote, it cemented his reputation as primarily a nonfiction writer. "I think it's a good book, but it really put me in a pigeonhole I've never been able to get out of," he said. "Because it made me a travel writer–cum-explorer-cum-adventurer, and I wasn't any of those three things."

Actually, because The Snow Leopard demonstrated that he was all those things, it is the book that Matthiessen is most likely to be remembered for a hundred years from now. The narrative also deftly intertwines two fascinating quests, to visit the mysterious Crystal Monastery and, along with the wildlife biologist George Schaller, to glimpse the elusive cat of the title. For a writer whose nonfiction is steeped in the chilly precision of observed detail, it is also far and away Matthiessen's most personal book. He struggles with the death of his wife and his shortcomings as the sort of absentee father who leaves behind a grieving eight-year-old son for two months to embark on a Zen pilgrimage.

That son, Alex Matthiessen, now the president of his own eco-political consulting firm in Manhattan, says he enjoyed reading The Snow Leopard much more as an adult than he had as a teenager. "I appreciated the nuances of what he was grappling with, spiritually and mentally and physically," he told me shortly before his father died. "My dad and I have a very close relationship, and we've had many candid conversations about parenting and family life and so on. There's no question, and my dad is the first to admit it, that as a writer, as an artist, his work came first. But I don't regret any of it, and on the whole, looking at a lifetime, he's been a terrific father and a very good friend. I'm very much a chip off the old block."