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Cheshire Cat

 

The Disappearing Snow Leopard

Snow leopards can disappear. I've seen this. I was in Nepal, just east and above the dusty town of Jomsom, in lower Mustang, at edge of the Annapurna Conservation Zone, riding Tibetan ponies with my family. My elder son, a young man with an extraordinary ability to spot animals in the wild under the most challenging conditions, was staring off across a narrow canyon, rapt and unmoving in his saddle. Finally, after the longest time, he asked, "Dad, what kind of cat is that?" I looked across the canyon, maybe three hundred feet, not much more. Nothing. 

"Where?" I asked. 

"There," he pointed. 

"Where??" I asked. 

"There," he pointed again, more emphatically.

"Where??" 

"Dad! Right there!"

Suddenly, there it was. A Snow Leopard. No lie. I know my animals. Lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, I've spotted all these in the wild. This was a snow leopard, calmly walking along a goat path on the other side of the canyon, oblivious to our stares. It sported a long, long tail, a low body, and a mottled pale yellow-grey coat nearly exactly the color of surrounding slopes. As we watched it saunter by, the snow leopard, which was as obvious and visible as you or I, just disappeared. Effing disappeared. Disappeared as if it had been wiped from the mountain, as if it had been a video image suddenly turned off, as if it walked behind some secret military cloaking device. Like a Cheshire Cat. Gone. Then, just as suddenly, twenty feet further on, it reappeared, betrayed by a shadow darker than any spot on its body. About then, it turned, looked back at us with that face that always seems weirdly human to me, like British colonel turned were-cat with Victorian sideburns. Once it saw us, the pale leopard turned and bounded up the mountainside to the towering ruins of a Tibetan fortress that must have been its home.

People wait all their lives to see a snow leopard in the wild, and travel to the far corners of the earth to do so. From the spot where we saw this astonishing creature, we could look down maybe a mile to the bustling airstrip of Jomsom, where thousands of backpackers a year shuttle through after completing a trek around the Annapurna Circuit. How could this be possible? How, so close to so many, could the cat remain unseen? Because, snow leopards can disappear. That's cool. As long as they reappear right up the slope, and not a month later stitched into the jacket of some gangster's skanky girlfriend. That's the wrong kind of disappear. And they can do that, too.



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