In the vein of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, here is a riveting work of narrative non-fiction centering on the unsolved disappearance of an American backpacker in India—one of dozens of tourists who have met a similar fate in the remote and storied Parvati Valley.
For centuries, India has enthralled westerners looking for a getaway, a brief immersion in yoga and meditation, or in rare cases, a true pilgrimage to find spiritual revelation. Justin Alexander Shetler, an inveterate traveler trained from adolescence in wilderness survival, was one such seeker.
When he was in his early thirties, Justin quit his job at a tech startup and set out on a global journey: across America by motorcycle, then down to South America, and on to the Philippines, Thailand and Nepal, in search of authentic experiences and meaningful encounters while also documenting his travels on Instagram. His enigmatic character and magnetic personality gained him devoted followers, many living vicariously through his adventures. But Justin remained restless, driven to seek out greater extremes and greater risks in what had become a personal quest—his own hero’s journey.
In 2016 he made his way to the Parvati Valley, a remote and rugged corner of the Indian Himalayas steeped in mystical tradition yet shrouded in darkness and danger. There, he spent weeks studying under the guidance of a sadhu, an Indian holy man, living and meditating in a cave. At the end of August, accompanied by the sadhu, he set off on a “spiritual journey” to a holy lake—a journey from which he would never return.
Lost in the Valley of Death is about one man’s search to find himself in a country where, for many westerners, the path to spiritual enlightenment can prove fraught. But it is also a story about all of us who are searching for meaning, and the ways, sometimes extreme, we seek fulfillment in life.
About the author
HARLEY RUSTAD is an editor at The Walrus magazine. His articles and photography have been published in magazines, newspapers, and online outlets including The Walrus, Outside, the Globe and Mail, Geographical, Reader's Digest, the Guardian, and CNN. He has reported from India, Nepal, Cuba, and across Canada. Born on Salt Spring Island, BC, he now lives in Toronto.
"Justin Alexander Shetler went to India in search of adventure and authenticity and never came back. Was his disappearance the result of a crime, an accident, or a profound spiritual transformation? This mystery beats at the heart of Harley Rustad’s gripping and propulsive book, which is part travelogue, part pilgrim’s quest, part detective story. With empathy and reportorial rigour, Rustad traces the origins and evolution of Shetler’s desire to live a bold, meaningful life—and to share that life, post by post, with a growing online following. The result is the classic hero’s journey updated for a hectic, hyperconnected world: think Into the Wild meets Eat Pray Love, only set in the Himalayan foothills in the age of hashtags." —Kate Harris, bestselling author of Lands of Lost Borders
“In Justin Alexander Shetler, Harley Rustad has found a character equal parts Shantaram and Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless, only with the media savvy of Anthony Bourdain and the soulful charisma of Bruce Chatwin. It is hard to imagine anyone able to illuminate this haunted, driven, marvellously complex person more richly and thoroughly than Rustad has done here.” —John Vaillant, author of The Tiger
“A mysterious tale of a spiritual seeker, a survivalist on a motorcycle pilgrimage through the Himalayas, who places his trust in a sadhu, only to disappear like honey on a razor’s edge. A wonderful book.” —Wade Davis, author of Magdalena and Into the Silence