In the vein of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, a riveting work of narrative nonfiction centering on the unsolved disappearance of an American backpacker in India—one of at least two dozen tourists who have met a similar fate in the remote and storied Parvati Valley.
For centuries, India has enthralled Westerners looking for an exotic 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 in wilderness survival, was one such seeker.
In his early thirties, Justin quit his job at a tech startup and set out on a global journey—across the United States by motorcycle, then down to South America, and on to the Philippines, Thailand, and Nepal—in search of authentic experiences and meaningful encounters while documenting his travels on Instagram. His enigmatic character and magnetic personality gained him a devoted following who lived vicariously through his adventures. But the ever-restless explorer was driven to seek out ever-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 and 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—one 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, even treacherous. But it is also a story about all of us 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.
Excerpt: Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas (by (author) Harley Rustad)
Rise, wake up, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of a razor, so say the wise. —Katha Upanishad, Sanskrit text
Tell me something you are dedicated to in life and a true test of that dedication is, Would you die for it? —Stalking Wolf, as quoted by Tom Brown, Jr.
There is only one road into the Parvati Valley. It’s a narrow track—roughly paved in parts, washed-out dirt in others—along which rattletrap buses twist and swerve and screech to a crawl with inches to spare as they pass. At several points, vehicles drive under overhanging rock along a route blasted into the mountainside. On one side of the road, the cliff rises, an impassable plane of earth and stone that seemingly touches the clouds; on the other side, it drops precipitously to the milky blue waters of the Parvati River hundreds of feet below. It was at the end of this road but the beginning of a path that Justin set off on his final journey. The hillside hamlet of Kalga was as far as his Royal Enfield motorcycle could take him. He now needed to walk to reach the upper reaches of the valley. The trail into the mountains was clear before him: follow the godlike river that thrashed and thundered in his ears.
On a warm August day, with blue sky and sun offering a welcome relief from the downpours that had drenched the valley and blanketed its forests in mist for much of the summer of 2016, Justin headed for a trailhead. He strolled along a dirt path through Kalga, between two-story wooden guesthouses and apple orchards, toward the edge of the village. Dogs barked, men and women tended their fruit trees in anticipation of the harvest, and multicolored prayer flags fluttered in the humid breeze. Beside Justin walked Andrey Gapon, a Russian man who had spent three months on holiday in the valley. The two had met several weeks earlier, and Gapon had been captivated by the thirty-five-year-old American, who had revealed that he was living in a mountain cave with minimal supplies.
Now Justin was embarking on a four-to five-day hike to Mantalai Lake, a cluster of pools at the top of the valley and the frigid source of the Parvati River. For some, the lake is a place to pitch a tent as one stage of a Himalayan trek. For others, it is the destination—a holy site associated with Shiva. There, as across India, many elements are considered a manifestation of the divine. The very mountains that frame the lake, boasting peaks that pierce through clouds at 20,000 feet, are part of Himavat, the ancient king and personification of the great Himalayan range. He is the father of Ganga and Parvati, goddess daughters who take the form of rivers breaking free from their glacial states and flowing down from the great mountaintops to feed the land. Ganga takes form as the Ganges River, India’s singular waterway that believers see as pure no matter how polluted she is beneath the surface. But here the river is Parvati—the goddess of love, harmony, and divine strength; the wife of Shiva and the mother of the beloved elephant-headed god Ganesha. When the Parvati River is calm, it brings forth life and delays death; it nourishes and provides, cools and heals. But when the river turns fierce, it is a deadly force, battering mountainsides and consuming earth as it swells. This duality mirrors the goddess for which it is named. In some of her incarnations, she is benevolent and sustaining, an exemplar of life-giving love. In another, she wears severed heads around her neck, a ferocious and destructive divine power.
Gapon wanted to see off his new friend. As they weaved along the small village’s dirt paths, stooping under apple tree branches laden with ripening fruit, they were so deep in conversation that they took a wrong turn and ended up spun around. They laughed. “What an interesting way to start this journey,” Justin said, noting the omen of becoming lost before even setting out. When they found the path they knew led to the trailhead, Justin began talking about an idea he had been mulling over: he had been thinking about creating some kind of centralized online memorial for adventurers who have passed away, where their digital trails could serve as eulogies to their lives.
Something wasn’t sitting right with Gapon. He could tell that Justin was anxious about the journey that lay ahead. He offered to accompany him to Mantalai Lake; the Russian man was familiar with the route, having just returned from a guided trek to the lake and over a high mountain pass into a neighboring valley. The trek had been challenging but profound, and he would be happy to do it all again, especially alongside someone like Justin. He was disappointed when Justin politely turned down his offer.
Many pilgrims and travelers hire guides and porters to assist them on their trek to the lake, to cook meals and to set up camps, but Justin had been presented with a different opportunity. A sadhu, a Hindu holy man, had invited him on a pilgrimage to the sacred lake, where the man would teach him yoga and meditation and Justin could experience the ascetic life. Justin planned on staying at the lake for ten days, living off the few supplies they were taking and sleeping out under the stars or in boulder caves. It was a journey he wanted to do alone with the sadhu, he told Gapon. He had formed an image in his mind of what the journey would be like. Three days earlier, he had posted online about his plan to trek with the Hindu holy man. “I want to see the world through his eyes, which are essentially 5000 years old, an ancient spiritual path,” he had written on his blog and social media accounts. “I’m going to put my heart into it and see what happens.”
Around midday, the two men reached the trailhead in a meadow strewn with granite boulders; from there the path snaked off into the forest. Gray langur monkeys with obsidian faces shook the high branches above them. Justin handed Gapon his iPhone and asked him to take his picture to mark the “beginning of a spiritual journey.” The American man offered a soft half smile as Gapon took the photograph.
Justin had displayed toughness and determination by spending the previous three weeks living alone in a Himalayan cave with little more than a sleeping bag and a machete. He had revealed trust in his bond with the sadhu who had promised to guide him on his pilgrimage. But it was his heart—his passion to better understand his place in the world—that Gapon admired most in his new friend. Still, even though Justin was clearly a seasoned traveler and an experienced outdoorsman, the Russian man was concerned. The plan was ambitious. Mantalai Lake lay nearly 13,500 feet in elevation in a broad, exposed saddle, with no trees for shelter or firewood to protect against wind and subfreezing temperatures. Justin was carrying neither stove nor cooking fuel in his small brown day pack, so Gapon pressed into his hand a parting gift fitting for someone who valued both practicality and minimalism: a water-resistant red butane lighter. Gapon had used it to light candles while he slept in his own mountain cave and to start the cookstove on his own trek to Mantalai Lake. Justin tucked it into his day pack.
The two men hugged, and Justin turned and began making his way up the path, quickly disappearing into the forest. The Parvati River thundered below.
Justin Alexander Shetler was born in the predawn hour of March 11, 1981, in Sarasota, Florida. The city, just south of Tampa, fringes the aquamarine water of the Gulf of Mexico and is shielded by a series of white-sand keys. Adventurous from the start, he began crawling early and adored the water—the bath, the lakeshore, the beach. His mother, Colette Susanne, who goes by Suzie, and father, Terry, enrolled him in toddler swim classes when he was three months old. Terry worked as a carpenter before eventually earning a master’s in Oriental medicine, and Suzie was a teaching assistant at a Montessori school, which Justin attended for several years. In raising her son, Suzie encouraged him not only to venture into nature but to be a part of it, to sense it. She taught him to be able to differentiate between a Casuarina pine and a palm tree by touching the trunk with his eyes closed. His first pair of shoes was a tiny pair of suede moccasins that his mother had bought for him; she wanted him to feel the earth under his feet. He collected rocks in an old fishing tackle box. His mother called him “Bear.”
Justin was always drawn to high places. When he was ten months old, he startled his mother by climbing halfway up a bookshelf. As he grew older, he clambered up trees, including a giant oak in a field in their neighborhood in Sarasota that they called the “family tree”; when he was upset, he would climb on top of the house and sit on the roof. It was his way to clear his head and to find calm, Suzie thought, but also a way to find perspective on the world, however small it was then, around him. Though he was an independent child, he desperately wanted the connection of a sibling.
When he was eleven, Justin’s parents divorced but shared custody. He would spend the week at his mother’s and the weekend at his father’s. That year, the film The Last of the Mohicans was released, and Suzie took him out of school to see a matinee. They ended up seeing the film together seven times. For years Justin idolized the character Hawkeye, a white man adopted by a Mohican chief who gives up much of his European culture to become more connected to the natural world. It was the kind of heroic story of adventure that many young boys might gravitate to. Justin found more legendary figures to revere in books, devouring fantasy series about heroes and magic, immersing himself in fictionalized worlds. He was an introspective boy. In a notebook made of handmade paper that he kept during that time, he copied quotes from thinkers including Laozi, the Chinese philosopher traditionally seen as the author of the Tao Te Ching, and the Buddha. On one page, Justin copied what he called an unknown Chinese proverb:
Thousands of rivers
Flow into the sea,
But the sea is
And if a man could
Turn stone into gold,
Still would his heart
Never be contented.
In elementary school, he had some moments of positivity and others of great frustration. His father told him that he would support him in any way, try to help him find contentment, as long as it wouldn’t put his son’s life in danger. “I realized that I wasn’t helping Justin deal with reality if I was putting myself between him and reality,” Terry says. He never wanted to hold his son back.
Two years after the divorce, Suzie moved with her son to South Carolina and then six months later to Montana, with a new partner whom she would later marry. It was there that Justin first experienced the big wild of the American West that he had felt drawn to through books. Suzie had given him a memoir that would end up shaping much of the following decade for her son. “It lit a kind of fire,” she remembers. Grandfather: A Native American’s Lifelong Search for Truth and Harmony with Nature, published in 1993 by Tom Brown, Jr., a wilderness survival teacher from New Jersey, told the story of the author growing up under the tutelage and mentorship of a Lipan Apache scout and shaman named Stalking Wolf. “He was truly one of the ancients, part man, part animal, and almost entirely spirit,” Brown wrote in the book. “His home was the wilderness, and in the wilderness he tested all things.” Stalking Wolf could read nature, find medicine within plants, and track animals so closely that he could touch them. He could hide his tracks by retracing his steps backward, and effectively vanish from record. The man could walk so lightly and so skillfully through the world that he left no mark. He was there and not there, always present, yet, if he wanted, invisible.
Much of Stalking Wolf’s story, as recounted by Brown, has assumed a near-mythic aura. He was born sometime in the 1880s, somewhere in the American Southwest. At ten, he embarked on his first vision quest, during which spirits presented him with the headband of a scout and the staff of a shaman. His elders showed him a path: “To follow his vision he must first spend ten winters training to become a scout, one of the most powerful positions in the tribe. He must then abandon this path for another ten winters and seek the path of a shaman and healer. And finally . . . he would have to leave his people and wander alone for sixty more winters, seeking vision and knowledge, until his vision was reality.” Stalking Wolf was reluctant at first, hesitant to leave his people, until one of his elders told him that “a man not living his vision is living death.”
As Justin grew older, he tore through Brown’s books and wilderness guides, told through the stories of the life and accomplishments of Stalking Wolf and Brown himself. Suzie, recognizing that something was sparking in her son, would drive him to the hills near the Idaho border and watch as he disappeared into the forest with his best friend, an Indigenous boy who lived on a neighboring farm. They would hike, play in the bush, and look for animal tracks. Exactly three hours later, she would see them bounding down the hill toward her. He was never late.
“[Rustad is] such a sure-handed raconteur . . . we can’t look away. . . . By patient accumulation of anecdote and detail, Rustad evolves Shetler’s story into something much more human, and humanly tragic, into a layered inquisition and a reportorial force that pushes Shetler . . . into a technicolor mystery. . . . Suffice it to say Rustad has done what the best storytellers do: tried to track the story to its last twig and then stepped aside.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Rustad proves himself here to be a masterful storyteller . . . you’re not going to want to put this book down.” —Toronto Star
“A nuanced and gripping account.... The latest in a rich seam of travel writing that captures the curiosity and hubris of the planet’s most restless souls.” —Financial Times
“Engaging, compassionate. . . . Nuanced, rather than salacious. . . . Rustad is as interested in exploring India’s enduring hold on the Western imagination, from Marco Polo to the hippie trail of the seventies to the present day.” —Globe and Mail
“Leaves you with a sense of wonder and a sense of unease. It’s a book that is not easy to put down.” —New York Journal of Books
“[A] gripping investigation.” —Washington Post
“Haunting . . . a moving portrait. . . . Rustad draws readers into a tale of adventure and tragedy that, despite its dark outcome, is illuminated with a remarkable sense of humanity. . . . Equal parts tribute and travelogue, this is sure to enthrall those curious about a life lived to the extreme.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The journey is fascinating and well rendered. . . . A thorough, journalistic exploration of the mindset of a seeker on a visionary quest.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Rustad's portrait of Shetler and the land in which his life ended is remarkably well-crafted and captivating, a powerful addition to the literature of quests and wilderness exploration.” —Booklist
“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
“Gripping and propulsive . . . 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
“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
“One of the most haunting books of recent times. Through spellbinding story-telling, drawn from impeccable research, Harley Rustad takes us not only into the evergreen story of a young man in search of his better self, but into the mystical pull of India, the latter-day community of global pilgrims, and the casualties found along the way. This is Somerset Maugham’s classic Razor’s Edge updated to the Age of Instagram.” —Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness and The Open Road