Lost in the Valley of Death review: Trailing off in the Himalayas

In the late summer of 2016, Justin Alexander Shetler, a 35-year-old American man drove his Enfield to the Parvati valley in Himachal Pradesh, with just a flute, a rucksack, and an iPhone. There he lived for several weeks in a cave, before setting off to a remote glacier-fed lake, in the company of a sadhu he’d just met. Then he vanished.

A whydunit

These are the facts in the case as they say. Harley Rustad’s  Lost in the Valley of Death traces the story of what led this man here, and what happened next. But in the best tradition of true crime writing, Harley tries to solve a “whydunit”; why did a 30s-something American man throw away his successful career and venture into the wild, and along the way paints the portrait of a generation whose restlessness has now infected the world.

At the heart of Justin Alexander’s quest is the idea that India is a land where you can discover yourself, a “spiritual beacon for those who were unsatisfied or untethered, curious or uncertain”. Those who came questing, ranged from a young Steve Jobs, who tried to meet Neem Karoli Baba, or the Beatles who set up shop in Rishikesh to figures like Timothy Leary who found their ultimate high on a ridge overlooking the Garwhals. They all “travelled to be transformed” by India.

To their ranks was added Justin. Harley paints him as someone shattered by trauma — his parent’s divorce, childhood abuse, a serious car accident yet “wanted to do good, to see the good in this world”. He quits his high-paying startup job and says he is “running away from monotony and... towards wonder, awe and the things that make me feel vibrantly alive”. Soon he would be crisscrossing the world in search of authentic experiences, seeking out cave-dwelling tribes in Borneo to shamans in Brazil.

Justin also began cataloguing his experience on Instagram, and very soon his @adventuresofjustin account is a huge social media hit. While his pith-helmeted predecessors had mapped the terrestrial world for king and country, now he was venturing into the land of the Self, one Insta post at a time.

Mysterious disappearances

Eventually this restless quest intersects with the Himalayas. Justin lands up in Delhi, buys a motorbike and heads up into the Parvati valley, near Kullu, to try to find a guru who can finally guide him to what he’d spent a lifetime looking for. Harley looks at the trope of a lost valley, a perfect hidden world that originated with the Tibetan Buddhist beyul, “where the planes of the physical world overlap with those of the sacred world”.

The story shifts to high gear once Justin makes his way to the valley, meets a peculiar sadhu, and vanishes. Harley traces the sinister outlines of a “Bermuda triangle” for foreign tourists with scores of unexplained disappearances and mysterious deaths. Was it a quest for enlightenment or something darker, as the local police insinuate, a drug deal gone bad? Was it the need to push social media ‘engagement’ that drove him to take more and more risks. Or did he decide to vanish into his own myth, into the valleys of his self. Perhaps his predicament is best stated by a friend who says “he was in the moment but couldn’t hold back from observing himself in the moment”.

Lost in the Valley of Death; Harley Rustad, HarperCollins India, ₹499.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 1:13:03 pm |