Book Review: Lost in the Valley of Death

“There is a world beyond that of our everyday physical, mental and emotional experiences. Beyond the five senses, and different from the realm of imagination. It is the world of the unseen and eternal, of spirit and vision. It is a dimension of life that very few people of today seek, or perhaps care to know.”

–Tom Brown, Jr., The Vision

Across the Himalayas lie hidden valleys, called beyal, where the planes of the physical world overlap with those of the spirit world, according to Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama has called these, “sacred environments that are not places to escape the world, but to enter more deeply.”

One such place is said to be the Parvati Valley in the Himalayas of India, scene to Harley Rustad’s new non-fiction narrative “Lost in the Valley of Death.” Rustad chronicles the dozens of international travelers who have dissappeared into this so-called “Backpacker Bermuda Triangle” with a focus on an American man who vanished in 2016 under cloud of mystery and foul play.

Justin Alexander Shetler was born in 1981 to spiritually-minded parents who pulled him out of the American public schools as a teen and enrolled him in Wilderness Awareness School to foster his love of nature survival skills. (Damn cool parents.)

Like a narrative drug dealer, Rustad consistently passes the reader juicy nuggets of Justin’s backstory, getting us slowely hooked in. Justin continually reinvents himself, first as a national leader in wilderness tracking, later as a singer in a punk rock bank, and then as a high-flying tech entrepeneur who becomes dissallusioned with his life of luxury and quits at the age of 32 to travel the world.

What is Justin running from? “I’m running from a life that isn’t authentic, that isn’t me,” he answers on his (now defunct) blog.

Justin’s solo travels lead him to build a school in Nepal, participate in Shamanic ceremonies in Brazil, and become ordained as a Buddhist Monk in Thailand, where he finds a second “adoptive family.”

Our hero’s tragic flaw, in the Greek sense, is that he is dreamily handsome and becomes an Instagram Influencer of sorts. Now Justin is torn between living his journey authentically, verses broadcasting it to his ever-growing throng of followers in exchange for their comments of adoration.

This may seem to be a tale of white male privlidge, until your read deeper. Justin is tormented by demons galore, of which Rustad reveals in a drip-drip, dramatic effect. Justin has basically been on a quest to outrun his demons since the age of 15, living in the wild and seeking spiritual transfiguration amongst the ancient and indiginous ancestors.

“Trying to live a spiritual life in modern society is the most difficult path one can walk. It is a path of pain, of isolation and of shaken faith, but that is the only way our vision can become reality.”

–Stalking Wolf

Three years into his travels, Justin’s friends, followers and ex-girlfriends notice he has become more “desperate” to find meaning, while taking ever-greater risks. Around this time, Justin gets a giant eagle tatooed on his chest, travels to India, and buys a Royal Enfield to ride into the Himalayas where he believes his quest will culminate.

Here is where Rustad’s narrative soars. An avid solo traveler of India himself, Rustad conjurs all manner of Hindu gods and goddesses, gurus, authors, travelers and even one psychologist who specializes in diagnosing “India Syndrome” to explain its lore to the uninitiated.

“India speaks to the unconscious, it provokes it, makes it boil and sometimes overflow,” says Sunil Mittal, senior psychologist at the Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioral Science. “Travelers come with a turmoil, and they have a breakdown here.”

Mittal is hired by foreign embassies to treat the numerous westerners who come to India seeking enlighenment and end up burning their passports, wandering the streets naked, meditating in ashrams, or living in mountain hideaways … India Syndrome.

Justin’s dream is to ride his Royal Enfield over the high mountain passes of Ladakh. En route, he stops for a long trek in the Parvati Valley where he finds a cave to live in solitude for several weeks.

Nearby he meets a sadhu (holy naga baba) who claims to be a master of yoga and meditation. The sadhu has large welts on his joints, rarely eats and smokes copious chillums of hash in his mountain hut. The sadhu invites Justin on a pilgrimage to Mantalai Lake, a sacred place at the source of the raging Parvati River, named after the wife of Lord Shiva — a place where dozens of foreign trekkers have vanished.

According to Rustad, Justin had long been modeling his trip (and his life) in the mold of his favorite book: “A Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell. In his novel, the first step is the hero receiving a call to adventure from a guide or teacher to a fateful region of both treasure and danger.

“It is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight.

–Joseph Campbell

The hero then faces a seris of trials, and is tempted by sirens or doubts to abondon his quest. There is a confrontation with his past, whatever he holds in most fear or pain. In that moment the wall of Paradise is dissolved, the divine form found, and wisdom regained. Here lies enlightenment as the hero’s old world is shattered and he is born anew.

What happens next in Justin’s journey? Well he goes on the trek with the Baba and then disappears from the face of the earth, as the book’s title suggests. Rustad digs deep on the detective side, but I’ll let you read the book, rather than reveal those details.

I’ll just say this: you gotta’ see this guy’s Instagram. Justin’s Fullpower. And his final posts are so mysterious, so creepy with this fuckin’ baba, you won’t believe it.

“All of India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues, shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries. As it has been from the beginning, and will continue to the end.”

–Rudyard Kipling
Shiva and wife Parvati

My personal thoughts as an American solo-traveler who was born in the same year as Justin, and traveled along a similar path in India (and elsewhere) on Royal Enfield, and who too has found these beyal valleys in the Himalayas, where the spiritual and natural worlds overlap:

On such a quest, the answers will not come in any conversations with polite society, but rather on the brink of madness out in nature. Whenever your friends or family tell you that you are acting reckless, irratic, out-of-caracter, or if they believe you are under some spell, or have India Syndrome, then you are probably getting close.

Only once you sever all external voices and technological ties will you reach an authentic awakening. In that moment, your trip is truely yours and not defined by others who tell you what you experienced, how you feel, and what you should do next. They want to grab you from the galaxies and yank you down to earth.

According to Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s book Freedom from the Known, (previously reviewed on this blog) — to achieve total freedom you must first abandon all authority including your society, nationality, religion, position, teachings and family. In other words, you need to be a physical and psychological solo-traveler.

The best quote in Rustad’s book comes not from an author, or guru, or holy man, but from a western woman living in India whom he interviews on his quest for clues about Justin’s disappearance.

“The missing don’t go searching for the missing.”

Buy Rustad’s book “Lost in the Valley of Death” on Amazon.

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