Seeking Enlightenment, He Disappeared Into a Hiker’s Bermuda Triangle

A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas
By Harley Rustad

In August 2016, an experienced American trekker named Justin Alexander Shetler ascended to a high Himalayan lake on a pilgrimage in the Parvati Valley of northern India, never to be heard from again. He carried a walking stick that he’d partially fashioned into a flute, a woolen wrap and not much else, having shed most of his earthly possessions. If by chance you’d have passed him on that rocky incline, as he followed on the heels of his guru, you might have identified him from literature, film or a nearby backpacker teahouse as a brand, a typology: Lost White Boy in Search of Enlightenment.

By the time of Shetler’s dangerous excursion to Mantalai Lake, however, he was 35 and, though Peter Pan-ish, had already lived many lives, amassing a substantial number of social media followers as he hyped each new adventure with beautiful visuals and deftly packaged videos of his life on the road. He’d crisscrossed America via motorcycle; become a monk in Thailand, where he’d also allegedly been stabbed; saved a Nepalese girl who had been badly injured in a fall by carrying her in his arms as he ran for hours to a remote clinic. He was a practiced survivalist, having recently lived in a cave. It was said he’d once entered the woods with only a knife and returned clad in buckskin. He was good-looking and ripped, a fact he wasn’t afraid to flaunt. He had a fondness for stray pups and an eagle tattooed to his chest to symbolize his ultimate freedom. Once, at a Los Angeles restaurant when he randomly bumped into Jonathan Goldsmith, the actor who played the World’s Most Interesting Man in the Dos Equis commercials, Goldsmith told him, “I think you might actually be the most interesting man in the world.”

In Harley Rustad’s fascinating new book, “Lost in the Valley of Death” — arriving just as we’ve climbed the highest perches of our own cuckoo isolation — the portrait that emerges of Shetler as open and free to the world, blown over it like a fresh wind, is compelling indeed. In prose that moves like a clear river, Rustad presents Shetler as that peculiar breed of American peregrinator pushing to the farthest limit, a fearless doer who mixes raw earnestness with extreme ambition to end up in a mess of bad trouble.

This is a genre of outdoor story we’ve become accustomed to, as well: the disappeared searcher. But one of the book’s initial achievements is that Rustad reclaims Shetler from that whoa-brah spirituality, from wanderers high on hash visions — even as one of Shetler’s life mottoes is, in the cleaned-up language of this paper, “Be Kind and Do Epic Stuff” and one of his great heroes is Christopher McCandless, who died in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan bush in his own survivalist experiment gone awry. 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 beyond his white-lib entitlement into a technicolor mystery.

It’s hard not to love Shetler on some level, for his innocence and limitations, for his search for the elusive epiphany that will reveal all and soothe his broken self. “I’m going to put my heart into it and see what happens,” reads an Instagram post without a speck of irony before his fateful trek to Mantalai Lake. It’s always there, the revelation, up on top of the distant mountain, over by the glacial lake, around the bend and down by the river. Shetler’s a tireless pursuer of that ghost and willing to strip himself naked again and again, and follow anyone, to find it. And yet Rustad, who has written for publications like Outside magazine and is the features editor at The Walrus, a Canadian general-interest publication, is hunting bigger game here as he unfolds the story.

What animates Shetler? We learn that he’s the child of divorce, on the one hand having a father whose own experiences in India heavily influenced Shetler (as did their father-and-teenage-son partaking of hallucinogens) and a mother whose spiritual influence can be attributed to the Hindu-inflected Eckankar religion, birthed in the 1960s by Paul Twitchell, a onetime colleague of L. Ron Hubbard, promoting “soul travel,” the chanting of the word “Hu,” and a belief system said to have begun when an essence known as Gakko came to Earth six million years ago from the city of Retz on Venus.

In the tumult of this early life, borne by piecemeal spirituality, Shetler finds grounding in nature and in an assortment of writings from Jack London to Thoreau. He is sent to the Tracker School in New Jersey, of all places, where days are spent in the woods of the Pine Barrens, moving with and like animals. Describing the school, an old friend, Tracy Frey, says: “It is a beacon for lost boys. It gets them so close to finding something that’s actually internal, but not quite. And then they get further lost, because it’s so confusing.”

Yes, of course, there’s a childhood trauma buried in here, which Rustad withholds until a perfectly timed moment. And there’s the slightest misstep when Rustad brings his own memories into the story, then seems to think better of it. This is easy to forgive because he’s such a sure-handed raconteur and we can’t look away from Shetler, the “introspective boy” who goes on to lead a punk band in Seattle, takes a job with a start-up making sweet coin, then tosses it all for his spiritual ministrations. While he soft-brags and self-promotes on social media — but never monetizes his shtick — he dances closer and closer to the frothing edge.

The book’s most interesting fulcrum, then, is Shetler’s compulsion to post and blog, to digitize himself even as he’s equally compelled to isolate and hermitize. He wants to be loved and admired, that seems certain. But he also appears to want solitude, to narrow the aperture of his mind to what matters. This is his central torment. Meanwhile, he’s trapped in a cycle of having to top himself for his followers, in some authentic way. The exercising of these contradictions leads to perhaps the most telling spiritual question: If you don’t post about a profound experience, did it really happen?

As Rustad leads Shetler from the rebuilding of a school in earthquake-decimated Nepal, to pyres of the dead in Varanasi, to the Parvati Valley, he tells us there’s a little problem at hand: “Since the early 1990s, dozens of international backpackers have vanished without a trace while traveling in and around the Parvati Valley, an average of one every year, earning this tiny, remote sliver of the subcontinent a dark reputation as India’s backpacker Bermuda Triangle.”

In his last post, Shetler tells his followers he’ll be gone until the middle of September. “If I’m not back by then,” he writes on Instagram, “don’t look for me,” adding a winky emoji.

I won’t say more about what happens up in the Valley of Death, as Shetler follows his guru among the pilgrims and dope fiends blowing smoke signals from their chillums, to meditate in the place where Shiva once did. But 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. I found it haunting enough to go looking for Shetler online, visiting his old social media accounts. On Instagram, I came to one video with nearly 5,000 views, shot six months before his trek to Mantalai Lake. The footage is from the Holi Festival in Kathmandu held on a March full moon to mark the coming of spring. It’s shot in slow motion, with Alt-J’s “Taro” playing a quasi raga over shifting images.

Here’s Shetler painted in reds and yellows and greens turning the camera on his friends, all in complete joy. Here are his friends dancing. Then someone else operates the camera and there is Shetler, his tall, lithe frame bouncing up and down. His face is turned to the sky and his arms are completely outstretched — every fiber of his body, it seems — as he bounces on his toes, alone in the crowd, on his quest “without end,” as Rustad has it, again and again reaching for heaven.

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