Usually I wait until I have finished or almost finished a book before I write a review of it, but I am just over halfway through Lost in the Valley of Death, and it has already provoked so many thoughts and emotions that I feel I have to address them. This book seems to be part of a growing sub-genre of travel literature, several examples of which I have read recently, of a lone traveler on a journey of adventure and spiritual fulfillment getting lost or killed before he completes his quest. A famous example of this is Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless, who embarked upon a journey of self-fulfillment but then starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness. Another is The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial, about a young traveler who dies in the jungles of Costa Rica. Yet another is Riverman by Ben McGrath, about a homeless man who explores the waterways of the United States by canoe until he dies off the coast of North Carolina.
Lost in the Valley of Death tells the story of Justin Alexander Shetler, a traveler and adventurer who amassed a large following on social media but then abruptly disappeared while exploring the Parvati Valley in the Himalayas in northwestern India. The Parvati Valley has gained a reputation as India’s Bermuda Triangle because so many backpacking travelers have disappeared there. In the course of his story, Rustad chronicles numerous examples of these disappearances. Still, the lure of the spiritual in the remote valleys and peaks of the Himalayas is strong, and travelers continue to be drawn to that region.
When I began this book I was able to deeply empathize with Justin’s quest, because I undertook a similar journey back in the 1970s when I was on the road in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent, as I relate in my book World Without Pain: The Story of a Search. My first trip to the East culminated in a hike from Pokhara in Nepal up into the Himalayan Mountains along unmarked footpaths without a map. Unlike Justin, I made it back down safely; I mention this, though, to demonstrate that I can understand his thought processes and how he felt as he wandered off into the wilderness alone.
This book is fascinating, but one thing that I object to is Rustad’s dark, gloomy narrative that demeans the value of Justin’s spiritual quest. It begins with the garish, negative title. Justin became lost, yes, in that he disappeared and was never found. However, that does not diminish the value of his journey of discovery, which the title dismisses as an “obsession.” Well, okay, in a sense we can call any search for self-fulfillment and meaning an obsession, I suppose, but the word carries such negative weight that it is not completely accurate. Justin took a chance in exploring the Parvati Valley alone, but that doesn’t mean that there was something psychologically wrong with him because he did so. It simply means that the world is a dangerous place, and some places are more dangerous than others. What he was trying to accomplish, though, still has validity.
This brings me to another section of the book that was painful to read. Rustad writes of something an obscure French writer labeled the “India Syndrome.” This refers to the allure of India as a spiritual haven for westerners. In this context, though, the author seems to suggest that it is an aberrant psychosis, and that westerners who venture to India in their quests for meaning in life are somehow sick and deranged. He writes of embassies and opportunistic psychiatrists forcibly abducting young westerners from schools and ashrams in India and returning them to the dysfunctional families and situations that they had fled from in the first place – as if this forced relocation is acceptable behavior. It almost sounds as if the psychiatrists involved believe that embarking on a spiritual quest is by nature deviant psychotic behavior.
When I traveled the Hippie Trail, the overland route from Europe to India, back in the mid-seventies, I met numerous young travelers from many countries. Most of them were on a sort of extended adventurous holiday, taking months off to explore new lands and sample drugs and experiences. There were definitely some who took their spiritual journeys to the extreme, who adopted eastern garb and wandered barefoot, penniless, and befuddled, but there were many others who enjoyed their trip and returned to their homelands enriched and satisfied. I think that there are many more lost and lonely travelers currently in homeless encampments in the United States than there ever were on the Indian Subcontinent, even during the height of the hippie migration to the east. The so-called India Syndrome is really an international condition. It refers to people who are intent on changing their lives for the better; some inevitably get lost along the way. (To be continued.)