Book Review:  Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas by Harley Rustad – Part Two

In my previous essay about Lost in the Valley of Death, I came down somewhat hard on the author’s negative attitude concerning spiritual quests that lead people to the Indian Subcontinent and other exotic locales. As I continued to read and ponder the story with respect to my own journeys in the East, though, I began to realize that Justin, the protagonist, was an exceptional traveler that might well have been prone to extremes of behavior. Rustad points out the abuse that Justin suffered from a guardian as a child and the physical discomfort he constantly experienced due to an accident that broke his back as a youth. By the time he made it to the Parvati Valley he was still seeking peace but was also confused and disoriented. It certainly couldn’t have helped at all that he habitually smoked the strong local hashish.

This caused me to remember certain people I met on my own travels who began as simple seekers of truth but later fell prey to beliefs and practices that caused them to deteriorate physically and mentally. For instance, in Katmandu, Nepal, I met an Australian traveler who, after an intense trip on psychedelic mushrooms in Southeast Asia, became convinced that humankind could return to an Eden-like state if they forsook eating anything except fruit and mushrooms. By the time I came across him he had already been following this diet for months; he had lost so much weight that he was skeletal. He told me (and anyone else who would listen) that if he was sufficiently purified by this diet he could endure any temperature of cold without it affecting him. One of my roommates found him one night outside the traditional house we had rented; he was shivering violently and near death. We brought him inside and warmed him up, but he perceived our intercession as his own personal failure. He wasn’t pure enough yet, he decided. Later I met him again in Delhi, India. He was even skinnier and so weak he had to be supported by two friends when he walked, but he was adamant in exclaiming that fruit and mushrooms were life’s answer.

Another example is the pair of German travelers I met by the lakeshore near Pokhara in Nepal. It was just before my own solitary trek into the Himalayas. I was so poor I couldn’t afford the few rupees to get a dormitory bed in a hostel, but the Germans were there by choice. They had set up a stone altar to Shiva and were praying to the Hindu god as they smoked chillums full of hashish. I partook of the hashish; it helped to mitigate the excessive cold by the lakeside, but I was wary of their plans to roam the Subcontinent as they got stoned and worshiped Shiva.

I met an even more extreme example on another occasion on a street in Katmandu. I’m not sure what nationality this man was, although he was definitely a white European. He had completely discarded western garb and wore only a dirty lungi around his waist. He had a long beard and his hair was matted and filthy. As I observed him, he ignored the people around him and intently studied a wriggling worm on the ground. He carefully picked up the worm, tied it to his walking stick with a piece of string, and strode off with a look of triumph.

I mention these people to show the extremes that travelers can come to when they get off the track. Before his disappearance, Justin seemed to be keeping it together but he was weakening. One thing he had, though, that these people I referred to did not was a significant online presence. Back when I traveled alone on the Subcontinent, since I couldn’t afford phone calls the only contact I had with friends and relatives were aerograms – thin pieces of paper that could be folded into letter shape and then mailed very cheaply. I sent and received these every few weeks, but otherwise those I left behind in the West had no way of knowing where I was and no way of tracking me if I got lost. At least when Justin disappeared, his social media accounts offered clues as to where he might be. (To be continued.)

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1 Response to Book Review:  Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas by Harley Rustad – Part Two

  1. Pingback: Book Review:  Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas by Harley Rustad – Part Three | John Walters

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