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

(For the background to this article, see Part One and Part Two below.)

Except for major classical works of literature, usually I only write one review per book. However, Lost in the Valley of Death evokes so many memories and thoughts that I have to keep writing about it. This one should wind up the series, though.

Soon after Justin disappeared in the Parvati Valley, his friends and family became aware that something might be wrong because he did not reconnect to his social media accounts. Many people offered their opinions. Some thought that he was simply off somewhere on his own living as a sadhu in the mountains, while others had a premonition that something was wrong. Those closest to him investigated online as much as they could and then started a GoFundMe account to raise money for a search. A friend named Jonathan Skeels and Justin’s mother flew to India to investigate in person. Suspicion fell on a sadhu that Justin had befriended and accompanied on a hike into the mountains.

Many foreigners go to India to look for religious teachers. On my own journeys on the Subcontinent I came across several of these. There were the teachers at the Buddhist camp in the hills outside Bombay where I spent a week studying meditation, for instance. However, the strangest teacher/student situation I encountered was in Sri Lanka, where one evening some foreigners invited another traveler and I to visit the home where they lived with their guru. He was supposedly about two hundred years old and had lived alone in the jungle for decades. Upon coming out of the wild, he drew a following of acolytes, particularly foreigners who flew from the United States and Europe specifically to stay with him and absorb his teachings. They emphasized that it was a special privilege for us to meet him. He sat cross-legged on a raised platform in the living room wearing nothing but a loin cloth; every few minutes he would hock a loogie into a spittoon at his side. He spoke in Sinhala or Tamil (I’m not sure which), a Sri Lankan would translate, and all his followers would ooh and ah. He extended my friend and I an invitation to stay, which the faithful insisted was a great honor, but we declined. We were each on our own paths; mine eventually led me to my solitary trek in the Himalayas.

Evidently Justin had become enthralled by a sadhu, whose name was Rawat. The investigation into Rawat’s possible involvement in Justin’s disappearance, though, remained inconclusive because soon after he was incarcerated he was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide. Rustad strongly implies that the police may have been responsible.

Eventually Skeels found some of Justin’s belongings along the raging Parvati River but no trace of Justin. The search had to be called off. For awhile the Internet buzzed with news of the disappearance and opinions about what might have become of him. I couldn’t help but compare Justin’s situation with my own when I roamed the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent back in the 1970s. Justin was a celebrity of sorts and recorded his journeys on his social media sites. If I had got lost in a remote place, I was unknown, and the only notice that I was gone would have been a faint ripple amongst my relatives. It made me wonder how many travelers simply vanish somewhere in the lands they are visiting and no one ever finds out.

In the end, though, Justin’s life was an inspiration to those who knew him personally or through his online posts. The thing to remember is how much he valued the freedom to pursue the truths of life as he saw them. Occasionally I get together with a group of travel enthusiasts here in Seattle and we all talk about where we’ve been and where we’d like to go. Some of the attendees are casual travelers, retirees or those who take advantage of breaks from work to roam the world. Others, though, have embraced the nomadic spirit and travel as a lifestyle. Either way, it’s worth remembering that venturing forth into the unknown is inherently risky. Justin knew the risks, but he was willing to take them because he also knew the value of the rewards. It brings to mind once again Walt Whitman’s classic poem “The Song of the Open Road.”

All parts away for the progress of souls,

All religion, all solid things, arts, governments – all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Justin was one of those souls along that glorious path. One can only hope that before the end he found the peace and serenity that he sought.

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