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Vagabonds and vanishing acts

In the summer of 2016, I had a minor misadventure in one of the most remote regions of India. Every year, tourists, hikers, the lost and the curious flock to the Himalayas — and the spectacularly beautiful Parvati Valley, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, holds a particular appeal, despite the narrow, forbidding approach and its steep-sided gorges. It was here, while enjoying a solitary hike through the verdant landscape, that I took the wrong turn on a wide, sunlit path. Three hours later, I was hopelessly lost.

Those gorgeous pine forests were dense and silent; there was no cell phone signal. Narrow shepherds’ trails led only to deeper wilderness or rock caves, and the “leopard hour” — sundown, when anyone sensible leaves the forests to big cats and bears — was fast approaching.

Salvation materialised in the form of a dope-smoking sadhu, one of the many holy ascetics who practice abstinence in these remote areas. He led me back to safety, cutting briskly through my thanks. “In this valley,” he said, “many who stray are never found again. It is dangerous, between men and the beasts, to trust these mountains too foolishly.”

In fact, more than two dozen foreign hikers and backpackers have disappeared in the Parvati Valley since the 1990s, and most cases remain unsolved. Later that same year, I read about the disappearance of thirtysomething Justin Alexander Shetler — a skilled American adventurer who had amassed a sizeable online following — within the same region.

I am afraid of a life unlived. I thirst for a life I would want to read about; an epic tale where I am both author and hero’

Shetler’s case is now the subject of a new book by Harley Rustad titled Lost in the Valley of Death. Rustad, who describes the valley as “India’s backpacker Bermuda Triangle”, offers a nuanced and gripping account, yet his work is only the latest in a rich seam of travel writing that captures the curiosity and hubris of the planet’s most restless souls.

In her 1978 memoir Travels with Myself and Another, American writer Martha Gellhorn noted: “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.” It goes some way to explaining the lasting appeal of books such as Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild, which retraced the disappearance and death of a young hiker called Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. Or Shetler’s own social media updates on his search for enlightenment in a cave in the Himalayas. Perhaps we’re also drawn to accounts of travellers like McCandless or Shetler — or Gellhorn herself — because they chased their dreams, while the rest of us stay within the safer bounds of vacation travel.

Having grown up climbing trees in Sarasota, Florida, Shetler began to travel in earnest after quitting his job at a tech company. He roamed across America on his motorcycle, explored ancient kingdoms in Tibet, and criss-crossed south Asia, updating his blog and Instagram accounts with spectacular photos and dramatic accounts of survival. “I am afraid of a life unlived,” he once said. “I thirst for a life that I would want to read about; an epic tale where I am both author and hero.” In his last blog post, he wrote that he was joining a sadhu named Rawat on a demanding pilgrimage.

Most adventurers, historically, have a faith in themselves that tilts over into arrogance — but now that feats can be recorded and admired in real time, it raises an uneasy question: if you haven’t Instagrammed an experience, does it matter? Did it even happen?

Lost in the Valley of Death builds into a rounded portrait of Shetler, praising his ability to reinvent himself, but also noting the pressure on him to fulfil the expectations of his followers — “BE KIND AND DO EPIC SHIT”, he once scribbled on the walls of a Nepal guesthouse.

“As much as he was seeking, he was also running — from relationships, from growing old, from responsibility, from mundanity,” Rustad notes. And, he clearly struggled to balance the need to live a fully authentic life alongside the demands and intrusions of social media.

What really happened to Shetler? Lost in the Valley of Death offers readers diverging trails of possibilities, but the brilliance of the book is that it allows us to reach our own conclusions. In the autumn of 2016, Rawat was arrested by the police — the sadhu would apparently die by suicide in his mountain cell. Shetler’s distinctive staff and other possessions were found near the rushing waters of the Parvati river. But his body has never been found. Some travellers have strayed into the clutches of criminals and murderers, but a few choose what a Venu Gopal, a local police superintendent, calls “the solitary, secret life of the deliberately missing”.

Writing about the unfortunate McCandless in the 1990s, Jon Krakauer captured the appeal of treacherous journeys: “The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything.” Shetler, who read Krakauer’s Into the Wild several times and battled his own childhood demons, must have felt the same lure — of a journey that would take you far away from all that was familiar in order to finally bring you home to yourself.

Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas by Harley Rustad, HarperCollins $29.99, 304 pages

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