When I was still in university, I was inspired by the travel books of Jack Kerouac. I couldn’t afford to travel a lot back then. So, my travel escapades came from reading Kerouac and learning about the experiments of the Beatnik generation. I couldn’t relate to those adventures fully but the free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness writing that explored existentialism, stirred me. How can I forget the adventures Kerouac and Neal Cassady encapsulated in the classics, On the Road and The Dharma Bums? I wished to travel like Kerouac and the bunch of hippies who tagged along with him.
Not that I didn’t explore travel writing beyond Kerouac’s. I absorbed Andrew Solomon’s essays in Far and Away, where he reported from the seven continents he was posted in. I read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and wrote this book about ‘travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, breaching life, death, motion and migration’. However, no other travel book came close to exciting me to the same heights as Kerouac’s writing did.
Not until recently, that is.
I just finished reading Harley Rustad’s account of the disappearance of Justin Alexander Shetler in the Parvati Valley in the Himalayas. Many would consider this book — Lost in the Valley of Death, named so, for at least the two dozen foreign tourists who have lost their lives in the remote Parvati Valley — as nonfiction. But, to me, it stood out as a travel book. Yes, it is a book that follows Shetler’s life as he travels across the globe searching for something. What that ‘something’ was, though, could not be pinpointed. Shetler, who preferred only ‘Justin Alexander’ as his name, was an inveterate traveller and a seeker. He quit his tech job and set out on a global journey which took him to South America and many Asian countries, before he finally embarked on a Himalayan trek in 2016. In the course of this journey, he made his way to the Parvati Valley where he planned to live in the caves and spend time amidst the wilderness (Shetler was a trained wilderness expert).
Rustad crafts the narrative masterfully, piecing it together with interviews with people who met Shetler, and Shetler’s own Instagram footprints which he updated till the very end. Based on these pieces, Rustad postulates that Shetler sought peace. His search for spiritual enlightenment brought him to a country other than his own, where he trekked in the remote valleys, meditated inside caves, and smoked hashish to set off on his spiritual journey. In this search, Shetler sought guidance. That, perhaps, turned out to be his greatest undoing. Shetler came across a sadhu (a sage) and spent weeks under his tutelage. It was this sadhu who took him to the Parvati Valley — from where Shetler never returned. His remains were not found, except for a flute that he carried everywhere.
This book remained with me long after I had finished reading it. It stood out for me, for it reminded me of Kerouac and the Beatniks that he had documented so well. Shetler would have easily found himself at home in that company. Who knows for sure, but perhaps Kerouac’s writing inspired Shetler to leave everything aside, buy a motorcycle (a Royal Enfield) and travel?
In Shetler, I found a little bit of myself. Had I not dreamt of travelling to the now-notorious village of Malana and staying there for as long as I could? Had I not once thought of leaving the corporate world aside, and just travel? I even took a step in that direction when I remained on the road for a whole month, travelling with as little money as possible and spending nights in the shelters that strangers offered. Something pulled me back though. I wasn’t perhaps strong enough to survive on the road for so long, all by myself. Though I feel ashamed to admit it, the comforts of a settled life and the money that a steady job guarantees brought me back from the wilderness to the concrete jungles of Delhi. But Shetler had continued.
I finished the book with a hint of happiness nestled inside the sadness that came with learning about Shetler’s story. Here was a young man on a spiritual quest, who lost himself to the dangers and secrets of the Himalayas. It could have been my story 15 years back. At the same time, I remained captivated and thrilled by the book. It served as a reminder that travel writing is not dead. Documenting travel need not be a boring account of bromide journeys. Rather, in a world dominated with short-form bits captured on Instagram, a good story can still be told.