In August 2016, Justin Alexander Shetler was living inside of a cave in a remote section of the Indian Himalayas known as the Parvati Valley. He was preparing for a trek to a holy lake with a local “sadhu”, an Indian holy man. According to Shetler’s final Instagram post, he expected to return from the journey in mid-to-late September — but he never did. Somewhere along the way, he disappeared.
A trained survivalist, Shetler had quit his job in tech a few years earlier, abandoning nearly everything he owned. But while choosing a life of endless adventure would have required a different level of solitude in decades past, Shetler was a travel influencer. Everywhere Shetler went, his robust YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram following came too, closely monitoring his posts and celebrating his achievements — until there were no more. Today, Shetler’s Instagram bio remains stuck in time. “Currently living in a cave in India”, it reads.
Shetler’s disappearance is the subject of Lost in the Valley of Death, an enthralling new work of narrative nonfiction from Canadian journalist Harley Rustad. Part adventure tale, part true crime investigation, Lost in the Valley of Death will naturally be compared to Into the Wild — Jon Krakauer’s investigation into Christopher McCandless’s death in the Alaskan wilderness in the early ‘90s — although it’s a distinctly 21st century story, ruminating on the contradictions inherent to not only travel in the social media age, but how we live online. Under Rustad’s watch, Shetler is a compelling, complex character: a man simultaneously craving solitude and validation — always searching, in the digital and real worlds alike.
SHARP recently caught up with Rustad to discuss tracing Shetler’s path and writing Lost in the Valley of Death.
Something that struck me while reading this book: Justin is a unique character in a lot of ways, but he also isn’t.
You’re totally right. He’s not an anomaly. Some people might look at him and write him off, because I think for a lot of people quitting your job early, giving away your belongings, and hitting the road is something that is easy to write off as immature. But as I learned more about him, he became less of an anomaly and more somebody who fits into this long history of travellers and seekers who aren’t satisfied with their lot in life and desperately have this burning curiosity to better understand the world and this desire and skills to pull it off. And ultimately the tragedy in this story is that he didn’t necessarily pull that off. But he died trying.
It’s easy to draw parallels to Into the Wild, and while there are similarities, it’s also such a different story in large part due to social media. No matter what Justin did — how remote or adventurous or dangerous it was — he always had this tether to other people in his pocket via his active social media accounts. And that seems to reveal some sort of desire for human connection — even if it comes in the thorny forms that are inherent to social media, like wanting validation or adoration or whatever. But to me, even that desire seems different than McCandless.
I think the comparison is understandable: you had two people who renounced their possessions and backstories and set out on these journeys to find simplicity and authenticity in their own way. But there are also a lot of differences. And social media is probably one of the biggest.
Justin really occupied two worlds. He was deeply committed to travelling honestly and authentically, but he also had this [online] persona — this growing social media following, which was quite sizeable for 2014, 2015, 2016. I do think he saw the beauty and positivity of what this world can offer and I think Justin saw his Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook accounts as a way to hopefully encourage people to get off the couch or get out of their office or even to do a fraction of what he was doing.
But he also fell into the social media trap of seeking validation, and, in a lot of ways, I think he represented some of the conflicts that we all feel between who we are on social media and who we are truly deep down in our hearts. The pictures we post or the captions we write, is that truly who we are? Or are we just creating an image of what we hope our life to be? Do we really want to walk that trail ourselves or are we doing it because we know at the end of that trail there’s going to be a beautiful picture that’s going to garner thousands of likes?
I think that ultimately sums up who Justin was and a lot of the conflict that was in him right until the very end: am I doing this because I truly want to do it or am I doing it because I know that my followers are going to love it? He was the ultimate product of social media, and, in a lot of ways, he was tormented because of it.
For investigators, Justin’s social media must offer some solid leads, but we also know that social media isn’t truth. It’s manicured and could be misleading if always taken as fact. How helpful was this digital paper trail as you pieced Justin’s story together?
On the one hand, it was an enormous resource to be able to add timestamps and dates [to events] and [to identify] people commenting on his posts who were there at the same time. That was an enormous research tool as a writer and was very, very important to the telling. But the interesting thing about following someone that lived so profoundly online is: where does the truth lie in what was posted versus what actually happened on the ground? When he posted that picture, was he there on that day? Was that picture taken at the time it was posted?
The only way to [find out] was to try and corroborate these stories — and because social media has this incredible trail, you can find [people that] liked a certain photograph or commented on something with the implication that they were there. So I reached out to as many of these people as I could to try to talk with them about meeting Justin on the road, and I found dozens and dozens of them.
As much as this book is about a person, it’s also about how India exists as this “land of enlightenment” in the collective imagination of outsiders. Did writing this book impact how you think about this kind of travel and how foreigners view India in particular?
[My interest] in this story was rooted in the questions I had when I first went to India about why people are so drawn to this one country. Why does India act as this magnet for people as this place of “enlightenment” where higher understanding is within reach?
Even in interviewing people for this book, people had aunts or uncles or mothers or co-workers who had done something very similar [to Justin] and went to India looking for answers and had found what they were looking for or didn’t. What I tried to do was use Justin’s story as the guiding framework to explore all these different notions about travellers in India, the “hippie trail”, [and] this slightly bizarre psychological phenomenon known as “India Syndrome”. The closer I could hone all these different factors to Justin’s story, the less I was making grand statements about any place — which I don’t have any authority to do.
[But] I think I realized that what people search for can often be found around the corner at home. And if they want to go to India to find it, it most likely will not be found in deep meditation in an ashram or at the top of a mountain; it’ll most likely be found in the back alleys of Delhi, where you’re being confronted with the contrast and contradictions of a country that make you think about your lot in life, your privilege, your faith, your trust. But those moments can happen anywhere. So, in some ways, it did make me question the place that India occupies in our minds — but [at the same time], it’s also hard to turn the corner in our own town or city and have that kind of moment. We need to step out of our comfort zone and be pushed a little bit to a place that makes us think and reflect — and makes us a little bit uncomfortable — because I think it’s in those moments that we find enlightenment or illumination, however you want to call it.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that while you present some theories about what likely happened to Justin, there’s no cut-and-dry answer to be found. How do you feel about that?
I went into it knowing that there was a good chance I wasn’t going to find a perfect answer as to what happened to him. I became okay with that very early on. Not all stories are wrapped up in a bow. That is often life; it doesn’t have that perfect conclusion or resolution to a journey, to an experience, or to a life as a whole. I realized that there was so much more to Justin’s story than just what happened in the final week. And from a storytelling perspective, I came to see the beauty in that lack of resolution and that to leave it on a question mark was a very hopeful way to end the story because we all want to believe — and so many people have told me this — that he’s still out there searching with his backpack.