Chris Fitch reviews Harley Rustad’s book Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas, published Harper Collins India
In August 2016, Instagram personality Justin Alexander uploaded a photo of himself reading by firelight. ‘I’ve been living in some caves in the Indian Himalayas for the last couple weeks,’ he revealed in the caption. It was to be one of his last public announcements. A week later, Justin left on a pilgrimage up the Parvati Valley and never returned.
Harley Rustad’s extraordinarily well-researched book is in many ways a biography. Deprived of the voice of his protagonist (although blogs and social media are a passable substitute) Rustad follows Justin’s life through the perspective of family members, lifelong friends and fellow nomads met on the road. We learn about his unusual life arc, from early years learning outdoor survival in Washington’s conifer forests to fronting a punk rock band and then living the jetsetter lifestyle representing a tech startup and, finally, reinvention as a spiritual vagabond with nothing but a flute, a motorbike and the open road. Combined with the author’s journeys to relevant locations, what emerges is a highly detailed, descriptive, gripping narrative, with a tragic final act.
Or was it tragic? Some of Justin’s fans argue that, among the majestic Himalaya, Justin simply found the spiritual enlightenment he had been seeking. His final blog post concluded with the ominous line: ‘If I’m not back by [intended return date], don’t look for me ;)’.This is the mystery and paradox of Justin Alexander. For all his online fandom, his heart appeared set on escaping the world. While his survival skills were genuine, there remained a naivety. Easily seduced by talk of spiritualism, he had an intense preoccupation with Indigenous peoples and lifestyles, forever romanticising their poverty. Some of his pronouncements read as mind-bendingly vacuous. ‘I want to see the world through [a holy man’s] eyes, which are essentially 5,000 years old,’ he blogged, ‘an ancient spiritual path’.
The bigger picture, as the book explores, is that the Parvati Valley is notorious for the disappearance of hikers and pilgrims, something of a Bermuda Triangle for backpackers. Some bodies have been found, most haven’t. Many blame the powerful force of the Parvati River; others suggest foul play is to blame. Justin Alexander wasn’t the first to vanish, nor the last, merely the highest profile.
- Review: Lost in the Valley of Death by Harley Rustad - 18 May 2022
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