Read: Lost in the Valley of Death

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This book is a cautionary tale and one that speaks to so many ills of modern culture and society. Two pages into the prologue I already had a dislike of the main character, but I finished the book regardless. Anyone who has the talent and patience to write a book deserves the respect of the reader. Add “getting published” to this accomplishment makes it all the more commendable. Parts of Harley Rustad’s “Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas,” read like something I would have written but let me explain.

There is such a thing as “India Syndrome.” In fact, I’ve seen this syndrome infect and change friends of mine. One of my best friends here in Santa Fe spent ten years in an ashram in India, and simply put, it changed his life forever. I’ve had other friends who went for the yoga and came home with the bracelets and tattoos and the dream that they had found enlightenment. My Angelino friends were the most likely to return wrapped in flowing robes and speaking of finding spirituality. To each his or her own.

But there is also the business of spiritually, especially in an age where most people craft a phony online version of themselves in an effort sell their “followers” of a life that may or may not be based in reality.

And this is where we find the story of the main character who travels the world selling an idea of who he is, a minimalist, cave-dweller, flute playing man searching for meaning. But often times the dots of reality don’t connect with the dots of Instagram. In fact, the main character here fights with the absurdity of minimalism and meaning while posting to Insta and Facebook. For me, that’s all I needed to read. I have spent the last fifteen years watching social media destroy the professional photography industry. From the photographers to the editors, agents, agencies, art buyers, and curators. From the once talented to sheep in less than a decade.

The high altitudes of the Himalaya suffer no fools, and it turns out more than a few people have disappeared in this region over the years. In fact, a lot more than you probably know. There are numerous ways to die in this region, naturally. But there are also more than a few nefarious ways. What actually happened to the main character remains a mystery but one that should be of note if you plan to travel this one particular valley. As I mentioned before, I was not a fan of the facade the main character put on display. However, he went. He did. He was searching for something and he actually made repeated voyages that were less than easy.

It makes sense to connect this man with stories like “Into the Wild,” tragedies caused by human error as much as anything else, but I can’t help coming away with more respect than dismissal. Many of my urban friends were quick to dis Christopher McCandless. “Idiot,” they would utter as they went back to their couch to watch more “adventure” documentaries. Potentially frustrated by the routine and pointlessness of their professions but too afraid to give up the certain for the uncertain. Thinking that at some point in their life they might be able to be more of who they actually are. Characters like the ones detailed in these books had the same questions but decided to at least make a stab at finding something else.

There are numerous books popular within the spiritual traveler world. Shantaram, Autobiography of a Yogi, and The Razor’s Edge, one of my favorite books of all time, but the lesson from Somerset Maugham’s classic is that “It is easy to be a Holy Man on top of a mountain.” When I read about people making pilgrimages to the other side of the world I often find myself asking what they are running from. If you are looking for enlightenment, perhaps the mirror is the place to begin.

Comments 4

  1. I became fascinated with this guy a couple months back, I never got a chance to read this book though. If you want an interesting addition to this book I’d recommend going on Spotify and listening to him on Christopher Ryan’s podcast, it’s quite chilling to be able to hear his voice just a few years before he disappeared. Thanks for sharing as always, Cheers.

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      I think his social accounts are still live. I learned enough to know that much of what he was about was a facade that was attempting to make him appear a certain way. I’m so turned off by phony that I just don’t have the interest in knowing more about him. Credit for going, for sure, but that is where it ends for me.

  2. Glad I read Krakauer’s Into the Wild, really changed my perspective of McCandless. Some people just have to go, they have to know what’s over that next hill. I need to read The Razor’s Edge again. I definitely fell into a bit of a what’s the point of it all rut.

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