In Harley Rustad’s fascinating new book, Lost in the Valley of Death—arriving just as we’ve climbed the highest perches of our own cuckoo isolation—the portrait that emerges of Shetler as open and free to the world, blown over it like a fresh wind, is compelling indeed. In prose that moves like a clear river, Rustad presents Shetler as that peculiar breed of American peregrinator pushing to the farthest limit, a fearless doer who mixes raw earnestness with extreme ambition to end up in a mess of bad trouble. This is a genre of outdoor story we’ve become accustomed to, as well: the disappeared searcher. But one of the book’s initial achievements is that Rustad reclaims Shetler from that whoa-brah spirituality ... By patient accumulation of anecdote and detail, Rustad evolves Shetler’s story into something much more human, and humanly tragic, into a layered inquisition and a reportorial force that pushes Shetler beyond his white-lib entitlement into a technicolor mystery ... there’s the slightest misstep when Rustad brings his own memories into the story, then seems to think better of it. This is easy to forgive because he’s such a sure-handed raconteur and we can’t look away from Shetler ... Rustad has done what the best storytellers do: tried to track the story to its last twig and then stepped aside.
ustad proves himself here to be a masterful storyteller, unfolding character, plot, suspense, pathos, bathos and half a dozen other Greek nouns so meticulously that you’re not going to want to put this book down ... Though he had some extraordinary abilities and drives, as most people do, Shetler’s depth was the kind we all have, the profundity every human life creates and, in putting so much work into documenting it, Rustad’s done us the favour of celebrating our complex muddles of good and bad and stupid and smart ... His notes on sources at the end of the book run to 10 pages and not one of them is superfluous. It’s like he’s held up a crystal dodecahedron for us to see how many ways Shetler could be reflected in the eyes of others ... like any good book, and this is a very good book, it provides no real answers, no closure, no meaning. It’s just life, as seen through the lens of one of its sadder stories.
Had we been given this revelatory information at its actual moment in the chronological narrative, Stetler’s story would still have been compelling, but for a different, more profound reason...As the story stands, the reader can only feel somewhat shorted, denied the opportunity to participate more fully with Stetler in his anguished search ... Nevertheless, this objection does not detract from the scrupulously thorough process Rustad has followed in retracing the steps of Stetler’s path and arranging them in a powerful narrative ... a disturbing book that leaves you with a sense of wonder and a sense of unease. It’s a book that is not easy to put down.
... compelling and personal ... While the mystery of Shetler's disappearance remains just that, his spirit of adventure may attract new followers to far unknowns of the world, while also confirming for many more the comforts of the known and the near.
Along the way readers learn a great deal about India, its geography, numerous spiritual, religious, and metaphysical traditions, and the so-called 'India Syndrome' that enthralls some visitors, almost invariably to their detriment. Rustad’s portrait of Shetler and the land in which his life ended is remarkably well-crafted and captivating, a powerful addition to the literature of quests and wilderness exploration.
... a haunting narrative ... Rustad draws readers into a tale of adventure and tragedy that, despite its dark outcome, is illuminated with a remarkable sense of humanity. He paints a moving portrait of Shetler, a young man in love with the wilderness who was animated by a daring spirit ... But even in recounting Shetler’s remarkable journeys, Rustad never veers into hagiography, taking time to reflect upon Shelter’s mental health struggles after having being sexually abused as a boy and teen, and how his friends were worried his disappearance may have been a suicide. Equal parts tribute and travelogue, this is sure to enthrall those curious about a life lived to the extreme.
Rustad does a good job probing Shetler’s motives, similar to those of many other Western adventurers. Was his disappearance an accident or the result of foul play by robbers and drug runners? Or did Shetler intend to escape his life and drop off the grid? There’s no definitive answer, but the journey is fascinating and well rendered ... A thorough, journalistic exploration of the mindset of a seeker on a visionary quest.