This post is based on the article “Lost in the Valley of Death” by Harley Rustad that was published in Outside magazine. All the information, research, and reporting in this post was taken from that article and rewritten. Rustad’s new book is based on his article.
Every year, thousands of western backpackers visit India’s Parvati Valley. The valley is named after Parvati – the Goddess of Love and Harmony. She is wife to Shiva – the Destroyer. Go deeper into the valley, go higher and the mountains become more beautiful. From Delhi, it is a 12 hour journey by bus to Kasol. Beyond that, government buses go rattling in and out to smaller villages like Kalga and Manikaran, screaming and screeching at the narrow turns, taking up every inch of space. Besides the patchy roads on the steep cliff-side, the Parvati river tumbles down the mountains into the valley. It rages and roars in the monsoons.
Small colourful cafes jostle for space close to the Parvati river in Kasol serving a variety of cuisines to suit Western Travellers – Israeli, Russian, Italian, and more.
But there are other reasons that seduce many backpackers to visit and stay put in Kasol. The majority are attracted to the valley’s drugs – hash grows abundantly everywhere, and a well organized racket of growers and peddlers will deliver it within minutes. A large number of Western backpackers also visit Parvati Valley in search of enlightenment, spirituality or some higher meaning from life. They no longer want to be part of the material world and would rather spend months in a quiet Himalayan hamlet, doing Yoga, smoking pot and listening to the sounds of the river. Lord Shiva is a strong influence among hippies. His powerful being, dreadlocked hair, mastery at Yoga, has many followers, and there are many God-men and ascetics wandering and meditating in the valley.
But this picture postcard valley has a dark underbelly too. In the last two decades years, over twenty foreigners have “gone missing”. Nobody knows if they are dead or not. They simply went off radar. Did they fall down the steep cliff and were sucked by the river? Did they get into trouble with the shady, powerful international drug mafia? Were they killed by greedy robbers? Or did they just deliberately ‘get lost’? In most parts of India, hotels and guest houses have to officially register anyone checking in. For some reason, many backpackers come and go from Parvati Valley without record. The Valley has many unanswered questions.
The ‘Valley of Gods’ is now also referred to in some circles as the ‘Valley of Death’.
And here, begins the story of Justin Alexander. He was born in Florida, USA. At the age of 16, his mother, Suzie Reeb, enrolled him in Wilderness Awareness School. He loved it there, and soon the founder took him to the internationally acclaimed Tracking School. Justin thrived at the school and impressed all with his sincerity and knowledge, and soon he and instructor Tom McElroy were going on expeditions tracking wolves on foot. He seemed to know no fear. Someone at the school told him how to fall from a tree – to grab and release branches as to slow your fall. Justin immediately climbed a tree almost fifty foot high and jumped. He missed a few branches, ricocheted and went hurtling down the last half, and smashed into the ground, lucky not to break his skull. He was soon teaching kids in a camp school, and taking them on nature trails. Justin also practised a more meditative sort of awareness of the environment, listening to its sounds, wanting to know every small change.
In 2009, he joined a friend’s tech startup and working hard, travelled for business, and ate at Michelin star restaurants. It didn’t fascinate him for long though. In December 2013, he quit his job. That same year, another boy quit his job to travel around the world. Like Justin, he too gave up his house, and sold most of his belongings. That boy was me.
A month before he quit, Justin posted pictures of himself in a luxury resort in the Bahamas. That was the last time in his life that he posted about fancy accommodation on his Instagram.
Over the next two years, he set out for a two year trip through his own country, South America and South East Asia. That Justin likened himself to be an adventurer in the mould of Bear Grylls is fairly obvious. The training at Wildlife Survival/Tracking School helped him a lot, and his posts and blogs showed him spear fishing for food, camping and living off crab meat for days, climbing coconut trees on Caribbean Islands, diving into waterfalls from terrifically high cliffs, making his own fire and learning how to kayak skillfully in Nepal. He loved biking, and gave names to his Royal Enfield Motorbike. These posts garnered him a lot of Instagram followers and soon he had more than 10,000 people following his adventures.
But there was more to him than just adrenaline pumping adventure. Justin, like many people in love with the wild, was attracted to minimalism. This manifested in his deep desire to spend time with remote animistic tribes and follow their ways. In Sumatra, he lived with the isolated Mentawai tribe on a rainforest island. Covered with tattoos, the Mentawai are semi nomadic hunter gatherers, deeply spiritual, and one of the oldest tribes in Indonesia. In Brazil, he went into a remote area in the Amazon rainforest and lived with the Huni Kuin tribe.
In Philippines, he stayed for a while with the Tao’t Batu (People of the Stone) – one of the few ethnic groups that still live in caves high on cliff walls. To reach the caves, they build massive, long bamboo ladders to reach them. What’s common between all these tribes are they are all deeply spiritual, live off the earth, and are far away from the mainstream world. That’s the life Justin seemed truly fascinated by, and tried to emulate on several occasions.
In the spring of 2016, Justin flew to Nepal. A year earlier, Nepal suffered from a massive earthquake. Having trekked in the country previously, Justin returned to help rebuild a school in the hill town of Bachek, where all but four buildings were destroyed completely. Work was hard, they carried bags of cement and water up the hill, built walls and plastered them. The volunteers lived on 3 dollars a day for dal bhat meals. Water was scarce and all that was available was saved to boil and drink.
Acquiring a three month visa for India, on June 20 2016 Justin entered Varanasi. He spent a week there wandering the streets, sitting at the Ghats by nights, and going on boat rides in the Ganga. He met a grey haired shirtless German man who was leading a semi ascetic life in India for over twenty years, and was quite struck by his stories, and the neat stash of flutes he kept. Justin bought a flute too, attached a piece of bamboo to it, to make a tool that served as a musical instrument, a walking stick, and a weapon to shoo street dogs away! His next stop was Delhi, where he got himself a Royal Enfield Bullet 500 and named it Shadow!
From Delhi, he rode to Dharamsala during the monsoons of 2016, and then took a little detour to Parvati Valley on July 22. His world was going to change very soon. The very next day he posted, that he wanted to live like a Sadhu for a while. “Not to renounce the world or for enlightenment, but to wander the Himalayas alone. If I get into trouble or run out of food, I can hike down to a village and get help or eat. I won’t die.” True to his word, he left from Kalga and trekked to a cave a little higher than Kheerganga.
He spent the next dew days living in the four foot high cave. Justin kept his cave clean, kept firewood stocked, and even had candles so that he could read. Every morning, he would hike down to the camps at Kheerganga and sit at the hot springs.
On one occassion, a sadhu named Satnarayan Rawat gestured him to join him in his stone walled hut, a little below the hot springs. He was dressed in just a dhoti and turban. In a later Instagram post, Justin spoke about his interactionswith Rawat. Justin informed his largely Western countries’followers that these sadhus or babas could see into your soul and know your past and future, that they could curse or bless and were holy wild men, even above the law. Smoking a strong mix of hashish and tobacco in a chillum, Rawat told him that he could do over eighty ancient Yoga asanas and proudly showed him a few, over the days. His wrists, elbows, knees had monstrous swellings. The Sadhu did not know English, so the conversations happened whenever there was an extra person who could translate.
Rawatspoke disparagingly about the clan of sadhus, declaring that many of them were fake, but called himself real. He had renounced both money and women, and had even cut off his penis. Justin seemed impressed by the man.
Justin returned to Kalga on August 12. But having had just one meal on most days during his stint in the cave, he was undernourished.
A few days later, the baba invited him to join him on a trek and a spiritual journey, to the glacial source of the Parvati river – Mantalai Lake. He wanted Justin to learn the ways of Lord Shiva himself. In what would be his last blog post, Justin wrote, “This Sadhu follows a strict spiritual routine that I know nothing about, and I am intensely curious. I want to see the world through his eyes, which are essentially 5,000 years old, an ancient spiritual path. I’m going to put my heart into it and see what happens. My back is in bad shape, I can’t even sit still for a few minutes without pain. Maybe Baba Life will be good for me.”
He ended the post by saying “I should return mid September. If I am not back by then, don’t look for me” and ended the post with a wink.
There was something a little strange about that post. Though reading Justin’s blog and Instagram posts, it feels that he revelled in making his adventures sound very risky, there seemed a bit of hesitancy in that last post which Justin never really exhibited in his writings before. Before setting out for the trek, he jokingly told a friend, “If I die, write something nice about me on Facebook.”
On August 22, Rawat, Justin and a porter set out for Mantalai lake. One out of the three men was never seen again.
Suzie (Justin’s mother) anxiously waited for over a month, but when she didn’t hear from him by end of September, she became frantic. One of Justin’s friends, Christopher Lee, in Kalga, decided to trek to Kheerganga and were surprised to find Rawat in his stone hut. On questioning him, the Sadhu became angry and said that Justin had parted ways with him, and had left with some trekkers to go higher up from Mantalai. Lee immediately filed a case in Manikaran police station.
Meanwhile Suzie had come down to India with another of Justin’s friends – Jonathan Skeels. They met with the American embassy in Delhi, and then headed to the mountains and filed a missing person’s report in Kullu police station. Two days later, Rawat was apprehended, and brought in front of Suzie and Skeels at the station. Here, he presented a different version, saying that once they had started trekking back from the lake, they sent the porter ahead to prepare food. Justin followed next, while Rawat stopped for a bit complaining of knee pain. When Rawat eventually reached the makeshift camp that the porter had set up, Justin wasn’t there. The two men chose to remain silent and trekked down to Kheerganga, not informing anyone.
Suzie struggled to remain composed, looking at the Sadhu in front of her. He definitely knew more than what he claimed to, and maybe had even killed her son.
The news spread in the valley, and soon three trekkers came forward saying they had met Justin and the Sadhu at Mantalai on September 3, and had even taken a photograph with the American. Justin had told them that he was hungry, tired and wanted to come back.
Pressured by the American embassy and Justin’s family, a helicopter (of the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh) was pressed into action, and Skeels and the policemen flew to the trail near Mantalai lake. When the police returned in the chopper, not having found anything, Skeels and a trekker who had volunteered to help, walked down the trail hoping to still find some clues, a month after Justin’s disappearance. The trail curved and narrowed, and the Parvati river at its most portent during the rains, fell into the valley ferociously. The two men searched near the rocks at the bank and at last, they saw a flute standing in the sand. Next to it was a grey scarf and a waterproof bag cover – all belonging to Justin. Up till that moment, Skeels has hoped that Justin was alive and would suddenly come back one day to everyone. But seeing his possessions, Skeels knew that he would never see his friend again.
Over the next month, the police favoured only those explanations that did not point to a murder of another foreigner in their district. Since his last post had said “don’t look for me”, they used that as a reason to file a report saying that he might have deliberately disappeared under the grid. Then, on October 21, 7 pm, the one police officer at the station stepped out to relieve himself, and in the five minutes he was outside, Satnarayan Rawat supposedly hung himself from his own dhoti inside the jail.
The whole episode reeked of foul play. With just days to go before the Sadhu’s release for jail, there seemed no reason for him to commit suicide. Suzie was devastated. She realized that with Rawat’s death, the last chance of knowing whether Justin had been killed or not, would never come out. Moreover, there were glaring botch ups when Rawat’s autopsy was done
The police closed the case soon terming the man “untraced”. Suzie returned to the US, heartbroken.
Nobody can say for certain whether Justin was killed, or if he truly wanted to disappear. The author feels hard to believe that he wanted to go off the radar. Reading through all his blogs, his posts on Instagram for over four years, it seems fairly obvious that though Justin loved to go off to remote corners of the world, lose himself amid tribes, camp in the wildest places, he also loved sharing all his stories online. He loved showcasing his stories in a manner that portrayed him a hero, and a number of them were about how he helped rescue a person or an animal. He was a true adventurer, but he wanted the world to know and appreciate that as well. Hard to believe that a man who thrived on his audience’s adoration, would deliberately disappear. Secondly, his biggest dream in India was to ride on his bike to Ladakh’s highest pass – Tanglang La. It also does not make any sense for Rawat to have killed himself if he knew that Justin had decided to go into hiding. It does not make sense for any foul play in Rawat’s death, if Justin had gone into hiding.
At the same time, it is not to say that he could not have disappeared. Maybe after years of meeting different tribes, he finally found a higher calling at Mantalai.
We shall never know. What we do know is that he became one more foreigner who disappeared in Parvati Valley. A year ago, in 2015, a polish backpacker called Bruno Muschalik went missing. Years ago, Ian Mogford of UK disappeared just days after telling his father on the phone that he had befriended a Sadhu.
In mid November, Skeels went down to the parking lot in Kalga, picked up Justin’s bike and to honour his friend set out on a ride to Ladakh’s Tanglang La pass. Strapped onto the back of the bike was Justin’s helmet. The Parvati river flowed on.