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Death on the Hippie Trail

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After spending the final weeks of summer camped in a stooped, square-mouthed Himalayan cave, Justin Shetler was tired. The 35-year-old American outdoorsman had walked away from a job at a tech startup three years earlier, blogging about his growing unease with a life defined by stale luxury and high-end hotels. Since “retiring,” as he put it, in 2013, Shetler had set off on a series of daring journeys, donning a bark loincloth to hunt alongside Indonesia’s Mentawai tribe and trekking in duct-taped flip-flops across Tibetan snow passes. Then he bought a Royal Enfield motorcycle and started for India’s famed mountains.

On his blog, Adventures of Justin, videos, podcasts, and photos chronicled his excursions, with Shetler’s long, sinewy frame posed artfully against spectacular backdrops: blurred, chalky stretches of shimmering desert; hulking green mountain ranges rippled with white snow. “I’m a nomad, adventurer, and ninja of sorts,” his Instagram bio read, “currently living in a cave in India.” The sporting tone of his prose drew a motley of envious followers on social media. “I am truly moved by your adventurous wild ninja story,” one commenter wrote.

Shetler’s final entry came this past August. “A Sadhu has invited me on a pilgrimage,” he posted.

Cold, weak, and underfed, Justin was steeling himself for one last adventure in Himachal Pradesh, a North Indian state popular with trekkers, hash-smokers, and spiritual seekers, before pushing on, by motorbike, to nearby Ladakh. The sadhu, or Hindu ascetic (known colloquially as a baba), had invited Shetler to follow him on a weeklong hike to the holy lake of Mantalai. “The trail is notorious and it’s landslide season,” he reported. “I should return mid-September or so. If I’m not back by then, don’t look for me,” Shetler added, signing off with an emoji wink.

I spent the fall meandering through the same region as Shetler, in the scenic valleys of Kullu and Parvati on the way from Ladakh, taking time to write up a few articles I had spent the summer researching. Known alternately as the “hash trail” or the “hummus trail” (with an overlapping demographic in mind), the mountain route is clogged with backpackers in high season. Summertime vibes are festive, even giddy. Thousands climb the hills for bacchanalian full-moon parties, where DJs with names like Space Buddha and Mountain Monk spin psychedelic trance music. Others, like Shetler, come to ape the lives of local sadhus—followers of the formidable, three-eyed god, Shiva—squatting in stone caves and tree hollows.

But the region is not just a hippie haven. Since 1998, more than 20 foreigners have gone missing from the hills, and most disappearances remain unsolved. Tourist traffic continues despite Parvati Valley’s ominous, Lonely Planet–christened nickname: the Valley of Death.

A cave in Kheerganga, now empty but usually inhabited during warmer months by travelers or sadhus.

By the time my overnight bus bounced me down the mountains back to Delhi at the start of October, Shetler’s family had sounded the alarm, mounting a GoFundMe campaign to launch a search party. “He left with a holy man on or about the 24th of August,” the page read. After running into a few trekkers on his return from Mantalai on Sept. 3, he was never seen again. “I’ve heard stories about the magical powers of these Babas,” Justin had written in an Instagram post. “They can bless or curse. … Police won’t arrest them; even for murder, which happens I’m told.”

His sadhu guide, a middle-aged, Nepali-born holy man by the name of Satyanarayan Rawat, was nonetheless taken into police custody. Then came a sinister second act. A guard returned from a quick bathroom break to find the baba dead, hanging from the top bar of his tiny holding cell by his langot, a traditional Indian loincloth. It was all the guards had left on him throughout eight days of interrogations.

The news shook the region, bringing the hilltop state’s hotbed of contradictions—a mix of drugs, spirituality, and politics—to the fore. Shetler’s disappearance set off a firestorm of panicky tweets—#LostinParvati—and, later, an outpouring of digital eulogies. A prolonged forensic search concluded that Shetler had fallen into river rapids—but whether he was pushed or had tripped, no one knew.

The subinspector doubts that the baba killed Shetler

Shetler and I were distantly connected—a friend of my mother’s knows his family well—and traveled through the same places at the same time, but we never met. Still, the case obsessed me, likely on account of our parallels. For two months, I pored over news reports and Shetler’s own entries, looking for answers. Finally, this December, I decided to go back up into the mountains. On a frigid, foggy morning, I drop by the police outpost in Manikaran, a holy village renowned for its hot springs, where Rawat lived out his grim, final days. A small space heater glows red in the inspector’s well-furnished office. Down the hall, the cold, shadowy cell where the baba died now holds a new inmate lying stone-faced on blankets on the floor.

Shetler’s exploits are well-documented, but all I knew of the baba was from Shetler’s last blog entry, a dim, somewhat mythologizing portrait—he describes the baba’s eyes as “5,000 years old”—of a kindly, mute figure (they shared no common language) who taught Shetler yoga and supplied him with chapatis and tea once he had run out of money.

Pulling out a battered file, the subinspector relays Rawat’s brief life story. Disfigured by a skin disease, the baba claimed his wife and family had abandoned him in Nepal. (In his blog, Shetler assumed that the humps of flesh around his joints were the result of rigorous yoga practice.) A distraught Rawat wandered around India, was initiated by a sadhu, and came to Kheerganga the previous spring to begin his life as a hermit. In Hindu belief, the mountaintop retreat—named after kheer, or Indian rice pudding, on account of its fast-flowing river’s milky rapids—served as the honeymoon spot of Shiva and his divine consort, Parvati, and is imbued with power.

The subinspector doubts that the baba killed Shetler. He thinks that the social stigma of arrest drove him to suicide—that shame, not guilt, motivated his desperate actions. Sitting up in a plush, tiger-print chair, I ask if the baba had been beaten during interrogations. “No, no,” a young constable demurs. I persist. “Not at all?” “Well, sure,” he answers. “Slapped around two or three times.”

In India, a controversial judicial magistrate called remand allows authorities to hold suspects in custody before they have been charged. During these detentions, beatings, torture, and coerced confessions happen frequently. The officer who questioned Rawat has been suspended. I wonder what duress the baba had been under during those eight long days.

In the village of Tosh, one of the region’s main hash hubs, I settle into a guesthouse stenciled with long, limping psychedelic mushrooms. In the common room, a bong plastered with fluorescent green Bob Marley stickers lies on a low table, and a poster tacked to one window exhorts guests to “Live for today … Party tonight!”

Himachal Pradesh is world famous for top-quality cannabis, with harder drugs in local circulation, and the drug trade is to blame for some of the region’s seedier elements. Sporadic raids on marijuana fields and cursory checks on the grungiest-looking tourists have done little to quash the lucrative trade. In Hindu lore, Shiva was a hash-smoker, giving drug use a spiritual scrim. Sadhus spend whole days in stoned fogs, ostensibly as part of their devotional practice. Tourists follow suit, packing chillums—long Hindu pipes—with inky black hashish. I hear many people say that both Shetler and Rawat were heavy hash users—the concentrated form of marijuana preferred in the area—and one of Shetler’s posts described plans to smoke “probably 20 chillums a day” during their trek.

With a wrestling match blaring on a tiny television, a conversation with a couple Indian guys up from the plains turns to the baba’s death, which they consider suspicious.

“People who smoke up don’t commit suicide,” one 20-something in black heavy-rimmed eyeglasses argues. Dim lights flicker on the dark, desolate hillside. In winter, only the most dedicated smokers brave the cold. “I’ve never even thought of suicide,” he adds, sucking on a huge, cone-shaped joint.

The next day, I make the 10-mile trek to Kheerganga, stumbling in the pitch-black forest by the light of a cellphone flashlight. On the way, an old woman with crinkled skin, wrapped in a gray woolen shawl, asks if I want to buy any hash. A half-moon glows through tall pines. Further up, a drunken man comes staggering down the path. He points to the brown stray dog who had been happily following me for a couple hours and warns against bringing her further. “Plenty of dogs disappear here,” he tells me. Dogs, too? He shrugs and mutters, “Kheerganga,” as though the name alone served as an explanation. Some time later, I find him sitting on a rock, overlooking the river rapids and repeating in a ragged, atonal shout, “Jai Bhole Shankar!” (“Hail Shiva!”)

In Kheerganga’s principal camp—a few wood-and-tarp structures gathered around a wind-lashed face of hill—I thaw by a café’s tandoor, or wood stove. The owner, Than, joins me on the floor, as does a bone-thin woman from Kiev, Ukraine—Lucia—with a sad, pretty face, wearing a dove-gray turban and a string of mala beads.

Over ginger lemon tea, I ask Than if he had known the baba, and a very different picture emerges. “He was a criminal,” he tells me. “He stole my tablas, then sold them back to me for 2,000 rupees,” he says. “He used to tell us he sold his property, his wife and children, to come here.” This sounds far-fetched, but Than waves my doubts aside. “Nepal is a very corrupt country,” he says. He asks why the baba never filed a police report if Shetler just wandered off and vanished, as the baba claimed. “He could have said, ‘Justin, prepare the chillum. I’m going to pee.’ Then smacked him in the head, thrown him in the river.” But why? Than shrugs. “For hash. He was addicted.”

On the wall, a giant mural depicts Shiva’s blue fist wrapped around a giant chillum, entwined with a slit-eyed cobra. Underneath, someone has crudely scrawled a white lotus, the political symbol for India’s ultranationalist, Hindu ring-wing government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.

“No one knows what’s cooking in someone else’s head,” Than says.

They think they are very independent, thinking India is a nice country

“To be truly free has been my dream since I was a young teenager,” wrote Shetler in his blog before setting off on his travels. Than, a registered tour guide, criticizes backpackers who eschew permits and registrations and comb the hills alone. “They do crazy things,” he says. “They switch off everything—mobile phone, everything. They think they are very independent, thinking India is a nice country. Nobody asks where they’re going, what they’re doing.”

By her side of the fire, Lucia starts to get agitated. “I would rather give money to a baba than an agency. I would be more safe.” Gamely, we ask why. “Because he knows what is life!” She sits back, triumphant.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” grumbles Than in Hindi. “What can you say to convince them?”

Later, Than tells me more about Lucia. “She doesn’t have any money, visa, you know. We give her food sometimes,” he says. Generous to a fault, Than’s staff even sets out biscuits for the rats that come out each night.

“So many times they save my life,” Lucia confirms, kissing her own open palm.

A “missing person” poster in a small cafe along the trekking route to Kheerganga advertises the disappearance of Bruno Muschalik, a Polish trekker who has been missing since the summer of 2015.

At noon the next day, sun fills the valley, the barren grass glowing gold. I trek up to a flat, boulder-strewn clearing, the annual summer meeting point for the Rainbow Gathering, a drug-fueled music festival. A long-extinguished bonfire lies empty, and the valley is quiet, save for the distant chatter of birds.

I see a young Indian guy lying on a mound of rock, basking in the sunshine. He’s wearing a faded black track suit and has long, shaggy hair past his chin.

He left Delhi in March for the hills—around the same time Shetler’s sadhu arrived in Kheerganga—and has been camping alone since then. “I remember the baba. I met him a few times,” he tells me. “He used to talk about Justin. Said there was a foreigner living with him, serving him. That they went to Mantalai together. He used to say, maybe Justin is still out there, wandering around. Or he went somewhere else. I don’t know.”

He pauses and stares at the frozen ground. “It’s a mystery. It’s two mysteries, in fact… But inside, I don’t think he killed him.”

He disappears down the hillside, and I take his spot on the rock. The facts tying Shetler and the baba together start to feel like a dream, their contours changing the closer I get. In any case, the case is closed—the trail cold now, iced over, still twisting and turning but leading nowhere.

For now, there is relief that the search is over. “There were many stresses, with police coming,” Lucia tells me back in Than’s camp. We watch the sky darken from behind flaps of plastic sheeting, the café’s makeshift window, and the room grows icebox cold.

Suddenly, the door flies open, letting in a frigid blast of air, and a strange, clipped voice trills, “Namasteeeeeeee!”

I make room on the ground for the new arrival, a young woman with curly, sandy hair. I can’t place the accent—an indeterminate French Israeli lilt—and ask where she’s from. “I am from Dharti Mata,” she announces grandly, using the Sanskrit term for Mother Earth. After a little more prying, I learn she is actually from Evanston, Illinois. “But I’ve been a nomad a long time.” She proudly informs us that she’s spent the past week meditating in a jungle cave. Years of travel have eroded her syntax. “Can I borrow didgeridoo?” she asks Than, retreating out the door. “I will treat like baby.”

In the cold café, tarp roof flapping under lonely winds, this foreign fondness for bare-bones living starts to seem a folly, even a curse. There are rumored to be thousands of foreigners hidden in the hills of Himachal who have shed passports and identities and survive with little more than basic necessities in a vast, harsh land. Perhaps my unease is showing. “You are traveler, yes,” Lucia tells me. “But you are city girl. You are home wife.”

Yet I warm to Lucia. She has been traveling for 15 years, leaving home after her older brother was murdered. This is her fifth time this year visiting Kheerganga. “Female, very important to come here,” she advises me, “to remember you are God.”

Like Shetler, she seems to be on an incomprehensible, solitary quest.

By the fire, Lucia starts singing a song from the 1951 Bollywood film Awaara, a black-and-white Raj Kapoor classic once popular in the Soviet Union. It is a haunting melodrama about a charming, woebegone thief. She stops and asks another traveler from Delhi to translate the Hindi title. “Awaara is like a tramp,” he explains, “a vagabond.” Lucia recoils. “No, no, I don’t like that word,” she shakes her head. “He’s a nomad. A walker. World walker! Everywhere is his home.”

She burrows deeper into her shawl. “I like life like this. Up and down. Up and down.”

Ariel Sophia Bardi
Ariel Sophia Bardi is a journalist and consultant based in New Delhi.
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