Issue 8: Turmeric and olive oil loaf + Lost in the Valley of Death
A golden, green onion topped loaf, and a book about a mysterious disappearance and a search for meaning
Welcome to Good Book/Good Bread! Every two weeks, I recommend a book I love, and bake a delicious bread that fits with an aspect of the story. Haven’t subscribed yet? Sign up here!
This week: Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas by Harley Rustad, and a turmeric and olive oil loaf topped with green onions.
Part 1: Good Book
Lost in the Valley of Death by Harley Rustad
Setting the tone
Manchester by Kishi Bashi, here.
Why I was drawn to this book
Ever since I attended journalism school in my mid-twenties and was exposed to the power of true stories so wild you couldn’t make them up, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction. I like a range of topics, but the non-fiction books I gravitate towards most are about the outdoors and usually contain a lot of reporting. My friend sent me the review for Lost in the Valley of Death, and when I read that the region in northern India the book is focused on has been called the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ for backpackers, I was intrigued.
In a nutshell
Lost in the Valley of Death tells the story of Justin Alexander Shetler, an American traveler who disappeared in India’s Parvati Valley. After quitting a lucrative job in his early thirties, Justin Alexander, as he was known to his enthusiastic Instagram following, set out to travel the world. An experienced survivalist, he often sought out extremes and risk taking, and always made a point to experience new places as a traveler, not a tourist.
In 2016, Justin headed to the Parvati Valley, a mountainous region in the Himalayas known for attracting foreigners looking for a spiritual experience. It is also known as the area where at least two dozen foreign tourists have died or disappeared in the last 25 years. After a few weeks living in a cave, Justin set off on a trek into the mountains with a holy man he had been studying with, and never returned. As well as exploring the life and disappearance of Justin, Rustad also takes the reader into the history of Westerners looking to India for spiritual enlightenment and meaning, as well as into the lives and circumstances of other travellers who have vanished in the Parvati Valley.
Three things I liked about Lost in the Valley of Death
1. The time spent exploring the circumstances of others who have disappeared
One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the chapter that focuses on the history of foreign tourists disappearing in the Parvati Valley. This is a place where many travelers have vanished, yet bodies or personal belongings rarely turn up. “It’s not the deaths that make the Parvati valley unusual, it’s the disappearances into forest or mountain or valley with little trace,” Rustad explains.
This chapter recounts some of the cases of the missing travelers from around the world last seen or heard from in the Parvati Valley, and the many families still wondering what happened to their loved ones. The theories for the disappearances of travelers range from falling off cliffs or becoming lost while hiking, connections to the drug trade, being targeted by criminals in the remote area, or even a local serial killer. Others point to the history of foreigners who want to intentionally disappear heading to the Parvati Valley to fall off the radar, making a new life for themselves in the isolated hills. Are some of the disappeared alive in the area, not wanting to be found? This focus on the wider context of those going missing in this area really adds to the emotional weight and mystery of the story.
2. Rustad’s familiarity with the area
Rustad travelled to the Parvati Valley more than once for his reporting. On one of these trips, Rustad intentionally came at the exact same time of year that Justin had lived in his cave and embarked on his last hike. Rustad explains in his epilogue that he “wanted to see the valley as he had seen it.”
Rustad’s time spent in the Parvati Valley walking the same trails and visiting the same towns as Justin did is clear throughout the book. He is able to weave in granular details about the vegetation, the aesthetics of structures in the mountain hamlets, and seasonal variations in the Parvati River. When he explains what Justin’s first day on the hike he never returned from would have been like, he describes the deodar and walnut trees at the trailhead, the clamour of gray langur monkeys overhead, and the overpowering sounds of the cicadas and the Parvati River. I found this aspect of the book really powerful, with Rustad vividly bringing the reader into the setting Justin found so powerful.
3. It’s up to the reader to make their own conclusions about Justin
Rustad provides details about Justin through speaking to his mother, friends from his youth, coworkers, friends made travelling, and romantic partners. Through this, Rustad painstakingly gives as much information as possible about someone who was clearly very complicated, without making any kind of definitive declarations about what kind of person he was. This open-ended presentation of his intentions and motivations left me thinking about Justin for many days after I finished reading Lost in the Valley of Death.
“Stepping into the Parvati valley feels like stepping into a bucolic Himalayan sanctuary a world away from the din and bustle of cosmopolitan India. Trails spiderweb throughout the valley, terminating at temples and mountaintops, hidden glens and secret alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, waterfalls, and glacial lakes. Snow leopards appear out of clouds, Himalayan black bears with white moons on their chests lurk in the forests, and tusked musk deer and crescent-horned ibex roam. Tigers have even been seen skulking through the deep vales, padding through a land of medicinal plants and aromatic trees that perfume the air and through ancient forests of rhododendron that bloom in a blush of red or white. The valley is remote, isolated, and dramatically picturesque. Surrounded by such natural beauty, it is easy to imagine that if one follows the bumpy road that follows the holy river, some fragments of higher understanding or meaning will emerge within reach.”
If you like Lost in the Valley of Death, read this:
Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees by Harley Rustad
The Adventurer’s Son: A Memoir by Roman Dial
The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by John Billman
Part 2: Good Bread
Turmeric and olive oil loaf with green onions
Why this bread for this book?
This golden hued bread is full of turmeric, a warm, peppery spice that brightly colours whatever it is added to. It is used extensively in Indian cooking, and also has both medicinal and religious significance in India, dating back thousands of years. In the Hindu religion, turmeric is seen as auspicious and sacred, reflected in a wedding day tradition where a string is dyed yellow with the spice, and then placed around the bride’s neck by her groom. I thought this bread was a good fit for Lost in the Valley of Death because the loaf’s highlight is a spice with such ubiquity in India. This bread is also very quick to come together, the process straightforward, and since it is baked in a loaf pan it slices easily for sandwiches. I imagined someone like Justin, always on the move and preferring travel on foot and motorcycle, could cook this unfussy loaf and then pack it in a saddlebag or hiking pack before an adventure.
I used a recipe from a website called The Hungry Herbivores, which you can view here. A really nice touch I appreciated in this recipe is adding a couple of green onions, sliced lengthwise, on top of the loaf. They smelled amazing while baking, and the darkened onions combined with the bright dough colour made this bread really beautiful. The recipe calls for garlic powder, but I didn’t have any and lacked the motivation to drive into town to buy some, so I subbed in everything bagel spice. It worked really well, adding nice garlic flavour while flecking the dough with sesame and poppy seeds. I topped it with Maldon sea salt, and enjoyed a still warm slice with butter.
Works well with:
Hummus and cucumbers
Sliced hard-boiled eggs and avocado
Leftovers: I made a sandwich with leftover roasted broccoli, sausage and siracha
On my list
New book I’m looking forward to reading: Riverman by Ben McGrath
Bread I’m looking forward to baking: Sourdough focaccia
New album I’m looking forward to listening to while doing both of the above: (watch my moves) by Kurt Vile
Thanks for reading Good Book/Good Bread! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.