As a New York Times Book Review put it, author Harley Rustad does “what the best storytellers do” — that is, he tracks a story “to its last twig” and then steps aside. As generous and compassionate in conversation as he is in his written portrait of a man he never met, the author shares with us his intimate experience of researching the life and disappearance of Justin Alexander Shetler. Thank you for joining us for this fascinating hour with one of the most talented non-fiction writers of our time. Watch again here.

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In his 2016 award-winning debut Big Lonely Doug, Rustad tells the story of Canada’s second-largest tree, and all the history, controversy and complexity that surround it, and saved it (if not many of its friends). A features editor at The Walrus and an accomplished magazine writer whose new book began life as an article in Outside, Rustad is also a marvellous reader. Here, he explains how an apple got him through the audio recording of Lost in the Valley of Death.


An esteemed participant in the Writers’ Trust Mentorship Program, Rustad is currently mentoring rising star Raksha Vasudevan whose recent piece in Harper’s Bazaar tells her story of her journey to, well, tell her story.

“All this is to say, my family’s stories of family are not the same. I don’t know whose version is most true. What I do know is this: I’m tired of trying to find belonging and safety where there’s none to be found.” — Raksha Vasudevan, from her essay “The Many Meanings of Family Estrangement” January, 19, 2022, Harper’s Bazaar magazine


A recluse and a seeker, Justin Alexander was also an early social-media influencer. His Instagram account @adventuresofjustin remains active, his photos more eery and poignant than ever. As Rustad says, “…he was such a trained survivalist who could go off into the wilds and try to survive and try to see what he could find at those extremes, but he was also somebody who desperately sought connection and validation externally. And I think he found a lot of that through this, this, almost this character that he presented online.” Here is the last, ominous video he posted before his disappearance: “I just came down from the mountain and will soon head back. A Sadhu has invited me on a pilgrimage high in the Himalayas to meditate….

Himalayan Caves and The Naga Baba


While we might not be able to leave everything behind to embark on an actual knowledge quest, we can still explore the same books that inspired Shetler: Tom Brown Jr.’s The Tracker, Rolf Potts’s Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer, and the lone book Justin had with him in his Parvarti cave, The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. There are more sources meticulously listed in Rustad’s generous appendix in Lost in the Valley of Death.


BONUS CLIP: We would hate to spoil anything about Rustad’s remarkably crafted, meticulously reported portrait of a man he never met. But if you have had the pleasure of reading Lost in the Valley of Death, here is a bonus clip in which Rustad responds to questions about what he was able to uncover about Justin’s past – and the degree to which it might have determined the choices he would make.

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Join Us!

Wordfest’s Spring storytelling event The Way We Stay Rooted presents three writers whose books take us to the heart of the forest: Lyndsie Bourgon, Cal Flynn, and David George Haskell. Each will perform an open-mic style monologue followed by a Q & A  with series host, Pam Rocker. The hour-long Imagine On Air event starts at 7:00 p.m. MT (The pre-show starts at 6:50 p.m. MT.) The live-stream event is free – and if you RSVP, we'll send you a reminder on the day of the show, as well as our unique Digital Doggie Bag with a watch-on-demand link and bonus extras sparked by the conversations. (Thursday, June 9 @ 7 PM - 8 :15 PM MT. ONLINE).

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