It’s hard not to love Shetler on some level, for his innocence and his limits, for his search for the elusive epiphany that will reveal all and soothe his broken self. “I’m going to put my heart into it and see what happens,” reads Instagram without the slightest irony ahead of his fateful hike to Lake Mantalai. It’s still there, the revelation, on top of the distant mountain, by the glacial lake, around the bend and down the river. Shetler is a tireless pursuer of this ghost and willing to strip again and again and follow anyone to find him. And yet Rustad, who has written for publications like Outside magazine and is the editor of The Walrus, a Canadian general interest publication, is hunting the biggest game here as he unravels the story.
What drives Shetler? We learn that he is the child of a divorce, having on the one hand a father whose own experiences in India heavily influenced Shetler (as did their father and teenage son using hallucinogens) and a mother whose spiritual influence can be traced to the Hindu-influenced Eckankar religion, which originated in the 1960s from Paul Twitchell, a former colleague of L. Ron Hubbard, promoting “soul travel”, the chanting of the word “Hu” and a belief system that is said to have started when an essence known as Gakko came to Earth six million years ago from the city of Retz on Venus.
In the tumult of this early life, carried by a fragmentary spirituality, Shetler found an anchor in nature and in an assortment of writings ranging from Jack London to Thoreau. He is sent to the Tracker School in New Jersey, of all places, where days are spent in the woods of the Pine Barrens, moving with and like animals. Describing the school, an old friend, Tracy Frey, said, “It’s a beacon for lost boys. It brings them so close to finding something that is actually internal, but not quite. And then they get lost even more, because it’s so confusing.
Yes, of course there is childhood trauma buried here, which Rustad holds back until a perfectly timed moment. And there’s the slightest misstep when Rustad brings his own memories into the story, then seems to think about it better. It’s easy to forgive because he’s such a confident storyteller and we can’t take our eyes off Shetler, the “introspective boy” who leads a punk band in Seattle, takes a job with a startup that make money. , then throws it all away for his spiritual care. As he gently brags and promotes himself on social media — but never monetizes his shtick — he dances closer and closer to the foaming rim.
The most interesting fulcrum of the book, then, is Shetler’s compulsion to publish and blog, to digitize himself, even as he is also forced to isolate and isolate himself. He wants to be loved and admired, that seems certain. But he also seems to crave solitude, to reduce the openness of his mind to what matters. It is his central torment. Meanwhile, he’s trapped in a cycle where he has to outdo himself for his followers, in a genuine way. Exercising these contradictions leads perhaps to the most telling spiritual question: if you’re not posting about a profound experience, has it really happened?