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Seeking Enlightenment, He Disappeared Into a Hiker’s Bermuda Triangle

It’s hard not to love Shetler on some level, for his innocence and limitations, 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 an Instagram post without a speck of irony before his fateful trek to Mantalai Lake. It’s always there, the revelation, up on top of the distant mountain, over by the glacial lake, around the bend and down by the river. Shetler’s a tireless pursuer of that ghost and willing to strip himself naked again and again, and follow anyone, to find it. And yet Rustad, who has written for publications like Outside magazine and is the features editor at The Walrus, a Canadian general-interest publication, is hunting bigger game here as he unfolds the story.

What animates Shetler? We learn that he’s the child of divorce, on the one hand having a father whose own experiences in India heavily influenced Shetler (as did their father-and-teenage-son partaking of hallucinogens) and a mother whose spiritual influence can be attributed to the Hindu-inflected Eckankar religion, birthed in the 1960s by Paul Twitchell, a onetime colleague of L. Ron Hubbard, promoting “soul travel,” the chanting of the word “Hu,” and a belief system said to have begun 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, borne by piecemeal spirituality, Shetler finds grounding in nature and in an assortment of writings 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, says: “It is a beacon for lost boys. It gets them so close to finding something that’s actually internal, but not quite. And then they get further lost, because it’s so confusing.”

Yes, of course, there’s a childhood trauma buried in here, which Rustad withholds until a perfectly timed moment. And there’s the slightest misstep when Rustad brings his own memories into the story, then seems to think better of it. This is easy to forgive because he’s such a sure-handed raconteur and we can’t look away from Shetler, the “introspective boy” who goes on to lead a punk band in Seattle, takes a job with a start-up making sweet coin, then tosses it all for his spiritual ministrations. While he soft-brags and self-promotes on social media — but never monetizes his shtick — he dances closer and closer to the frothing edge.

The book’s most interesting fulcrum, then, is Shetler’s compulsion to post and blog, to digitize himself even as he’s equally compelled to isolate and hermitize. He wants to be loved and admired, that seems certain. But he also appears to want solitude, to narrow the aperture of his mind to what matters. This is his central torment. Meanwhile, he’s trapped in a cycle of having to top himself for his followers, in some authentic way. The exercising of these contradictions leads to perhaps the most telling spiritual question: If you don’t post about a profound experience, did it really happen?

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