By Brad Wetzler
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This powerful memoir shares an adventure journalist’s story of a decade-long, round-the-world quest to overcome his drug addiction and to understand and heal from past traumas.
Suffering from PTSD and severe depression from past trauma, battling an addiction to overprescribed psychiatric medication, and at the rock bottom of his career, journalist Brad Wetzler had nowhere to go. So he set out on a journey to wander and hopefully find himself—and the world—again.
Into the Soul of the World is Wetzler’s thrilling, impactful, and heartrending memoir of healing—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. An adventure journalist at heart, Wetzler mixes travelogue with empowering insights about his inner journey to better care for his own mental health. Journey with him as he travels across Israel and the West Bank, before moving on to India, a candle-lit cave on a mountaintop in the Himalayan foothills, and a life-changing encounter with a 100-year-old yogi.
Wetzler’s writing is full of the poignant, amusing, and occasionally heart‑breaking situations that unfold when we finally decide to confront depression (or any mental health struggle) and declare ourselves ready to heal: How do we heal our past and thrive again? What does it mean to live a good life? How can we transform our suffering and serve others? His answer: live to tell the story and find the humility and courage to be the best human you can be.
A MOUNTAIN OF A STORY
The first time I heard from our writer on Everest after the 1996 tragedy, I was seated at my desk, nibbling on a green chili breakfast burrito and reading the New York Times online. My computer’s screen was filled with plane crashes and small wars in far-off nations. President Clinton grappled with gay people in the military.
My sunny, light-filled office on the second floor of Outside magazine’s southwestern-themed building felt peaceful in comparison. It was just before 9 a.m. A cool morning breeze moved through my open balcony door—that clean mountain air. Across the street, I watched tourists posing for pictures next to an old train stop in the Santa Fe Railyard. Then the phone rang. I almost didn’t pick up. Unless I was expecting a call, I rarely answered before nine.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that voice, which I recognized as soon as he spoke.
Today, author and journalist Jon Krakauer’s first words still rattle around my head like lost dice. I would have known his efficient, clipped tone if he’d been speaking into one of those homemade toy phones made from two plastic cups linked by ten feet of kite string—or the distance of an ocean.
“Jon?” I gripped the phone tightly and pulled on the cord, trying to move it a few inches toward the door so I could take the call on the sunny balcony under the famous New Mexico sky, big and dotted with perfect-looking clouds, the mountains rising in the distance. I wanted to feel more connected—or at least less disconnected—to this writer who had just survived the deadliest day on the world’s highest mountain while reporting a story for the magazine.
“Wait a second.”
I was confused. The last I’d heard through Mark Bryant, the editor of Outside, my boss, and, in those days, Krakauer’s editor and primary contact on all his stories for the magazine, our writer had made it safely back to base camp after a fast-moving blizzard pounded the granite peak on a day when dozens were descending from the summit. The storm had caught the climbers off guard. Some never made it off the summit ridge while others hurried toward their campsite down dangerous slopes in whiteout conditions. Some climbers made it back to their tents. But others become confused and lost and froze to death or fell off the mountain’s steep slope. Eleven climbers were either dead or missing and presumed dead. We editors eventually learned that Jon had made it safely back to his tent, and a few days later, we learned that he had arrived back at base camp. From there, we thought he’d have to trek back out to civilization. So, we weren’t expecting to hear from him for more than a week. Which is why I was confused, and overwhelmed, but more than anything else, relieved to hear his voice. He was alive.
“I’m in Kathmandu. I’m at a hotel.”
He then explained that instead of trekking back out he and the other climbers had been picked up by a helicopter at Pheriche, a village with a small hospital about eight miles from Everest base camp.
“Fucking A, Jon. I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear your voice. I know this is a stupid question, but are you okay?” It was the only question I could think to ask.
I tried to picture the best-selling author of Into the Wild, a consummate adventure writer, and a longtime contributor to our magazine, in the aftermath of what he’d just gone through. Of course, I had zero ability to relate to the traumas he’d experienced. I’d sat on my ass in a climate-controlled office for the past eight weeks worrying while he’d bled and suffered in more ways than I could comprehend.
I listened as he filled me in on a few details of the scene on the mountain after the storm and the conditions of some of the climbers with whom I was familiar.
“Fuck,” I said.
As I spoke, I felt a wave of emotion and even fought back a tear.
Why? I’m not sure. I didn’t know Krakauer. We had spoken only a handful of times, primarily during the six months before the climb when I was working the phones to try to land him on a commercial guided climbing team. Moreover, I and the other editors bore no responsibility for his safety, and none of us could take any credit for his success on the mountain. The idea to climb to the summit of Mount Everest had been a thousand-percent his. As Mark recently told me: “Our idea was to have somebody of Krakauer’s credibility cover Everest’s growing commercialism from base camp. We certainly didn’t aspire to put one of our writers’ lives at risk by going to the top.”
Furthermore, we editors hadn’t done an ounce of the real work. We hadn’t put ourselves in exceedingly dangerous places. Nor had we suffered a whit. And yet… I was flooded with emotions, and even today I’m not sure why. I guess it was because I had expended significant emotional capital worrying about him. All of us editors had. And this: on some barely conscious level, I, a thirty-year-old associate editor who was taking this call from Krakauer because Mark wasn’t available, suspected that the climbers who survived that brutal storm on Mount Everest on May 10, 1996, would have a difficult time healing from the trauma and finding peace. If ever they did.
But this moment wasn’t about me. This phone call, this magazine story. None of it was about me. Though I admit: I have often lost sight of this reality.
We continued talking for another few minutes. He told me a little about what he’d been through, and then he said he had plans to start writing very soon after he returned to Seattle.
“No, no, I spoke with Mark about this. He said to tell you that you can take all the time you need. I mean, you could wait a year to write this story. We don’t care. Just get home and get rested and recovered. We can talk in a few weeks or longer.”
“Do you know if Mark’s around?” Jon usually consulted only with Mark.
“I haven’t seen him.”
I looked down at the project management folder that contained nearly two years of notes, clipped articles, and correspondence from guiding companies, and became lost in thought. Since my first days as an intern at the magazine, I had been an armchair Everest buff, reading books, watching videos, and keeping tabs on each climbing season. Why? I’m not sure I know. This is just what I do. I become obsessed; I go down rabbit holes. Eventually, I got promoted to assistant editor and became the maven of the magazine’s adventure beat. I began keeping a file about Everest. Soon my file grew thick with articles and written notes from my interviews with various Everest experts. Some of these experts kept telling me that we editors should send a writer to Everest to write about the rise of commercially guided expeditions. Several new outfits were advertising their services and promising potential clients they’d do the hard work of setting ropes, carrying heavy gear, making camp, calling the tactical shots—practically everything except the actual climbing. The cost to the client: $65,000.
Eventually, during the winter of 1993–1994, I wrote a story pitch in which I’d argued that we should get a writer to base camp sooner than later: “Eventually, the shit will hit the fan,” I stated. I delivered the pitch in an editorial meeting in the conference room of our offices then located in downtown Chicago. At the end of the pitch, I suggested we consider both mountaineering writer Greg Child and Jon Krakauer as potential writers.
That far tamer Everest story was largely forgotten. It never happened. But I remained vitally interested in all things Everest. We did offer it to Krakauer in March 1995, but he turned it down. And then he surprised us all when later he called Mark and said that he would go to Everest if we got him on a team and that he wanted to try to climb to the top.
I was beyond thrilled when I heard this. This was even better. Practically all of us at the magazine began working toward making this story happen. And Mark was kind enough to anoint me chief shepherd of the nascent project. Thus, Krakauer called me when he couldn’t track Mark down.
I must have spaced out ten seconds. When I drifted back to reality, Krakauer was ready to get off the phone. “Gotta go, Brad.”
“Okay, well. Take it easy on yourself. You’ve been through a lot.” As if this seasoned mountaineer and journalist needed life advice from me.
Thus began the final chapter of my six-year career as an up-and-coming editor at one of the nation’s most respected, award-winning magazines. In my work as editorial project manager of the Everest story, I had primarily made a lot of phone calls. I’d helped get Krakauer a place on a premiere mountain guiding company. Other than that, I’d prayed a lot for his safe return. But today, when I look back on the spring and summer of 1996, I can see that I got pretty jacked up on raw exuberance. I also became poisoned by my own inner grandiosity. In my head, I was already writing my own press releases. I believed my involvement in this Everest story would help me fulfill my dream of becoming an adventure writer myself. As the summer wore on, I shepherded Krakauer’s story through the editorial process at Outside. I reviewed the manuscript when it landed on my desk, oversaw the team of fact-checkers and the creation of the two-page graphic sidebar. I found myself being interviewed on camera for ABC News at Mark’s request. A month later, Mark promoted me to senior editor. And after the story appeared on newsstands in the September 1996 issue of Outside with bold lettering that read “The Story on Everest,” I sat for dozens more radio, TV, and newspaper interviews. I began receiving phone calls from editors of other magazines offering me writing assignments for adventure-related stories. I had it all figured out; it had never been my goal to become a great editor of adventure stories; my goal was to be the adventure writer himself.
In early November, about three months after “Into Thin Air” appeared on newsstands, I gave Mark my notice, packed my Outside office into boxes, thanked my boss and the rest of the staff, and set up a home office in the new house I shared with Di, my wife. If now wasn’t the perfect time to make my break and step into the life of my dreams, full of adventurous travel to exotic places, when would the right time be? In this moment, becoming a great adventure writer felt like more than just a dream—it felt, excuse the hyperbole, like my destiny.
It all sounds so logical and reasonable now. As I organized my new home office, there was one memo I didn’t get or at least didn’t read. If only I’d spent more time studying the writings of Freud and Jung, or at least just looked up the word destiny. If I had, I might have learned that destiny, it turns out, is a future scenario, one’s destination. We can dream about our destiny, the place we’d like to end up. But we cannot escape our fate, a word I should also have looked up, something a tad more twisted and dark. Fate is what the universe has planned for us, and its synonym, somewhat appropriately, is doom. If becoming a successful adventure writer was my destiny, then losing everything—my wife, my house, my money, my career, my sanity, and nearly my life within ten years of the publication of “Into Thin Air”—was my fate.
I never could have imagined that within that decade, due to undiagnosed, untreated PTSD and complex PTSD, I would be brought to my knees by visually graphic and other times purely emotion-driven flashbacks. I would end up too depressed to carry on and numbed out on a massive cocktail of twenty-three psychotropic pills per day. I could never have anticipated that I would become a housebound zombie, living off government disability checks, or that, much later, I’d try to pull my life together by reimagining myself as a spiritual seeker on the road to redemption across the Holy Land. I certainly never could have predicted that I’d temporarily abandon my writing career to become a headband-wearing yoga teacher. Or that I’d be twice divorced and endure the Mother of All Midlife Crises.
How could I have foreseen that I would one day kneel at the feet of a hundred-year-old yogi in a cave in the Himalayas and that he’d bless me by literally smacking me on the head, leading to a twelve-hour mystical experience during which the curtain of the universe was pulled back for me, and I saw the unification of All?
As I sat in my office the day of that call, I thought I was building the foundation for a solid career as a journalist and travel writer. Who knew where that could lead, but lectures, books, fame, and material wealth were certainly my hoped-for destiny. I had no idea that I was a broken man, doomed to external adventures that were humbling and humiliating, as well as a man fated for a decade of challenging inner work needed to heal and finally make sense of my life.
All of this happened to me.
And I’m still here to tell the story.
THE RIVER (IS EVERYWHERE)
Every adventure writer worth his salt knows that a story evolves over time. You don’t set out knowing exactly where to begin. You must first hack at it, bully it, move through it, play with it. You must fight your way through the messy middle. You must bring forth the crisis, the climax, the resolution, all of it, and then you must write the ending. Or take your first stab at the ending. Then and only then do you have the clarity of mind to see a story’s true beginning.
So, fuck fate. Fuck doom. Fuck hubris, and fuck Icarus, too. Maybe I did leave the starting gate too fast and hard. But this story is not about those themes. It’s not about Everest or Jon Krakauer either.
This story is about faith. It’s also about other words—adventure, trauma, addiction, and how we humans heal. But I argue that faith is inherent in all of it.
And so, the story’s truest beginning is this:
May 1978, and I was twelve years old. The morning fog was lifting on the sandy bank of Arkansas’s White River. I climbed into an aluminum canoe and carefully walked to the seat at the bow. I lifted the plastic paddle and held it in my hand, feeling the weight of the blade and the texture of the ridged grip. I felt anxious, even queasy, remembering the grim face of a visitor at our campsite the previous evening. “It’s rained nonstop for over a week,” he warned. “This on top of a very wet spring. The river is too high to run right now. I can give you your money back, and you can stay at a hotel in town. Last weekend, three parties wrapped their canoes around trees, bent in half. They barely made it out alive.”
Or was I more disturbed by the near unanimous reaction of the fathers who stood listening? One voiced what all seemed to be thinking: “Thank you for your advice, but we’ve come too far not to run. We will be fine.” I felt so anxious after this that I barely slept. And now my stomach fluttered, and my limbs buzzed with anxiety. I glanced over my shoulder and watched my dad step into the canoe and sit at the stern. Handsome, six feet tall, imposing. Throughout my life, I watched as strangers asked him whether he was Mario Andretti or Senator Gary Hart. A lawyer with a big, politically connected law firm in suburban Kansas City, he spoke with certainty about how the world worked, how business worked, how life worked. I noticed that a lot of younger, less successful men looked up to him. But over time, I also noticed that he looked down on many of the men who worshipped him.
We pushed off. The canoe glided away from the shore toward the river’s main channel. The current grabbed the narrow, aluminum boat and began to push us downriver sideways, and I heard my dad voice his frustration.
“God darn it. Paddle, Brad.”
I was paddling.
The next thirty seconds were, in retrospect, comical, although they didn’t feel that way at the time. My dad, whom I’d only been in a canoe with once before, struggled to control our direction. We floated sideways, and then we swung akimbo and slightly backward, before our boat corrected and we headed downstream. I looked back at the sandbar where the other fathers and sons were laughing at us. Not that they were any better. Just about every canoe before and after us did the same thing.
As our boat straightened out, my father reminded me of something that he’d said four or five times already that morning.
“You are the power, Brad. If you don’t paddle hard, I can’t steer us.”
I dug my blade into the river and paddled hard. Years later, when I worked as a camp counselor in Maine and learned how to paddle a canoe solo, I learned that my dad’s adage was incorrect. The person in the stern must know how to steer a canoe on their own, regardless of how hard the kid in front is paddling.
But on that day, I focused on paddling hard. It was my job, and I was an earnest kid, and I intended to do it well. And, like any kid, I wanted to make my father proud.
We spent the morning canoeing like Laurel and Hardy. We entered rapids sideways, backward, always to the refrain, “You’re not paddling hard enough.”
By noon, I was beginning to catch on. I was paddling hard enough. Was it possible that my dad didn’t know what he was doing? But I didn’t dare say that. So I kept paddling and kept assuring him I was paddling hard.
We stopped on a sandbar for lunch, and then we launched our canoe again. We came to a downed tree that had fallen during the spring heavy rains. We portaged around it and then set the canoe back in the water and pushed off again. As we had in the morning, we entered the channel going sideways. Only at this place, the river was running faster and deeper.
“Paddle harder, Brad. You’re not giving me the power I need to steer the boat.”
I dug in harder and pulled the paddle back and through.
But we kept going sideways. The current lifted the right side of the canoe, gravity pulled it back down, and water poured over the side, first slowly, then rapidly. Before I could take a breath, the current dumped us over. I felt my balls constrict into my abdomen, and I couldn’t catch my breath. And then, eventually, my body got used to the cold water. As I floated downstream, I felt weightless. My dad drifted toward the bank. I spotted him crawling out of the water on his hands and knees. But I kept drifting farther away from the banks. I felt free.
Then I felt a massive jerk and my head plunged underwater. I feared I would drown right then and there. But then my head surfaced. I took a massive, gasping inhale only to be plunged under the water once again. Okay, now I am going to die, I thought. But again, my head surfaced, and this time it stayed above water. I was terribly confused. I tried to look behind me, but my life jacket was in the way. I felt something hard against my torso. I touched it with my hand—a tree, with sharp, broken branches. I put two and two together and concluded that my lifejacket had snagged on a submerged log. I was stuck and I was in pain. The current pressed my skinny, twelve-year-old body into the log, and at the same time it clawed at me, begging me to be free. I looked over at my father. He stood on the bank, motionless, staring back at me.
I felt calm. Why? I wondered. I felt out of time, as if I were watching myself stranded on a log in a parallel universe.
I spent the next few minutes in this Zen-like state. Then I began to feel again—fear and frustration. I looked down at my father. He was still on the bank. Aren’t you going to do something? He seemed incapable of movement, entirely stuck in his own fear. I hope that’s what was happening for him. The alternative, that he chose not to rescue his son, would be too difficult to comprehend.
A few more minutes must have passed. Fear turned to rage. I looked up at the sky and pleaded with God to save me. Nothing. Of course, God wasn’t going to save me: he didn’t save his own son when he was dying on the cross. I felt the log shift underneath me. I feared I would be pulled under again. Then I was, eyes and mouth sealed shut, arms flailing, grabbing, to no avail. And suddenly, thankfully, I could breathe and see again. But I was still stuck. Where’s my dad? Is he getting help? I felt lost and hopeless. Trapped. Abandoned. Utterly alone. Totally fucked.
Thirty-three years later, I can see and feel everything as clearly as when it happened. The memories have not faded with time. I hear the clunk of a canoe striking the log and the back of my head. I feel a blunt strike against my shoulders and neck. I hear my friend Bill’s dad shouting. I see his arm reach for me but miss. And then, I am free. I feel free. Freer than I’ve felt before. My head hurt. My side hurt, and I later noticed cuts and bruises that lasted a week. But none of that mattered, because I was free, floating down the river, suspended and somehow safe.
Today I believe I understand what my father really meant when he said, “You are the power”: I have zero idea what I’m doing in this here canoe. I don’t know how to steer. I don’t know how to read a raging river. So, kiddo, it’s up to you. Oh, and guess what, son? If we tip over, it will be your fault.
Ron Morris, our group’s leader, scooped me up and set me in the bottom of a boat, where I lay crying. And then I heard my father’s voice: “Get up, son. You’re fine.”
And on one level he was correct. I’d only suffered cuts and bruises—albeit deep bruises that ached for a week as I tried to focus on my seventh-grade classes at school—but I was definitely not fine. And there’s a real way in which I would never be fine from that day forward.
That evening, while our exhausted group of boys and fathers sat around a campfire, our leader, Ron Morris, led us in a prayer of thanks to Jesus for saving me from drowning. I stared into the flames, tears welling in my eyes. I didn’t feel fine. I never felt at home in nature again. I never felt at home in my own body again. Freud wrote that we will unconsciously gravitate toward the very things that wounded us. We try and try and try to have a better experience. I became an adventure-travel writer, even though I had a difficult relationship with nature. I tried to outrun myself, my own body. Looking back, it was all a big cosmic setup. I put myself in situations that would traumatize me as an unconscious attempt to heal. I found myself stranded in remote campsites in roadless regions. Or on planes to far-off places in nature where I would have little control over outcomes. Trauma was layered up on trauma. And that’s when I turned to a psychiatrist. Unfortunately, this one had a penchant and a reputation for overmedicating his clients. I took pill after pill until I was taking more than twenty tablets and capsules per day and barely left my own house.
The last thing I want to do is throw my father under the bus in my story. Even from where I sit, I can acknowledge that he’s not a bad man, although he does have a difficult relationship with the truth. And today, despite many requests for a conversation about our shared history, we have never resolved our disparate experiences and memories about that day on the river. But the lie that hurt me most came the night we returned home from the canoe trip. I ran toward my mother to tell her about my ordeal on the submerged log—those minutes of feeling trapped, as if I might die.
“Honey, Brad’s exaggerating. Nothing like that happened. His shirt got snagged on a twig.”
My shirt got snagged on a twig. I knew that wasn’t true. And if that had been the case, why didn’t Dad bother to saunter out into the placid waters and unhook said shirt? “Your shirt got snagged” became his mantra about that canoe trip for the next forty years. A decade later, I received confirmation of my inner reality when I ran into Ron Morris at a Kansas City Royals baseball game and he told me how terrified he’d been watching the near-drowning from his boat many yards downstream.
"As a far-flung journalist and celebrated editor, Brad Wetzler has led the very definition of an adventurous life, but in Into the Soul of the World, he gives an unflinching account of his interior adventures. Wetzler's soulful quest, by turns anguished and transcendent, will resonate with readers around the world who struggle to find purpose and a sense of the holy in the ambient jitter of the digital age."—Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers
"Reading Brad Wetzler’s Into the Soul of the World is like embarking on a thrilling, dangerous journey—rivering straight into the heart of what matters most—to find yourself transformed. Ever the seeker, Wetzler wrestles with dark family secrets and triggered trauma, redefining what it means to be a man and spiritual being living in the twilight of our hyper-American materialism. If Into the Soul of the World belongs on a shelf next to Eat, Pray, Love, what lingers is Wetzler’s relentless audacity to try to tell the truth, however uncomfortable—about families and lovers and our times—In hopes of setting himself, and us, free."—Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Alpert and The Telling Room
"In the age of toxic masculinity, Brad Wetzler's Into the Soul of the World offers a powerful, profound, and deeply personal road map for actively cultivating a different kind of manhood. Through energetic and lively prose, Wetzler takes us inside the heart and mind of a man who refuses to conform to society's restrictive notion of manhood, and instead presents a new path for men to walk." —Emily Rapp Black, author of The Still Point of the Turning World
"I've followed Brad Wetzler's travels around the globe with envy and admiration for more than two decades. He lived the dream. He also was living a lie, one that nearly destroyed him. Into the Soul of the World is his beautiful, terrifying, and witty travelogue, an essential chronicle of a life-saving journey into oneself."—Mark Adams, author of Tip of the Iceberg
"A tale of heart-wrenching honesty and, ultimately, liberating compassion, this is a book that will change the lives of those yearning to find their own way back into the soul of the world."—Sarah Bird, author of Last Dance on the Starlight Pier
"Brad Wetzler is a born storyteller and a true seeker. His beautiful book reads like a trip to hell and back, with glimpses of paradise along the way. Wetzler is willing to climb the mountain, swim the river, crawl into the cave: whatever it takes to get some truth. As a result, Into the Soul of the World is an exhilarating read--an honest record of an adventurous life and a moving window into the soul of a human being."—Clint Willis, journalist, editor, and author of The Boys of Everest
"Into the Soul of the World is full of an admirable power and urgency. A part of the book’s soul is how wide-ranging the story is in its exploration of trauma, bringing in not only psychology but an intelligent and sensitive telling of Wetzler’s own life, along with many fascinating religious, spiritual, and philosophical excursions.”—David Gilbreath Barton, psychotherapist and author of Havel: Unfinished Revolution
"After three decades of writing adventure stories, Brad Wetzler now delivers the ultimate adventure: a brave, big-hearted journey through trauma to self-transformation. For anyone and everyone faced with similar challenges, this is not just a book; it's a lamp to illuminate the rocky, painful, redemptive path forward."—Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code and The Culture Code
“A quest for healing, one adventure at a time.”—The New York Post
- On Sale
- Mar 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Go