In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.
That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.
Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.
As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.
Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.
In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.
That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
It was inevitable, really. Mary Roach’s previous books have ostensibly been about sex, cadavers, the afterlife, and space travel, but each one has spent a fair amount of time on digestion, excretion, and highly topical fart jokes.
In her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach finally explores all that happens after you take that bite — not as an entertaining sideshow, but as the focus of 17 entertaining and occasionally bizarre chapters. Megacolons, stimulated saliva, death by constipation, and of course the scientists who study this stuff with aplomb (and an occasional apology): it is, as it were, all in there.
I interviewed her while she was in Seattle for her book tour.
The Millions: Your past work has focused on bringing topics that are creepy or lurid or awe-inspiring back down to earth. This one’s primarily about overcoming disgust. Did you find it challenging to make digestion and excretion palatable for your audience?
Mary Roach: Well, I think digestion is another lurid, taboo subject — particularly from the navel down. But even what goes on in the mouth is an unthinkable, revolting thing that no one wants to think about. There was a sense that this was right up my stinky little alley.
TM: Packing for Mars came out the same year that NASA retired the Shuttles and the Opportunity rover broke records for the longest Mars mission. Stiff came out around the same time that shows about forensic science became the hot new thing…
MR: And Six Feet Under.
TM: Right. Was there something that made you decide: yes, 2013 is the time to publish a book about the digestive tract?
MR: You know, I think the whole obsession with food had hit an unprecedented level, in terms of people photographing every meal and posting it on Instagram. Food has moved so far away from just a way to stay alive and take in sustenance to a point where it’s now almost high culture. So it makes sense to look past the borders of the lips and take a peek at what goes on after the food leaves the plate.
On the tour, my publicist set up events with people like Chris Kimball and Ted Allen, which makes for a really interesting conversation. We tend to elevate food to a sensual, cultural place, but for someone like Chris Kimball, he’s looking at food as chemistry. And eating is biology.
TM: Two of the most memorable people in your book were William Beaumont, the physician who made a career out of his patient’s stomach fistula, and Andries van der Bilt, the chewing scientist at Utrecht who will probably be the last researcher of his kind at the university. In other words, in the book you go from the early days of science virtuosos to very specialized people doing narrow and admittedly gross stuff. Is that how the field of gastro-intestinal science looks right now?
MR: It’s really hard to get funding for pure science just for the sake of figuring out how things work. It’s a lot easier to get funded if you have a practical application for things. Also, a lot of it’s been figured out.
I’m not a scientist, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I do get the sense that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know very much, and there isn’t an end point. So there’s always more to be done — there’s just not as much funding for it anymore. It’s more science in the service of the food industry.
But even in that world, there are characters like Erika Silletti, who are so awed and amazed by what they’re discovering. She has this infectious enthusiasm for…spit!
TM: You’re in the middle of your book tour now. What do you like to present at your events?
MR: I don’t do a lot of readings when I do talks. Some of them are billed as readings, but I wouldn’t call them that, really. I find that if you read to non-fiction to people for more than a paragraph, people will glaze over. So I’ll read footnotes.
Once of my favorite footnotes in Gulp is where I’m talking about per anum, which is through the anus, and per annum, which is yearly. And I did a Google search for instances where people meant per annum but wrote per anum, and that’s one of my favorites. How many childbirths occur per anum, that sort of thing.
TM: Do you find that people are more squeamish to ask you questions about the digestive tract than they were on your earlier book tours, when the topic was the afterlife or space?
MR: Oh no, no. Once you open the door for them, people want to know all kinds of things. Sometimes people want to know, “I have a mucoid plaque, can you tell me what to do,” and I have to say, “I don’t have an M.D., I can’t dispense medical advice — nor do I really want to.”
But people have great questions. The other day I was doing an author lunch at Google; people had a lot of questions about rectal smuggling.
TM: Early on in the book, you find out that your palate isn’t developed enough for you to be on a professional olive oil tasting panel. Any other potential avenues of research that never worked out?
MR: I wanted to go to Food Valley when someone was actually involved in an experiment, but I couldn’t seem to time it right. There were a couple subjects, but most were not particularly interesting. There’s someone there with a tube hooked in mouth, and it squirts in something that they’re tasting, and they make a note of it. It’s not particularly scintillating, and it didn’t make it into the book.
There’s a woman who studies pica (people who ingest non-food) and she studies in Zanzibar with women who eat a variety of clays. I wanted to do that, partly because I really wanted to go to Zanzibar — that really lies at the bottom of a lot of what I do, I really want to go there, what could I find there? — but it felt a little…off unto itself. When you go all the way to Zanzibar, you want to spend a lot of time on that subject, not just a few paragraphs.
TM: When you first started writing, I think one of your pieces was about the IRS. Then you moved on to the afterlife, cadavers, space travel. What sort of writers made you think, I want to write about things that are kind of out there, or that people might not think about all that often?
MR: The writer who I glommed on to and loved his style was Bill Bryson, when he wrote The Lost Continent. This was before A Walk in the Woods, before he started going huge. I remember reading his books, and I admired his ability to combine information and humor and character. It was inspirational. Every now and then I put a little homage to passages that really got in my head from writers like him, inside jokes to myself.
When I was writing Gulp, I had just read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and when she did something outrageous or pathetic, Mapplethorpe would say to her, “Patti, no.” And when I was with Sue Langston, who’s a sensory analyst — the nose woman — and I asked her, “if you had to choose between a Budweiser and an IPA right now, what would you choose?” and she said, “I would take the Bud,” and I said, “Sue, no.” That was my little homage to Mapplethorpe and that book.
TM: In 2011 you edited the Best American Science and Nature Writing, so I’m hoping you might pontificate about science writing in general for a second. When you write your books, or when you evaluate science writing, what are you looking for — what should a good science piece accomplish?
MR: I don’t know if the genre of “science writing” should really exist. We don’t classify “religion writing” or “political writing” as an entirely different register of writing. There’s such a wide range — material that simply explains, others that are strongly narrative. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you learn a lot about cell culturing, but it’s still primarily a story.
For that collection in particular, I tried to do a mix. The Atul Gawande essay, I thought, was beautiful. For someone in that community to stand up — or I should say, sit down and write — about how far the discussion about end-of-life care needs to go in order to really help people. And then the Oliver Sacks piece about prosopagnosia, he’s just a wonderful thinker/writer, he’s more reporting rather than recommending.
For me, there are a lot of valid ways to write about science, and when I was judging that book it was really just what pulled me in and kept my interest and taught me something. There are so many ways to do that.