By Tim Murphy
Everyone knows you don’t fly a kite in a thunderstorm. But until Ben Franklin was boneheaded enough to try, we didn’t have electricity. We asked 16 of our favorite artists, authors, and astronauts to tell us about something terrifying and thrilling that they’d (mostly) never do again. Here are the lessons they learned in the strangest ways possible.
LESSON 1: Go all in—or at least up to your armpit.
Mary Roach, author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Many years ago, I heard tell of a cow at Rutgers University with a window in its side. I imagined being able to pull up a stool and watch digestion in the same way you can sit in front of a washing machine and, if that’s your thing, watch your clothes go around. When I was working on Gulp, I felt I needed to do this. It turns out that several agriculture schools have “fistulated cows,” including a branch of the University of California near my home.
The fistula (an unnatural bodily tunnel) is made by cutting, under topical anesthetic, a small circle in the hide and the rumen below it. (The rumen is the biggest of the cow’s stomachs.) The perimeters of these two openings are stitched together to make one, which is then outfitted with a clear plastic stopper. It’s more like an earlobe plug than a window. The hole lets researchers and students test different feeds by putting them in a mesh bag that is pushed in and pulled out at intervals to see how digestion is coming along.
My host, Ed DePeters, handed me a plastic veterinary sleeve and told me to stand to one side of the opening. If a fistulated cow coughs, digesta blows out the hole. (Cows can also fart through the fistula, however I wasn’t graced by such an event.) There are photos of me up to my armpit in the rumen of a cow. She appears unmoved. I look like I’ve seen God. The rumen—20 gallons deep—pushed and squeezed so powerfully that I gave thought to broken bones. It felt more industrial than biological, like I’d stuck my arm into a fermentation vat with an automated mixing paddle at the bottom, which I basically had. We think of the stomach as some floppy, passive sack, but that’s not at all how it goes in there.
Aside from the smell, it wasn’t especially repulsive. In my experience, amazement trumps disgust. And the stomach of a cow—of anything, I’m guessing—is flat-out amazing.
LESSON 2: Don’t let knowledge stop adventure.
Andrew Carroll, author of Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History
During a trip to all 50 states in search of little-known historic sites, I took an invitation from a tour guide named Jimmy Ogle in Memphis to explore the storm drains beneath the city. In 1880, Memphis became the first major municipality to create “a separated sewer system,” which entailed two pipe systems—one for storm water runoff and the other for the nasty stuff. The designer was George Waring Jr., the same engineer who transformed an 800-acre section of Manhattan wetlands into what became Central Park.
Jimmy had trekked through the massive drains only a few times before, using a map from 1919 to guide his way. Before embarking on his first foray, which he did alone, he left a copy of his intended route on his desk with a note saying “Open This Monday”—meaning “If I’m not back by now, here’s where you might find my body.”
By the time Jimmy took me, he had a little more experience. He led me to an opening into one of the main tunnels and then flicked on his small flashlight. We began sloshing through the ankle-deep water, passing architecturally stunning “chambers” with stone arches and gushing waterfalls flowing over exquisite brickwork. The trickling of water and the occasional boom of a truck’s wheels overhead were the only noises that broke the silence. The experience was exhilarating, and we covered several miles in one afternoon.
The next day, during a meeting with one of the city’s sewage maintenance employees, I told him proudly of my excursion. He was aghast. “You did what?” He went on to list the things that could have killed me: pockets of odorless methane, poisonous snakes, flash floods, infestations of lethal brown recluse spiders. I had no idea how close to certain death I’d come. When I mentioned all of this to Jimmy, he laughed it off. I admired his courage and am happy that there are people willing to venture into these dark and obscure places. I’m happier still that I’m not one of them.
LESSON 3: Pick a peck of perspective.
John Collins, Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service Theater
When I was 14, my mother insisted that my cousin and I take a summer job working in a tobacco field, picking tobacco. She’d decided that this farmer, her best friend’s father and someone she had looked up to since childhood, needed to see that we were capable of hard work. We were the oldest and whitest kids in the field. The work is harsh: You walk the long rows stooped over, picking a few leaves from the bottom of each stalk until you’ve got too many to carry. They’re covered with sticky tar and have a powerful odor. After one long row, I gulped water, threw up, and nearly fell over. We lasted a week. Our short tenure as tobacco “croppers” may or may not have proved anything to the farmer, but that exhausting work in the early morning hours of unbearably hot Georgia sun stuck with me. One of the younger kids, who recognized me from school, said, “You’re not used to this are you, John?” I wasn’t then, and I’m not now, but that week will always keep the not-quite-so-backbreaking work of directing plays in perspective.
LESSON 4: Save room for dessert.
Andrew Zimmern, creator and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods
I was shooting an episode of Bizarre Foods in India and wrangled an invite to a dinner party at the home of fashion guru Rohit Bal. Dinner promised to be intriguing: a who’s who of Indian nightlife and culture. When I arrived, no one was in the kitchen and all the furniture was gone from the living room. Turns out, all the cooking had been happening on the roof for two days, and we were going to be sitting on the floor, eating off small trays on pedestals placed before us. This was a royal wazwan, a formal banquet from Kashmir. That meant 36 courses, cooked by a licensed wazwan master chef.
We sat in pairs around the room, and the trays, filled with side dishes and rice, were placed before us. As I was trying to figure out how to sit, out came the seekh kababs (mutton flavored with a spice mixture). We ate tabak maaz (twice-cooked lamb ribs), platters of safed murgh (a roasted chicken with a milk sauce), two types of zafrani murgh (chicken with saffron).
Course after course arrived in an endless procession, all designed to showcase different lamb preparations using the whole animal. Over 30 cooks prepared this meal, which traditionally ends with the gushtaba (meatballs cooked in a spicy yogurt gravy). But after five full hours of eating—34 courses—I made a break for it. I was finished. Complet-o. History. Dead. I ran for the door. No one stopped me. They were all too deep in a food coma to notice.
The truth is, though, if I’d known there were just two courses left, I’d have stuck around, just to say I finished the meal.
LESSON 5: Look before you take a giant leap for mankind.
Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut
As an astronaut, I flew four space missions over my 15-year career, including serving as the commander of the International Space Station. I spent nearly 230 days in space and performed six spacewalks. Knowing this, my most horrifying and exhilarating near-death experience might surprise you.
It happened back in 1990, just days after I’d received the phone call informing me that I’d been selected to be a NASA astronaut. I couldn’t imagine a more exciting time. I was going to get the chance to realize my boyhood dream! I was standing on a busy street corner in San Francisco at the edge of the curb. The light turned green. The walk symbol lit up.
I sensed that something wasn’t right and paused for just a moment. As I started to look to the left, a double Muni bus passed. It was traveling so fast that my impression of it was a blur, and the mirror missed my head by mere inches. Had I even taken a half-step off the curb, the mirror would have struck me, and it would have been fatal. Selected to be an astronaut and then hit by a bus. How ironic would that have been?
LESSON 6: Keep on rolling.
Gina Kolata, New York Times senior writer and author of Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting
My friend and workout partner, Jen, wanted to do a century (100-mile) bike ride, so Jen, my husband, and I trained for months. Finally, the day came. About 10 miles in, Jen was leading when a slow rider veered into her path. She swerved to miss him. My husband, riding inches from her back wheel, swerved to avoid hitting her. I, meanwhile, was busy staring at our speed on my bike computer and did not react fast enough. I tried to swerve but hit my husband’s wheel and crashed. My shoulder hurt pretty badly, but since it seemed to hurt just as much if I sat still as if I got on my bike and rode, I decided I might as well ride. I could not stand on the pedals—it hurt too much to straighten my arm. And I could not lead—it hurt too much to put out that kind of intense effort. But we finished the ride. We didn’t meet our time goal, but we weren’t that far off.
The next day, I saw a doctor. My collarbone was broken. It was a classic cycling injury. What did I learn? Some would say I learned that I am an idiot. But I think I learned that it really is possible to suppress pain. And I learned that a little denial may not be all that bad. After all, the doctor said the extra 90 miles hadn’t made my collarbone any worse, and my friend got to do the century she’d dreamed of!
LESSON 7: Think twice before gifting a grenade.
Tracy Ross, contributing editor, Backpacker magazine, and author of The Source of All Things
At first, I didn’t understand why security in the Fairbanks, Alaska, airport had stopped me. They weren’t going to find anything strange in my backpack. Then I remembered the bullets. I’d been out “hunting” wolves (i.e., observing a crazy trapper hunter) on assignment for Backpacker and had completely forgotten about the shotgun shell casings that I’d saved as a souvenir. Security pulled out the shells and then asked if I had anything else I wanted to reveal. It seemed wisest to tell them about the two deactivated grenades that I’d bought for my 8- and 9-year-old sons at the Fairbanks Army-Navy store. The grenades were buried in my checked bag, beneath 10 pounds of moose hot dogs the trapper’s wife had given me. I almost missed my flight while they dragged the bag off the conveyor belt. I pictured myself calling home to tell the boys that their mother wasn’t coming home on time because she’d gotten caught hiding military weaponry in “moose tubes.”
I’ve taken away two lessons from this. I’ve scaled back bringing weapons home to my kids as souvenirs. And I check every pocket before travel.
LESSON 8: Do the shot. Even the snake bile shot.
Zane Lamprey, host of Drinking Made Easy
In Taipei, Taiwan, I visited the Huaxi Street Night Market, also known as “Snake Alley.” From the outside it appears to be a traditional market. Once inside it’s evident how it got its name. Lining the corridor are vendors peddling live snakes, snake meat, and various snake products. I passed them all to reach a nondescript restaurant in the back. A table was prepared in my honor, set with glasses filled with kaoliang (a local spirit) infused with snake bits. Some traditional Taiwanese believe that snakes possess healing and rejuvenating properties. And because a snake is one of the most phallic-looking of all animals and male snakes have not one but two penises, consuming their essence is thought to make you a more formidable lover.
On its own, kaoliang tastes like rum. Kaoliang mixed with snake bits tastes like roadkill. I downed four shots—flavored with snake bile, snake venom, snake blood, and snake penis, pausing briefly to take in the taste. Each shot was worse than the last—and harder to get down. I saved the genitalia-infused cocktail for the end. I threw it back and managed to keep it down. I’d faced down the challenge: The terrible, horrible, nauseating shots were finally gone. And in their place? A story that only gets better every time I tell it.
LESSON 9: Fear the tourists.
Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life From On High
One time, on a whim, I decided to launch a day-tour company in Cambodia. Sassy day tours featuring local innovators. This seemed like a good idea because I was failing at writing a monster of a book, and when writing’s not working out, pretty much anything seems like a good idea. Particularly if it involves not writing. I had once worked as a newspaper reporter in Cambodia and was thrilled to find an outlet for my extensive knowledge of the Khmer language. My college friend wanted to do it with me. Perfect.
We spent six months on endless conference calls parsing the market, designing the tours, analyzing international tax law, hiring a logo designer, reading piles of tourism books, launching the website, and plotting our empire expansion. Finally, we arrived in Phnom Penh and, within the week, ran a series of free practice tours in 100-degree heat. It was then that I learned that I do not like tourists. Particularly the ones that ask questions like “Will there be shopping on this tour?” and “I know that we just went to the bathroom three minutes ago and are going again in a half hour, but can I go now? To an American-style one?” and “Can you talk into my phone and say ‘Hi how are you’ in Khmer to my boyfriend in L.A.? He doesn’t believe me.” I couldn’t hang with these people for a day, let alone a decade. And just like that, my career plan of building a business serving 10,000 tourists a year was shattered. Never did a quiet room and my monster book look so appealing!
LESSON 10: Avoid actual Shark Week.
Chas Smith, author of Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell
My greatest friend and I decided to go surf mainland Yemen. I had heard on the news that Osama bin Laden was from there, looked on a map, and saw miles and miles of coastline. The Indian Ocean makes some of the best waves in the world, but no one had ever surfed mainland Yemen, due to the danger and troubles with access. My friend and I flew into the capital, Sana’a, got a Toyota Landcruiser, and drove four hours to the coastal town of Aden. The waves there were not fantastic. We knew we had to get to Mukalla, two days up the coast. So we drove. And drove.
Just outside of Mukalla the coast turned jagged. We could see the swell stacking up and then we rounded a bend and saw it: a wave breaking perfectly 100 yards out to sea. We stopped, grabbed our boards, and paddled. It’s always nerve-racking paddling into a new wave for the first time. It may be extremely shallow; there may be jellyfish. As we paddled, we smelled dead fish. Yemen is known for sharks, and sharks are one of the biggest nerve-rackers.
The water was murky and weird, but the wave was perfect. We surfed and smiled, but the dead fish stench became overpowering. So did our nervousness. My friend swore he saw a shark fin. We paddled in as quickly as we could.
Back on shore, we suddenly saw decapitated shark heads everywhere. We’d been too distracted to notice them before—they looked up at us with glassy, still, angry eyes. Then, just up the beach we saw a fish canning factory. It was the cause of the stench. Our minds began to process: The factory was chumming the water with fishy guts! We should have had our legs and arms chewed off. We looked at each other and did not surf again—until the next day. It really was a perfect wave.
LESSON 11: Say oui to a one-way ticket.
Dan Savage, “Savage Love" sex columnist for Seattle's The Strange and author of Skipping Towards Gomorrah and The Commitment
When I was in my early twenties, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Europe. I didn't have a job lined up and didn't have enough money to buy a return ticket, so I had to find work. I had a temporary work permit, so I didn't have to work illegally, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn't run out of money before I found a job … which is exactly what happened. I did find a job eventually—waiting tables at an "American-style" restaurant in London—and didn't wind up living on the streets and/or turning tricks at Kings Cross Station. I couldn't do this now, of course, because I have a job and a family. But if I could go back in time and do it again, if I could experience living on my own in a big city in a foreign country, I would do it in a heartbeat. I learned how capable I was—and that I didn't need anyone to find my way, to find a place, to land a job, and make my way in the world.
LESSON 12: Dream as though you’ll live forever, but first make sure you’ll last the night.
E.B. Hudspeth, author of The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black
I woke up, and I was being strangled in my bed. Each breath was a struggle; I felt light-headed and weird. All I could do was roll onto the floor and crawl forward, gasping, as if I was trying to escape from my own tomb.
And then...air. I pushed my head through the plastic sheeting that surrounded my sleeping area and gulped the freezing, stinging, wonderful air.
I'd always had fantasies of dying heroically, but what had happened was this: As a young and poor artist, I rented a detached one-car garage in Colorado and used it as both an apartment and a studio-space. It had no water or plumbing, and no heat. So I bought a kerosene heater, and sealed a small floor-to-ceiling space around my bed with plastic sheeting to trap the heat. I realize, now, that sleeping in an enclosed space with an oxygen-consuming device is a formula for asphyxiation. I've also come to expect that my eventual demise will probably be an embarrassing event involving something innocuous, like brushing my teeth or checking email. Should we all spend some part of our lives young and poor? I think so, because you'll appreciate what you have, and won't miss what you've lost. But most people can probably do it without cutting off their oxygen supply.
LESSON 13: Cash is king…but all kings need trusted advisors.
Brooke Berman, author of No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments
At 24, I thought it virtuous to have no debt and thus, no credit cards. I paid cash—my waitressing tips—for a standby voucher from one of those dirt cheap travel operations and tried to use it to fly to LA the week of the World Cup finals. Stranded at JFK and relatively clueless, I bonded with some guy who suggested we fly to San Francisco together—which, using our vouchers, we did. I learned 1) sometimes the easy way is really the right way. 2) Not all debt is bad. 3) Don't invite strangers up to your apartment even if you plan to travel cross-country with them, and then, probably best not to travel with the person you've just met in the airport. It was all very innocent, but it could have gone so very wrong.
LESSON 14: Try seeing the world through someone else’s gunsight.
Amy Sohn, author of the novels Motherland and Prospect Park West
For a documentary television pilot about American families, I spent a few days with a militia family—the father was in the Michigan Militia—near Detroit. The house was filled with unlocked guns and filled with eight children and adolescents, and we visited a gun range near their home in the middle of a blizzard. At the range, I shot a Glock and a Daewoo K1 submachine gun. For about three seconds, holding the Glock, I felt like I was in an action film. But almost immediately I realized there was something very wrong with the fact that someone like me was allowed to shoot a Glock. The Daewoo was even more terrifying. When you fire a semi or automatic weapon you realize how ridiculous it is that ordinary Americans can own and use these guns, whose only purpose is to kill many, many people as quickly as possible.
LESSON 15: Denny’s will never let you down.
In 1993, I drove across the country alone with all my belongings packed into a 13-year-old Honda Civic. One day I drove 22 hours from outside Yellowstone to Madison, Wisconsin with two breaks for meals. All because I had a free bed waiting for me there. I arrived in the city limits, shaky and cold, with a dragging muffler at 6 a.m. unable to drive faster than 40 miles an hour for the last leg, as the world seemed too fast and scared me. I pulled into a Denny's and waited until around 8 a.m., when I called the friend of a friend, whom I had never met, from a pay phone to pick me up. We returned for my car after a several-hours nap. Years later I would shake getting into the driver's seat of a car for a trip of more than a couple hours. I was afraid I might trick myself into another marathon.
LESSON 16: What doesn’t kill you makes a great story.
Several years ago, we were visiting our parents in South Africa and we went to one of the most beautiful places on earth, Tsitsikamma National Park. While we were there we were crossing a rope bridge that extends across what’s known as Storm’s River, when we were seized by the kind of madness that only occurs when we’re together. We impulsively scaled the rope railings, and leaped into the ocean below. It was a bracing, breathless affair that scared our poor mother half to death, and to this day remains one of the most invigorating … and stupidest things we’ve ever done (and that's a long-ass list). It was only later, when we were regaling our cousins with our tale of exhilaration and bravery, that we realized just how stupid. My cousins sat there, gaping at us, until one of them said, “you know … you know that they take people shark cage diving there, right?”
No. No, we did not know that. Suffice it to say that when we next go hiking over the mouth of a river which feeds into shark infested South African waters, perhaps we'll think and look before we leap!
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.