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Michael Crichton



  “Startling and informative.… I was swept away not only by [Crichton’s] richly informed mind but his daring curiosity.”

  —New York Times Book Review

  “Crichton’s curiosity and self-deprecating humor animate recitals of his adventures.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “A fetching, candid reconnoiter of the psychological and spiritual contours of a fertile, challenging mindscape.… These forays are evocative analogues of Crichton’s sometimes turbulent inner evolution over the last twenty-five years.… Just the ticket for those who would escape, for once, to themselves—and perhaps know risk for the first time.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  “Crichton can give his narratives such an amusing self-deprecating twist that it’s hard not to be enchanted.… Most significantly, Travels chronicles Crichton’s inward exploration.”

  —Houston Post

  “Curious, sensible, [and] irreverent. Crichton comes to see his travels—both in mind and through country—as ways of getting in better touch with himself.”

  —Los Angeles Times

  “Travels is about getting unstranded, about going to the ends of the earth and the edges of experience in order to see oneself for the first time. His chronicle has the twin virtues of being entertaining and, in the best sense of the word, unsettling.”

  —Washington Post Book World

  “His sense of wonder and awe, his gentle encouragement toward ‘direct experience,’ and his simple yet graphic prose will stir the wanderlust in many a reader.”


  “Satisfying.… Memorable.… What a traveler [Crichton] is!”

  —Kirkus Reviews


  Copyright ©1988 by Michael Crichton

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1988. Subsequently published in paperback in the United States by Ballantine Books, New York, in 1993, and by Perennial, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, in 2002.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., for permission to reprint an excerpt from “The Way In” from The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated from the German by Robert Bly. Copyright © 1981 by Robert Bly. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

  Portions of this work were originally published in Conde Nast Traveler and Esquire.

  Vintage eISBN: 978-0-307-81649-8




  Title Page




  MEDICAL DAYS (1965–1969)

  TRAVELS (1971–1986)

  Sex and Death in L.A.





  An Elephant Attacks


  Pyramid of the Magician

  My Father’s Death


  London Psychics





  An Extinct Turtle

  Cactus Teachings


  A Human Light Show


  Seeing Headhunters

  Life on the Astral Plane

  New Guinea

  Spoon Bending

  Seeing Auras

  An Entity

  Direct Experience

  Postscript: Skeptics at Cal Tech

  About the Author

  Books by Michael Crichton

  In self-analysis the danger of incompleteness is particularly great. One is too soon satisfied with a part explanation.


  Existence is beyond the power of words to define.


  What you see is what you see.



  For many years I traveled for myself alone. I refused to write about my trips, or even to plan them with any useful purpose. Friends would ask what research had taken me to Malaysia or New Guinea or Pakistan, since it was obvious that nobody would go to these places merely for recreation. But I did.

  And I felt a real need for rejuvenation, for experiences that would take me away from things I usually did, the life I usually led.

  In my everyday life, I often felt a stifling awareness of the purpose behind everything I did. Every book I read, every movie I saw, every lunch and dinner I attended seemed to have a reason behind it. From time to time, I felt the urge to do something for no reason at all.

  I conceived these trips as vacations—as respites from my ongoing life—but that wasn’t how they turned out. Eventually, I realized that many of the most important changes in my life had come about because of my travel experiences. For, however tame when compared with the excursions of real adventurers, these trips were genuine adventures for me: I struggled with my fears and limitations, and I learned whatever I was able to learn.

  But as time passed, the fact that I had never written about my travels became oddly burdensome. If you’re a writer, the assimilation of important experiences almost obliges you to write about them. Writing is how you make the experience your own, how you explore what it means to you, how you come to possess it, and ultimately release it. I found I was relieved, after all these years, to write about some of the places I have been. I was fascinated to see how much I could write without reference to my notebooks.

  There were also some episodes from medical school that I had always intended to write about. I had promised myself I would wait fifteen years, until they were thoroughly ancient history. To my surprise, I find I have waited long enough, and so they are included here.

  I have also included experiences in the realms that are sometimes called psychic, or transpersonal, or spiritual. I think of this as inner travel, to complement the outer travel, although that distinction—between what is internal sensation and what is external stimulus—often blurs in my mind. But I’ve found the effort to disentangle my perceptions useful in a way I had not anticipated.

  Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes—with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.

  I eventually realized that direct experience is the most valuable experience I can have. Western man is so surrounded by ideas, so bombarded with opinions, concepts, and information structures of all sorts, that it becomes difficult to experience anything without the intervening filter of these structures. And the natural world—our traditional source of direct insights—is rapidly disappearing. Modern city-dwellers cannot even see the stars at night. This humbling reminder of man’s place in the greater scheme of things, which human beings formerly saw once every twenty-four hours, is denied them. It’s no wonder that people lose their bearings, that they lose track of who they really are, and what their lives are really about.

  So travel has helped me to have direct experiences. And to know more about m

  Many people have helped me with this book. Among those who read early versions of the manuscript and gave me comments and encouragement were Kurt Villadsen, Anne-Marie Martin, my sisters, Kimberly Crichton and Catherine Crichton, my brother, Douglas Crichton, Julie Halowell, my mother, Zula Crichton, Bob Gottlieb, Richard Farson, Marilyn Grabowski, Lisa Plonsker, Valery Pine, Julie McIver, Lynn Nesbit, and Sonny Mehta. Later drafts of the text were read by the participants themselves, who offered valuable suggestions and corrections.

  To all these people I am grateful, as I am to my beleaguered travel agents of many years, Kathy Bowman of World Wide Travel in Los Angeles, and Joyce Small of Adventures Unlimited in San Francisco.

  In addition, certain people have had a major influence on my thinking, although they do not appear much in this book. I am thinking in particular of Henry Aronson, Jonas Salk, John Foreman and Jasper Johns.

  By design, I have limited the scope of this book. Freud once defined life as work and love, but I have chosen to discuss neither, except as my travel experiences impinge upon them. Nor have I undertaken to assess my childhood. Rather, it is my intention to write about the interstices of my life, about the events that occurred while what I imagined to be the real business of my life was taking place.

  It remains only to say that certain changes have been made to the original text. Names and identifying characteristics of physicians and medical patients have all been changed. And in later chapters, some names and identifying characteristics have been changed at the request of the individuals involved.




  It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.

  The blade kept snagging the skin, and slipping off the smooth bone of the forehead. If I made a mistake, I slid to one side or the other, and I would not saw precisely down the center of the nose, the mouth, the chin, the throat. It required tremendous concentration. I had to pay close attention, and at the same time I could not really acknowledge what I was doing, because it was so horrible.

  Four students had shared this cadaver for months, but it fell to me to cut open the old woman’s head. I made the others leave the room while I worked on it. They couldn’t watch without making jokes, which interfered with my concentration.

  The bones of the nose were particularly delicate. I had to proceed carefully, to cut without shattering these tissue-thin bones. Several times I stopped, cleaned the bits of bone from the teeth of the blade with my fingertips, and then continued. As I sawed back and forth, concentrating on doing a good job, I was reminded that I had never imagined my life would turn out this way.

  I had never particularly intended to become a doctor. I had grown up in a suburb of New York City, where my father was a journalist. No one in my family was a doctor, and my own early experiences with medicine were not encouraging: I fainted whenever I was given injections, or had blood drawn.

  I had gone to college planning to become a writer, but early on a scientific tendency appeared. In the English department at Harvard, my writing style was severely criticized and I was receiving grades of C or C+ on my papers. At eighteen, I was vain about my writing and felt it was Harvard, and not I, that was in error, so I decided to make an experiment. The next assignment was a paper on Gulliver’s Travels, and I remembered an essay by George Orwell that might fit. With some hesitation, I retyped Orwell’s essay and submitted it as my own. I hesitated because if I were caught for plagiarism I would be expelled; but I was pretty sure that my instructor was not only wrong about writing styles, but poorly read as well. In any case, George Orwell got a B− at Harvard, which convinced me that the English department was too difficult for me.

  I decided to study anthropology instead. But I doubted my desire to continue as a graduate student in anthropology, so I began taking premed courses, just in case.

  In general, I found Harvard an exciting place, where people were genuinely focused on study and learning, and with no special emphasis on grades. But to take a premed course was to step into a different world—nasty and competitive. The most critical course was organic chemistry, Chem 20, and it was widely known as a “screw your buddy” course. In lectures, if you didn’t hear what the instructor had said and asked the person next to you, he’d give you the wrong information; thus you were better off leaning over to look at his notes, but in that case he was likely to cover his notes so you couldn’t see. In the labs, if you asked the person at the next bench a question, he’d tell you the wrong answer in the hope that you would make a mistake or, even better, start a fire. We were marked down for starting fires. In my year, I had the dubious distinction of starting more lab fires than anyone else, including a spectacular ether fire that set the ceiling aflame and left large scorch marks, a stigmata of ineptitude hanging over my head for the rest of the year. I was uncomfortable with the hostile and paranoid attitude this course demanded for success. I thought that a humane profession like medicine ought to encourage other values in its candidates. But nobody was asking my opinion. I got through it as best I could. I imagined medicine to be a caring profession, and a scientific one as well. It was so fast-moving that its practitioners could not afford to be dogmatic; they would be flexible and open-minded. It was certainly interesting work, and there was no doubt that you were doing something worthwhile with your life, helping sick people.

  So I applied to medical schools, took the Medical College Aptitude Tests, had my interviews, and was accepted. Then I got a fellowship for study in Europe, which postponed my start for a year.

  But the following year I went to Boston, rented an apartment in Roxbury near the Harvard Medical School, bought my furniture, and registered for my classes. And it was at the registration that I first was confronted by the prospect of dissecting a human cadaver.

  As first-year students, we had scrutinized the schedule and had seen that we would be given cadavers on the first day. We could talk of nothing else. We questioned the second-year students, old hands who regarded us with amused tolerance. They gave us advice. Try and get a man, not a woman. Try and get a black person, not a white. A thin person, not a fat one. And try to get one that hadn’t been dead too many years.

  Dutifully, we made notes and waited for the fateful Monday morning. We imagined the scene, remembered how Broderick Crawford had played it in Not as a Stranger, growling at the terrified students, “There’s nothing funny about death,” before he whipped the cover off the corpse.

  In the amphitheater that morning, Don Fawcett, professor of anatomy, gave the first lecture. There was no corpse in the room. Dr. Fawcett was tall and composed, not at all like Broderick Crawford, and he spent most of the time on academic details. How the dissections were scheduled. When the exams would fall. How the dissections of gross anatomy would be related to the lectures in microscopic fine anatomy. And the importance of gross anatomy: “You can no more become a good doctor without a thorough understanding of gross anatomy than you can become a good mechanic without opening the hood of a car.”

  But we could hardly listen to him. We were waiting for the body. Where was the body?

  Finally a graduate student wheeled in a gurney. On it was a blue denim cloth, and an underlying shape. We stared at the shape. Nobody heard a word Dr. Fawcett said. He moved from the podium to the body. Nobody listened. We waited for the moment when he would pull aside the cloth.

  He pulled aside the cloth. There was a great sigh, a great exhalation of breath. Beneath the cloth was a heavy plastic sheet. We still could see nothing of the body.

  Dr. Fawcett removed the plastic sheet. There was another, thin white cloth beneath that. He removed this cloth. At last we saw a very pale form. Limbs, a torso. But the head, hands, and feet were wrapped in gauze like a mummy. It was not easy to recognize this as a human body. We slowly relaxed, became aware that Dr. Fawcett was still talking. He was telling us details of the method of preservation, the reason for protective wrapping of the hands and f
ace. He told us of the need for decorum in the dissection room. And he told us that the preservative, phenol, was also an anesthetic and that it was common to experience numbness and tingling in our fingers during the dissection; this was not a dread paralysis we had caught from the cadavers.

  He ended the lecture. We went to the dissection room, to choose our bodies.

  We had previously divided ourselves into groups of four. I had given this group choice a lot of thought, and managed to link up with three students who all planned to be surgeons. I thought budding surgeons would be enthusiastic about the dissection, and would want to do everything themselves. With any luck, I could sit back and watch, which was my fondest hope. I didn’t even want to touch the body, if I could help it.

  The dissection room was large and, in September, uncomfortably warm. There were thirty bodies on tables around the room, all covered with sheets. The instructors refused to let us peek under the sheets to choose the bodies. We had to pick one table and wait. My group chose the table nearest the door.

  The instructors gave a lecture. We stood beside our bodies. The tense feelings rushed back. It was one thing to sit high up in an amphitheater while a body was shown. It was another to stand close to a body, to be able to reach out and touch it. Nobody touched it.

  Finally the instructor said, “Well, let’s get to work.” There was a long silence. All the students opened their dissecting kits, got out their scalpels and scissors. Nobody touched the sheets. The instructor reminded us we could now remove the sheets. We touched the sheets gingerly, at the edge of the fabric. Holding our breath, we pulled the sheets back from the feet, exposing the lower half of the torso.