Were You Ever Scared? Part One

I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person. I like to think I’m the sort of person who makes good choices. The kind of person who thinks ahead.

Most of the time.

Beach and RocksAfter a beautiful hike along Twelvemile Beach, I decided to see the namesake of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The park literature was quite clear that the best way to see the rocks was by boat. However the boat rides were inconvenient and time-consuming, and I asked the ranger at Miners Castle if there was a good hiking trail I could take to see the pictured rocks. She pointed to the Lakeshore-North Country Trail that runs the length of the park. The trail clearly stretched for miles, but she assured me that the best view was within the first two miles. “You’ll know it when you see it,” she explained.

The trail took awhile to get going, but before long I could tell I was walking parallel to the lakeshore and high on the cliffs above the Pictured Rocks. I saw a small side trail that led out towards the edge, and I got my first look at the rocky shore. It was beautiful. The little trail could barely reach out far enough to see the view, but it was there. I went back to the main trail and encountered another side trail only a few minutes later. It had solid footing and a nicer view. I started taking pictures. By the third trail I visited, I had a completely unobstructed view. I admired the gorgeous painted rocks and began to wrestle with another problem.

“Well this seems like a great way to accidentally kill yourself,” I said out loud to no one in particular.

The sand was loose and sloped off the cliff edge. This was not an official trail stop, which meant there was no safety railing. There wasn’t even a ranger planning to stroll by, and I hadn’t seen another hiker the entire time. What I could see was a long hard fall into the water below.

Red WallIt wouldn’t take much. I little loose gravel and a poor choice in footing and I’d be on my side. A little more gravel and I’d be sliding towards the cliff edge. I’d be picking up speed, so it wouldn’t be so surprising when I failed to stop myself. Dying upon impact was certainly a possibility, but it wasn’t a certainty. A clean drop into a deep patch of water and I might not even be injured. Of course there was no beach down there, only rocks. Perhaps I’d be better off swimming away from shore and hoping the adrenaline would keep me going until I reached a real beach. If I swam towards the rocks I risked being slammed up against them. Even if I was only injured, the blood loss might be enough. If I were extraordinarily lucky another hiker might be stupid enough to walk out far enough on the same ledge and see me on the rocks. Assuming that happened in the first two hours, and it only took them 30 minutes to get back to civilization, and it only took an hour to get the boat out to me, and 30 minutes to get to shore, and another 30 to reach the hospital, I was looking at a good four hours of bleeding on a rock being pounded by waves.

Yes, it’s a pretty morbid set of thoughts for a young woman to have while walking in a park. However these thoughts are fairly typical for me. And this wasn’t even the worst instance. That would be the next day, in the Porcupine Mountains.

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Podcasts for the Long and Lonesome Road

I was first introduced to podcasts in the winter of 2009. I was just out of college and had put together a hodgepodge of horrible jobs to make ends meet. Among these was a job holding a sign on the corner outside of Discount Guns. Yes, I was one of those people. I made $10 an hour and worked five hour shifts. My boss told me I was welcome to listen to my iPod while I stood out there, and I began collecting various audio programs of note. I relearned the basics of Spanish with Coffee Break Spanish, a language learning podcast taught by two native Scots. It made for some delightful pronunciation variety. I also “read” The Great Gatsby, a book which I hated in high school and thoroughly enjoyed upon giving it a second chance. I acquired a number of interesting podcasts and began listening to every episode of every one. All in all, my sign-holding days were quite productive.

It’s been a long time since I left that job, but I still listen to podcasts constantly. When I’m getting ready for work or getting ready for bed. In the car and anytime I ride the bus. On lunch break and when I’m cleaning the kitchen. My life is filled to the brim with audio.

So it was never a problem for me to be in a car by myself for five hours a day for four months straight. I saw it as something of a blessing. I could catch up on old podcasts where I’d fallen behind, and add new things to my repertoire. So, after 15,000 miles, here’s my top picks of the genre. If this list seems like a massive amount of audio that no one could ever get through, you should know that it’s not even an exhaustive list of the podcasts I subscribe to. And it doesn’t include the audiobooks I added. But if ever you find yourself waiting for a bus, driving in the car, eating alone at a restaurant, preparing dinner, doing your hair, sewing, knitting, eating, cleaning, or sitting in bed unable to fall asleep, consider at least one of the following:

Gold Level:

This American Life – Weekly, 1 hour

This NPR program is the pinnacle of modern radio programming, and is consistently the highest rated podcast in the iTunes store. If you only have one hour a week to listen to something, this should be it.

Stuff You Should Know – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes

Josh and Chuck feel like your funny best friends, and they manage to make absolutely every topic interesting. Sure everyone knows Rasputin is cool, but have you ever thought about how a diving bell works? Or the rules behind police chases? Or how you would recognize a flesh-eating bacterial infection?

Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me – Weekly, 1 hour

Another NPR hit, this news-based comedy hour pretending to be a game show is one of the highlights of my week. My heart soars when I hear the dulcet tones of Paula Poundstone.

Planet Money – Twice Weekly, 15-30 minutes

From the people who brought you This American Life, Planet Money explains financial concepts in a way that is interesting, understandable, and entertaining. Even if you don’t normally like financial and economic stuff – in fact, especially if you don’t normally like financial and economic stuff – you should listen to Planet Money.

Fresh Air – Monday-Friday, 1 hour (individual segments are broken apart for the podcast, and range from 5-50 minutes)

There’s a reason Terry Gross has been on the air for almost 40 years. She is damn good at her job. Her interview with Keith Richards is one of the best things I ever heard. Because of her, I understand Quentin Tarantino and his relationship to violence. And even when it’s not Terry behind the mic, Fresh Air offers a huge range of topics. Celebrities from Tom Hanks to Stephen King. Authors who write about life on the front line or the fall of communism or bananas. You have no idea how interesting bananas are. Fresh Air has vindicated my perfectionist tendencies. I feel the need to listen to every episode (since anything less would be incomplete), and there are so many fascinating things I have learned about culture and science and music and art as a result. I am serious about the bananas.

Silver Level:

The Tobolowsky Files – Sporadically published, 1 hour (Best to start at the beginning and listen through as though it were an audiobook)

You don’t realize it, but you already know who Stephen Tobolowsky is. Beyond being a talented character actor, he’s a very good storyteller. Over the course of the series you start to realize that he has a sort of Kevin Bacon quality to him, in that he has inadvertently interacted with almost everyone in Hollywood. In fact, Stephen Tobolowsky is the reason behind the name of the band Radiohead, a fact of which even the members of Radiohead are probably unaware.

A History of the World in 100 Objects – Completely published, 15 minutes

This was a fascinating series. The British Museum has a large and impressive collection, and 100 objects were selected to representatively explain the history of civilization. They start with the most basic of hand tools, and cycle through ancient pottery, modern art, and eventually a solar-powered lamp. High quality photos of all the objects are available on their website, so you can take a look at the objects being described.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour – Weekly, 20-40 minutes

In the style of old-time radio dramas, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is performed and recorded live in Hollywood. Episodes move back and forth between different styles, and you’re likely to hear a few famous voices along the way (Neil Patrick Harris, anyone?). I will give the warning that I am not in love with all of the story lines equally, so if you aren’t wild about the first episode you hear, be sure to give it a second or third try.

New Yorker: Fiction – Monthly, 30-60 minutes

Once a month the New Yorker Magazine has an amazingly talented writer come on and read one of his or her favorite short stories by a different amazingly talented writer. Afterwards the writer and the fiction editor spend a few minutes discussing the story, breaking down themes, and looking at what makes the story stand out. This podcast is what you always wanted your high school and college literature classes to be like.

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – Weekly, 10 minutes

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a grammar nerd. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a writer. Grammar Girl will make you a better English speaker, and give you ammunition against would-be grammar nazis who like to promote outdated myths about the language. Some episodes may get a bit too deep into grammar for the casual listener, but most everyone would find it interesting to learn why the popular Christmas song proclaims, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and not, “the Lord has come.”

Bronze Level:

(These are topic-specific podcasts. In my opinion several of these could go toe-to-toe against the others in terms of quality, but they do require a base level of interest in the subject matter.)

I Should Be Writing – Irregular Updating is Part of Her Charm, 40-50 minutes

Known as “The Podcast for Wannabe Fiction Writers,” Mur Lafferty manages to be intensely engaging in a way that feels effortless. I’ve never known someone to say so much with a simple, thoughtful pause. I imagine Mur’s words could be helpful for anyone trying to pursue a creative passion, not just fiction writers.

Writing Excuses – Weekly, 15 minutes

Another good one for those interested in writing. A small group of published authors ranging from sci-fi writers to webcomic artists take on important topics for those interested in the field.

Stuff Mom Never Told You – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes

From the people who brought you Stuff You Should Know, this podcasts focuses on issues related to gender and society. Hold on to your hats, it turns out everything is really complicated.

Stuff You Missed in History Class – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes

This podcast covers the parts of history you didn’t even know you didn’t know about, including the Oyster Wars, the Antikythera Mechanism, and why there are so many emus in Australia.

 

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EDIT Dec 28, 2014: The original draft of this article included a recommendation for Freakonomics, which I no longer suggest due to some evidence that they don’t always use…evidence.