If there’s any form of entertainment that I will reliably find time for, no matter how big the to-read pile or how long the to-do list, it is the dying-on-an-adventure true story. I have yet to watch about half the films being called the best of the year, but I am devouring documentaries about hikers and extreme sports athletes going missing in national parks on every streaming service. I have work to do, but still I can’t put down Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild, her memoir about barely surviving a bear attack in Siberia. Every winter, with the first snowfall, I send everyone I know the link to Peter Starks’s essay ‘Frozen Alive’, published by Outside Magazine years ago, about what it’s like to freeze to death.
Why am I so drawn to tales of misadventure and dying, or almost dying, on the tundra or on a mountain or in Siberia? Because it gives me a smug comfort to know these are all the ways I am never going to die. I am never going to die trying to cross the Sahara in record time because I am simply never going to go to the Sahara. ‘If you don’t want to die in Antarctica,’ I say wisely, cozily, to the podcast host of Against the Odds, ‘you probably shouldn’t have gone to Antarctica.’
Every season of Against the Odds, then, is a gift. The focus is on one tale of endurance and (sometimes) survival, of men and women pushed to their psychological and physical limits as they battle the elements or terrorists or hunger, and each can be listened to without going anywhere at all. The hosts swing through history, sometimes retelling well-known stories such as Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated trip to Antarctica in the first years of the 20th century (what did I tell you, Ernie?!) and sometimes relaying more current events such as the 2018 rescue of the children stuck in the Thai caves. No matter the historical setting, the hosts Mike Corey and Cassie De Pecol ramp up the suspense in sometimes delightfully cheesy ways, making it all exciting even if you already know the end results.
And yes, yes, yes, every death is a tragedy and maybe it’s not quite ethical to be so entertained by the suffering and misfortune of others, but I would just like to counter with: maybe most of these people should have stayed at home? Maybe instead of celebrating a man’s triumph over the hostile mountain peaks of Central Asia, we should be a little pleased when the mountain wins? Do we really need a new speed record or arbitrary first of some kind? If you don’t want to be taken hostage by terrorists in an unstable region, like the four Americans who went off to Uzbekistan for an adventurous rock-climbing trip whose story is told in season nine, maybe don’t look at nations that are poorer and having a harder time keeping it together than yours as an exciting vacation destination?
But of course there are all kinds of ways to live a big, sometimes terrible, life, and the investigative podcast Stay Away from Matthew MaGill tells us of another one. When MaGill surfaced in Florida, telling such outlandish stories of having been married to a Broadway star or participating in the hijacking of a 747 or being on the run from the Feds, everyone assumed he was a conman telling fibs. But after his death, reporter and podcast host Eric Mennel started looking into the man and found that what was once assumed improbable was mostly true.
It’s one of those ‘they don’t make men like that any more’ stories — and they don’t for probably pretty good reasons. Being so intimidated by your partner’s success that you feel the need to wear a big sign on your back declaring ‘That’s My Wife’ to her Broadway performances is not helpful behaviour. But the vicarious thrill of hearing about a man living life on a big scale, even if he was not someone you’d want to trust with your heart or your wallet, is still potent.
It plays a bit too much like a morality tale at some points: if you don’t want to die alone and unloved in Florida of all places, don’t live a life that alienates everyone who loves you by exploiting them emotionally and financially and engage in criminal behaviour to a point where you have to change your name and go into hiding so even the women who married you don’t know if you are alive or dead. And again, I can listen to it, safe in the knowledge that this is not how I am going to die.