By J.E. McCollough Entering the private sector after military service is rarely...
Three Drinks with Don Wildman
Welcome to our newest series, Three Drinks With, where we sit down and toss back a few “beverages” with military-friendly celebs and pick their brains from our skewed view.
If Amelia Earhart and Sherlock Holmes had a love child it would be Don Wildman, who is quite possibly the most inquisitive, non-descript dude ever. The host of Travel Channel’s Off Limits and Mysteries at the Museum, Wildman has made a living off of exploring the mysteries, histories, and places most people won’t / can’t / make up excuses for why they shouldn’t go into.
Recently the “Count of Curiosity” sat down with Ranger Up, had three straight bourbons and poured his soul out to us. Okay that’s bullshit since he lives in L.A. and we’re east coasters, but he did spend a gracious amount of time with us on the phone where he admitted to being a bourbon fan and recalled a great story of the time he visited the Jim Beam distillery. That basically makes us drinking buddies, right?
By his own account Wildman was an average kid raised in New Jersey the son of Quaker parents who believed in pacifism. But the signs of war were all around him and sparked an unquenchable drive within to know more of everything.
“My parents still had World War II fresh in their minds and I always wanted to know what went on before my time,” he says. “New Jersey in those days was reeling from the end of the war. Manufacturing bases shut down like crazy in the state, so there were all these derelict plants littering the landscape. I love reading about the Civil War and World War II and exploring places that have a connection to those periods.”
These days Wildman has his pick of places to connect to because of his extensive experience delving into the places behind the fences that hold the rest of us back. Probably no one is more qualified than he when it comes to getting off the beaten path and he has a long and comfortable relationship with the nooks and crannies of life.
He first started hosting TV shows in 1997 for Men’s Journal in a show called…Men’s Journal. I had better luck finding “legit” photos of a chupacabra than I did finding old episodes of this series. Next came Weird Travels on the Travel Channel in 2003, which lasted 23 strange episodes until 2006. After that came The Incurables, a show about mind boggling medical conditions that he narrated in 2007. That year Wildman was also picked to host Cities of the Underworld on The History Channel. It was steady work until 2009, lasting 40 episodes and making his mark on TV lore as a fearless urban explorer.
“It was cooked up to be a WOW show about going into tunnels, but got turned into a more history-based show before being cancelled,” he says. “The show wasn’t doing badly at all. The channel just wanted to change their brand to historical documentaries like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men. Looking back on it they were right to do so.”
But all was not lost. Wildman is nothing if not the Master of his own destiny and proved on Cities of the Underworld to have a non-Vanna White ability to talk coherently while doing his job. He could speak to the audience while exploring and that interested executives at the Travel Channel, who saw something in this gruff, charismatic guy who didn’t mind doing the things most people didn’t like. Unfortunately Dirty Jobs was already taken, so he settled on Off Limits, a show designed to take people the beyond the red velvet ropes and “Trespassers Will Be Shot” signs.
“I’ve always been fascinated with these locations, but going into places and taking pictures is a lot of times illegal, especially when you do it on TV. It’s always best to do it with the backing of a TV channel.”
Off Limits has taken him from San Quentin’s dungeon to moonshining in the Appalachian Mountains to the miles of underground rivers running beneath Boston and New York City with gems of historical folklore and lost culture at every turn. But back on the surface the prospect of interesting TV wasn’t always clear.
“I remember seeing the list of places for Off Limits and feeling disappointed because they were all domestic sites,” he says. “I though it would be more interesting to explore places outside the US, but I’ve totally changed my mind now. There are very incredible stories everywhere we go. Hawaii was probably my favorite. Besides the tropical locale I had no idea how industrialized Hawaii was. It’s a massive tourist spot, but the real reasons it is the way it is, is because of those spaces left behind by the sugar industry and the military. While we were filming there I figured out why so many people had moved there. It was an industrial region and the sugar industry demanded a great deal of labor, so Hawaii became a fascinating melting pot of people from all over the world. It’s like the UN of island nations. It’s the American ideal.”
For Wildman, exploration is a metaphor for evolution and overcoming obstacles. Factories, like the ones in his native New Jersey, have to change to survive no matter what their industry is.
“I did a segment with Mr. Jim Beam himself, Fred Noe. He’s the great grandson of Jim Beam. I drank from the original family yeast then he took me to the fermenting tanks, opened one up and told me to stick my head in and take a whiff. I did and nearly exploded my sinus cavities. [It’s a] family joke, apparently [because] the carbon dioxide is rather intense.”
Despite the painful prank, Wildman somehow liked Noe more afterward. He felt part of his world and part of the tumultuous story of Kentucky bourbon, an invaluable perk of being who he is. Don Wildman gets to be part of some of the greatest and tight-knit circles in the world much more than Joe Schmoe does because he shows up with a genuine interest in what someone is doing (or was doing) in a place taken over by time.
But this job is not without its risks, and like the people who watch American Idol for the train wrecks, the constant threat of death or dismemberment is one of Off Limits’ attractive qualities.
“It’s there for sure,” he says about the risks. “But I haven’t had anything happen yet. We were under the Schmidt Brewery exploring the limestone caves they used for beer chilling when we found a cave that the brewmaster wouldn’t even go into. No one had been back there for years, so I just went in there to see what I could find. The whole thing could come down at any moment, but I don’t think of that really. I just have to know what’s back there.”
I’m glad he feels that Captain Kirk pull to go where no one has gone before…or at least in a very long time. I’m claustrophobic, a trait Wildman doesn’t share and attributes to the small bedroom he had growing up in the basement of his New Jersey home. He feels good in small tight places and is willing to put his ass on the line to interest people. But neither of those are the greatest drawback to being a modern day Magellan.
“If I KNOW anything it is that I will only never know enough and I really mean that. Life is best lived as a process, not a result. My favorite process is learning and inquisitiveness is the engine of it all. If I’m honest with myself about everything…I will never arrive at the end of the questions.”
Like the legendary martial artist Dan Inosanto, Wildman lives to deconstruct everything to not only see how it works, but understand it as well. You get the impression he looked forward to frog dissection day in biology and if he missed it, he would go out and get his own frog to make up for the lost knowledge. He wants to know the mechanics behind everything and asks the questions most don’t, like why is a park there? Why do we have yards? What’s the airspeed velocity of an overused Monty Python joke?
If there’s one truth to his exploration it’s that every place is more than the sum of its parts. Like a corner gym or a local church, a dilapidated factory in its decayed and rusted death throe has a personality. And when he speaks of these places it’s with a passion that hasn’t echoed from its walls since the last worker walked away.
But Don Wildman is a spokesman for a small group and if there’s a frustration to his endeavors, it’s the lack of shared interest in historical places and interesting faces among the iPod and Xbox youth of today.
“It bothers me that we’re so insulated from the achievements of our past. We have an obligation and honor our past and carry these stories forward. Try to reach out to a fourteen year-old kid today who’s used to sitting in the house and not getting out. Whatever happened to neighborhood football games in the back yard and acorn fights? It’s our responsibility to pass this heritage on to the following generations, but if they don’t care then what can you do?”
Fortunately there are organizations that take preservation seriously. TalkUrbex.com and AtlasObscura.com are dedicated to preserving historical locations with stunning photography to document places of interest before they’re gone. Places that some of us military types know like the 309th AMARG (aircraft bone yard) at Davis Monthan AFB in Tuscon, the North American Aerospace Defense Command deep within Cheyenne Mountain, and the US Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Directorate at Picatinny Arsenal, all of which Wildman has been to.
“I loved working with the people at those locations. They were so generous, inspiring, and reassuring. They all have a story that matters more than themselves. I have the highest respect for people who put their own needs second to the needs of the country. I wonder if we have that within us now. I think we do. I hope we do. My father served, but I didn’t. Everything was different back then. Everything was at stake in the twentieth century unlike today.”
Rather than end this with the predictable “Don’t we all have a little Don Wildman in all of us?” I’ll end it with a statement that there SHOULD be a little Don Wildman in all of us. He should be your sense of adventure’s panic button. Sure he has a TV show that gets him access to the places most of us can’t go, but does that mean we should stop trying? Don’t we all want to be Indiana Jones without the bullwhip and nagging Nazi’s to fend off while saving irreplaceable treasures? If we didn’t have that driving force to discover the unknown or been born without the inquisitive gene, we’d never have crossed the seas, pushed into the rain forests, landed on the moon, or invented bourbon. What a cruel world that would be.
Follow Don on twitter @donwildman
On Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Don-Wildman/167482979977362