There’s a good chance you underappreciate your favorite city—we all do. For Off Limits (Mondays at 9 p.m. EST on the Travel Channel), adventurous host Don Wildman delves into the overlooked, restricted places hiding in plain sight to discover the true identities of America’s cities. He examines how our great metropolises came to flourish and function through stories of engineering genius, heroic ambition, and true tales that are really bizarre. These off-limit places are all around us … if we would slow down to look. (However, if you did look yourself, you’d probably get charged fines or thrown in jail … better just let Wildman do the detective work.)
Tonight, the premiere episode takes a deep dive into Los Angeles. You are not going to believe was Wildman uncovers while prowling around the aqueducts, paddling the concrete-encased Los Angeles River, and even exploring a decaying secret compound intended to house Nazi in the 1930s.
We caught up with Wildman to see what his show is all about.
Adventure: You seem very comfortable in the outdoors and uncovering mysteries in weird places.
Don Wildman: As far as doing this kind of stuff, I come from an adventure sports background. I love getting out and testing myself … and I love all the things that go into adventure sports. But I also come from a history background. One thing has fallen into the next very organically for me in this TV business. I really like that.
That makes you an adventurous history buff?
D.W.: I grew up in south Jersey, outside of Philadelphia. I was the youngest in a big family, and I used to go off by myself a lot. I’d jump on a bus and go to Philly. I grew up in the 60s and 70s at the tail end if the Baby Boom. My parents were from the Depression and World War II, and my sisters were in the 60s. I was painfully aware that I had missed the boat—I was part of a generation that didn’t have the same stories as the generations before. And the manifestation of it for me was seeing Philly’s old factories and the great American industrial landscape gone. When you grow up around these places, these Northeastern and Midwestern cities, you see the vestiges of another time. And as I got older, they were all closing down because America was changing so profoundly.
How did your love for the outdoors take an urban twist?
D.W.: When I hosted Cities of the Underworld for the History Channel, I would bump up against these urbex guys—urban explorers—all the time. And most of them were European. There was a whole world out there of urban exploration, which I had flirted with, just as a casual interest, since I was a kid.
Urban exploration is a very solitary thing. That’s the whole point, you don’t want to make a lot of noise about it or you lose your good site. It’s this under-the-radar world. The more I experienced that world, the more I realized it fed right back into how I grew up. That we can actually tell this alternative history of America—not really alternative, but the history of America’s spaces or places that are either dangerously or illegally off-limits. They are these places where you don’t usually go that tell really what this country and these great cities are all about.
They are really in plain sight, we just don’t see them.
D.W.: Exactly. You literally drive past these things all the time. And it’s not like you are going to jump out of your car and climb around an old factory. But we can. We find these places, dig up their stories, and put them into context with the city’s history—it’s fascinating.
It’s a mixed bag, though. We realized that we didn’t just want to tell stories of decrepit spaces, where the walls were falling in. But there are also public works, the places that—especially in the age of 911—are now really off limits. That has been the other surprise element of producing this show. It’s crazy to realize that parts of your cities are off limits to you! You are no longer easily able to understand where your water and your electricity come from. It’s so protected now. So if you can venture into this realm, as we do on the show, you can put together an alternative way to understand where you live.
We don’t even know that we should care about these places? Are we too busy to care?
D.W.: I think so. We all take for granted how our world works. But for me, when I fly into a place like L.A. and see the vastness of the city below—I always think about the sewers. How does all that work? Where does it all go? It’s not easy to run a city.
It’s not easy, and it’s downright heroic what has gone on in this country. And around the world—we’re not the only ones. There have been phenomenal feats of engineering to make these gigantic population centers work on a daily basis, let alone initiating the whole thing.
Then there are stories like Murphy’s Ranch, a rustic compound built in the 1930s to house a Nazi army in L.A.—that's shocking on a whole new level.
D.W.: That was the most unbelievable to me. I live in L.A. now. I mountain bike like crazy through L.A., that’s what I love about the place, you can get away from the city so easily. One of the great mountain biking areas goes right past Murphy’s Ranch. When we were shooting, there were guys flying by there on the road all the time. And they don’t have any idea that the gate was designed by Paul Williams, who was a legendary architect in L.A., let alone if you go past that gate, you find a compound built in the 1930s to house a Nazi army within the United States.
People hike there, but so often, in these decrepit, ruined places, people sort of let them go in their minds as not interesting and not important. That whole Rustic Canyon area in L.A. was phenomenally cool in the 20s and 30s. And it's just fading away and the bushes are growing over it. This unbelievable slice of Americana is being lost really quickly.
What’s been your most thrilling adventure?
D.W.: Paddling the L.A. River was something I have always wanted to do. I have lived and driven over that channel forever. I’ve never known how it got there. I actually always thought it would be cool to boat down it.
In the scene where you impressively climb up an oil derrick, you reveal that L.A. has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Am I the only one who didn’t know?
D.W.: You’re the perfect audience. Exactly, you drive from the airport into town and there are all these sad looking oil fields that look like they are not doing anything. Just slowly moving. It seems like they are pumping the last of America’s oil. But no, we actually have tons and tons of oil down here. It’s just not efficient for us to pull it out right now because it’s so much cheaper for us to get it from overseas. But the fact is that there’s a huge amount of oil under L.A. They are just waiting for the day when fuel prices make it worth the labor cost to pull it out. Oil is a vital and important part of America, but we’re priced out right now.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Which city has surprised you the most so far?
D.W.: We try to really understand what makes the city unique. Seattle really worked well for us. So you go to Seattle and you go up in the Space Needle and look down. I got hooked to a cable and was able to walk out on the edge of that halo. And there a big wow factor in that—only a few hundred people in 50 years have been able to do that. That was cool and fun.
But when I was up there, I realized that the topography of this city made it one of the hardest places in the world to settle. The geography of Seattle made it nearly impossible to get to, let alone get the products they were developing out. The city was constrained by the Cascade Mountain Range and Puget Sound. The identity of the place roots itself in its origin and the people who defined it. We realized that we needed to tell the stories of the cities.
Which story was the most impressive?
D.W. At the top of Mount Rainer they gather the water from a glacially fed stream, so it’s constant year round. And they use the water in the most unique way. They built a ten-mile log flume, almost 100 years ago, called the Electron Hydroelectric Project. There's a wooden trough that they captured in the simplest way and poured the water into the flume. The flume makes it’s way down the entire mountain, and finally to a reservoir where it goes into turbines to make hydroelectric power. The only way they could maintain this was with a tiny railroad on top of the flume. So they built their own railroad cars there. It blew me away.
They are still making a fairly significant amount of power, but obviously Seattle has grown, so they have to find it elsewhere, as well. But this was the beginning of getting power to Seattle to make the city grow. You see this stuff and you think, that is as bold as it gets. You can’t do anything harder than that.
But we’re of several generations now were we just reap all the benefits of what was done before us. And it’s no one’s fault, but we forget that the reason why this country is here because people took wild chances and literally killed themselves doing it. It’s not that hard to find these stories when you go looking for it.