Archive for the ‘Historic’ Category

Tanks For The Memories: 2 Unforgettable Tank-Driving Adventures

April 14, 2010

Tank Driving adventuresOf all the extraordinary experiences I’ve had over the years, the chance to take the controls of a 55-ton British Chieftain battle tank has to be among the most memorable.

Unfortunately, the Dallas-based operation that gave me that opportunity is no longer in business.  The good news, however, is that I’ve found a couple places that still allow ordinary civilians to have similar tank-driving adventures:

Lazer Tanks

This small mom-and-pop shop located just north of Reno, Nevada is now the only place in North America where individuals and small groups can spend time in the driver’s seat of Cold War classics including a Soviet-era T-55 battle tank and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle.


Think of this well-established British operation as a military hardware theme park, where you can run British Chieftain tanks on a dedicated off-road course that includes the uniquely geeky thrill of driving one of these massive machines over a parked car.  They also usually have a number of tanks for sale in case you’d like to bring home the ultimate souvenir!


Bulldozer Daze: Dig This Offers Big Kids A Chance To Play In A Life-Size Sandbox

Summer Skirmishes: Playing Army At The Annual War & Peace Show


Adventures In Aviation: Zeppelin Flights

April 7, 2010

zeppelin flights san franciscoIn a world where many people have come to view flying as an ordeal to be endured, there are still lots of us for whom the act of leaving terra firma behind remains an adventure to be savored.  If you’re one of us, you owe it to yourself to book a seat on the first zeppelin to take to the skies above the U.S. in more than 70 years.

The company responsible for the zeppelin’s return to America, Airship Ventures, offers one- and two-hour flight-seeing tours around San Francisco Bay in the 246-foot helium-filled Eureka, as well as occasional cross-country flights as they reposition the zeppelin for tours in southern California or Monterey (if you have your private pilot’s license you can even take a turn at the controls). Between the zeppelin’s gentle flight characteristics—three 200-horsepower engines in rotating nacelles allow pilots to make this 747-sized airship hover, climb, and descend like a helicopter—and its huge panoramic windows, there simply isn’t a better platform for airborne rubbernecking out there.

Then, of course, there’s the sheer rarity of the experience.  The Eureka is the largest airship in existence and one of only three zeppelins operating anywhere in the world, facts that should earn you some bragging rights back home.

Ultimately though, all that grown-up appeal vanishes the moment you climb aboard.  From aerial views of Alcatraz and the city’s dramatic skyline to an amazing Golden Gate fly-by, even serious “been there, flown in that” aviation geeks (umm, like me for instance) are likely to find themselves with their noses pressed up against the glass like wide-eyed 10-year-olds.

In the end, it’s this sense of wonder that makes these zeppelin flights such an extraordinary experience.  Even for all those poor jaded folks who insist they don’t like flying.


Full Of Hot Air: How To Be Part Of A Mass Ascension At The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

High-Flying History: Take Off In A World War II B-17

Lindbergh’s Legacy: Powered Hang-Gliding Flights Above Lucky Lindy’s Maui Home

Pony Express Redux: How You Can Saddle Up To Ride Horseback In The Hoofprints Of History

April 5, 2010

Pony Express horseback rideHoof-beats ring out in the night as the trail-hardened Pony Express rider approaches the lonely Nevada waystation.  In one fluid movement he leaps off his tired mount, grabs the mail pouch stuffed with urgent letters from points east, vaults aboard his fresh horse and is off again at a gallop before the cloud of dust he’s stirred up even has a chance to settle.

In the 150 years since the first horse and rider left St. Joseph, Missouri on April 3, 1860, the Central Overland & Pike’s Peak Express Company—better known as the Pony Express—has become an undeniable legend of the Old West.  What few people realize, however, is that each year a dedicated group of volunteers gives horse lovers and history buffs a chance to saddle up for a firsthand horseback experience of what this incredible 10-day journey from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California was really like.

  • 24: Hours per day the original mail pouch was kept moving.
  • 12-15: The number of miles the average horse was ridden at a full-on gallop before being swapped for a fresh mount.
  • 75-100: Number of miles each rider covered in one shift, though one rider covering two back-to-back stages was not unheard of.
  • 20: Number of pounds each mail pouch weighed; also the weight of the rider’s other equipment including  a water sack, bible, and two pistols.
  • 125: Maximum weight of the rider in pounds.
  • 18: Number of months the Pony Express service actually ran before being made obsolete by the telegraph.

As it turns out, there are actually several ways to participate in the National Pony Express Association annual re-ride of the entire 1,966-mile route.  Anyone can pay $5 to send a commemorative letter along in the ail pouch—a relative bargain, considering it’s the same price the original Pony Express charged 150 years ago—or attend some of the dozens of events along the eight-state routeTo be one of the 500 or so riders who annually recreate the ride of the Pony Express, however, you’ll need to become a member of the organization.

To learn more about this unique but short-lived chapter of American history, check out the National Park Service’s Pony Express National Historic Trail website, which has lots of info on the route and its history, including details on historic outposts that can be visited by car, 4WD, horseback, and hiking.


Wagons West: An Authentic Wagon Train Adventure

Horsing Around: How You Can Ride With Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Blues Travelers: Memphis’ American Dream Safaris Offers A Chance To Really FEEL The Blues

March 15, 2010

Blues Tour American Dream Safaris

Tad Pierson

If you’re more than just a casual fan of the blues—someone who can trace the connection* between blues legends like Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, for example—sooner or later you have to make the pilgrimage to the land where this distinctly American art form was born.

While you could certainly explore the area on your own, I’ve discovered an alternative that will help you get a lot more out of your visit.  Namely a plugged-in local guide by the name of Tad Pierson, a one-man college of musical knowledge whose decades of experience can help you develop a much greater appreciation for the music and the landscape that spawned it.

Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.

— Jimi Hendrix

Rather than being packed into a soulless tour bus and fed a canned recitation of local lore, Pierson’s Memphis-based American Dream Safaris offers tours designed to allow you to actually feel the unique vibe here from the back of his 1955 Cadillac.  His repertoire of excursions ranges from a three-hour “Greatest Hits” spin through the streets of Memphis to all-day expeditions along the deserted back roads of the Mississippi Delta.  Along the way you’ll be served up heaping helpings of everything from Elvis shrines to rocking gospel choirs to smoke-filled juke joints.Blind Lemon Jefferson 78

More than anything else, however, Pierson’s tours offer blues aficionados something as rare as an original 78 of by Blind Lemon Jefferson: A chance to have a truly extraordinary experience.

*Both were interviewed by and made their first recordings for American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.


Hit The Stage With Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp

School of Rock Field Trip: Cleveland’s Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame

Horsing Around: How You Can Ride Into History With Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

February 27, 2010

Buffalo Bill's Wild WestWhen I read that today was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s birthday, it made me wonder whether anyone out there was still putting on the kind of Old West extravaganzas this larger-than-life showman made famous in the waning days of the American frontier.  What I discovered will surprise city slickers and delight all those folks for whom cowboy skills are much more than just quaint historical relics.

You see, it turns out that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is currently gearing up for its 39th season full of trick riders, fancy ropers, stagecoach robberies, Native American dancers and much more.  Modern-day impresario Montie Montana Jr. says he likes to think of this blend of history and theater as the kind of show old Buffalo Bill himself would be putting on if he were still with us.

While that’s all well and good, what makes this such an extraordinary experience is the fact that Montana holds open tryouts the morning of every performance.  Virtually everyone who turns up can earn a spot in the over-the-top grand finale of that night’s show, while a lucky few may be offered a permanent spot in the show’s internationally touring cast.

To find out where you can see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—and possibly audition for what’s sure to be an unforgettable moment in this living-history spectacle—check the show’s online calendar.

More Cool Stuff:

3 Family-Friendly Living History Adventures

Cool photos of the original Buffalo Bill

Want Your Share Of The New California Gold Rush?

January 23, 2010

Extraordinary Experience: Gold Panning Adventure

Panning for gold in Woods Creek

There are certain moments in history I would love to have been present at.  Not the least of which is the frosty morning of January 24, 1848 when carpenter James Marshall found those first few gold nuggets just downstream from the sawmill he was building on American River.

That’s because it was this chance discovery that started the California Gold Rush.  An event that quite literally made the Golden State what it is today.

But you probably knew that already, didn’t you? Well here’s something you might not know:  There’s still plenty of gold in the cold, clear creeks of those Sierra Nevada foothills, just sitting there waiting for someone to take it home.  And with gold prices at record highs, there’s no better time to go out and get your share.

Whether you decide to make your search for the shiny flakes a leisurely family outing or a serious full-time pursuit, the folks at Gold Prospecting Adventures in the tiny village of Jamestown, California can set you up with all the tools and instruction you need.  But one word of caution based on personal experience: Once you see those first flakes show up in the bottom of your pan, you’re liable to get a little excited.  And it’s this sense of exhilaration that I’ve found gives new meaning to the term gold rush!

More Extraordinary Experiences:

Gem Hunting In San Diego

Black Friday Blues

November 27, 2009

Just heard an interview with a women who arrived at a southern California mall at 4:30 this morning because she thought joining the crowds lined up for the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving deals would be an interesting “experience.” I’m sure she’s right on some level, though honestly battling the Black Friday throngs for questionable deals on things I have no real use for is one adventure I have absolutely no interest in.

As a matter of fact, I’ve long been a proponent of the philosophy that we’re all burdened by way too much “stuff.”  All of which will wear out, go out of style, or just plain get ignored at the back of the hall closet much sooner than we’d care to imagine.  Which explains why one of’s core principles is that “Possessions don’t last but memories do.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I recommend giving the gift of an extraordinary experience this holiday.  Besides providing your giftee with a day they’ll never forget, you can also take satisfaction in knowing that you’ll be able to avoid the whole hassle of standing in line at the Returns counter when you discover that your friends and relatives already had one.

If you’re in need of some specific ideas for once-in-a-lifetime adventure gifts, here are a few I can highly recommend based on personal experience:

  • Let your favorite guitar hero live out their rock star fantasies (minus the groupies) at Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp.
  • Give her an experience that’s as unique as she is by creating her own one-of-a-kind custom fragrance.
  • Honestly now, what guy (actually, I’m told girls like it too) wouldn’t dig spending the day operating a 10-ton bulldozer or excavator?
  • Top Gun wannabes can take the controls of their own fighter plane at Air Combat USA and go head-to-head with an opponent in full-on dogfights.
  • If you know someone who has dreams where they find themselves flying like a bird, make those visions come true on a tandem paragliding flight.
  • Find out what the whole surfing craze is about with these affordable surfing lessons.
  • This drag racing school is one of the few places where putting the pedal to the metal is actually encouraged.
  • History buffs and aviation geeks will both love these one-hour flights aboard an authentic World War II-era B-17 bomber.
  • If you know someone who enjoys sailing, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll get off on taking the wheel of a genuine America’s Cup yacht.

Paranormal Activity Anyone?

October 8, 2009

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Myrtles Plantation/St. Francisville, LA

Maybe you’ve heard about this new movie Paranormal Activity, which is supposed to be the scariest new movie to come along since The Blair Witch Project made us all think twice before heading into the woods with a video camera back in 1999.

Of course, watching a  movie like this is just one way to get that spooky feeling that makes a shiver run up your spine.  For a more authentic paranormal experience, I’d highly recommend you spend the night at St. Francisville, Louisiana’s Myrtles Plantation.

This grand 1796 antebellum home has seen so much tragedy over the past two centuries that it’s no wonder many paranormal experts believe it to be one of the most haunted homes in the U.S.  You’re bound to get goose bumps just listening to the guide’s tales of ghostly encounters that actually seem to get more frequent when guests are present.  If that’s not spooky enough for you, you can arrange to spend the night in one of the rooms of the main house where former guests have heard everything from the sounds of some long-ago social event to a mortally-wounded man staggering loudly up the steep wooden stairs.

And while there’s no guarantee you’ll see a ghost, it’s a safe bet that you’ll come away with some great stories to tell at your next Halloween party!

An Extraordinary Place

August 29, 2009

Hurricanes signIn my adult life, I’ve lived in more than a dozen cities and spent time in dozens more.  And I’m here to tell you that, in my experience, there’s no place on this planet that can match New Orleans when it comes to pure, irrepressible joi de vivre.

What I find truly extraordinary, however, is the fact that this laid-back, fun-loving vibe has remained virtually unchanged despite the dramatic damage inflicted when Hurricane Katrina hit the Crescent City four years ago today.  While many New Orleans neighborhoods remain devastated, the laissez le bon temps rouler spirit that earned this town the nickname “The City That Care Forgot” remains remarkably intact.

Nine Lives coverThough I’m convinced you need to experience this intangible quality first-hand before you can truly understand it, Dan Baum’s new book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to getting to the heart and soul of what makes this place so special.  The book is a great read, a real page-turner, as it tells the story of New Orleans’ unique culture through the lives of nine very different individuals, from millionaire Mardi Gras kings to hard-working blue-collar types, all set against the backdrop of the hurricane’s aftermath.

With all that in mind, we asked Baum to share some of his insights on New Orleans:

AR:  In your book you say New Orleans is like no other city in the United States.  What makes it so different?

DB: The U.S. tends to be a place where everyone is always trying to get ahead, trying to make tomorrow better than today.  New Orleans is the opposite of that, a place where the people seem to pay no attention to the future whatsoever, they’re totally living in the moment.  Which is a delightful way to live if you can get away with it.  Another big difference is that there’s no such thing as a stranger in New Orleans.  You ask someone you’ve never met a simple question and you wind up in this long friendly conversation where next thing you know it’s 45 minutes later.

AR:  You went to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the New Yorker.  So how did you wind up writing a book that’s less about the damage done by the storm than it is the life stories of these nine people?

DB: It was about six months into my reporting when I realized I was really bored with writing about the hurricane.  Katrina was a big thing, but it’s not the most interesting thing about New Orleans by any means.  I just became fascinated by the unique culture of the city and decided the best way to tell that story was through these nine very different individuals.

AR:  It’s been four years since the flood that wiped out entire neighborhoods in New Orleans.  How do you think the city’s recovery is progressing?

DB: It depends what you want to see.  When I go back to visit, I see the glass as half full.  I’m amazed at how much has been rebuilt, especially considering the lousy help they’ve received.  But the people who live there every day really do still feel the loss.  They say “Are you kidding? A third of our people haven’t come back yet, all these local places we’ve been going to for years are gone.”New_Orleans_Sign

AR:  Do you think New Orleans will ever be the same?

DB: People there definitely want changes like better schools, but they’ve also made  a very conscious  decision to put things back to the way they were before the storm.  And I mean that in a good sense.  They’ve already made it very clear they don’t want New Orleans to become just another a big soulless city driven by the dollar and the clock.

AR:  Any final words for someone thinking about visiting the Crescent City?

DB: I’m always trying to encourage people to go to New Orleans.  The food, the music, the architecture, the story-telling—all the things that make it such a great place to visit—are all still there.  It’s also quite inexpensive, by the standards of most cities.  I think it’s one of the best vacations you can take and more out-of-town visitors are exactly what the city needs most right now.

Spaced Out

August 20, 2009

GPN-2000-001036Next week’s launch of the space shuttle Discovery reminds me of a lesson I learned the hard way earlier this year:  Trying to catch one of NASA’s handful of remaining space shuttle launches isn’t as easy as it sounds.

You see, Murphy’s Law caused last February’s Discovery mission to be postponed again and again, until I had to settle for having lunch with an astronaut and riding the shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center.  Both enjoyable and recommended, but …sigh…not exactly the extraordinary experience I was hoping for.

Of course, there is one sure-fire way to guarantee yourself a front-row seat for a future space shot.  For a cool $170 million, Space Adventures will prepare you to blast off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and spend time aboard the International Space Station.  The company has several other, ahem, out-of-this-world programs available, including the chance to be the first private citizen to do a spacewalk while orbiting the earth at more than 17,000 miles-per-hour.  Which will make it pretty darn hard for anyone to one-up your stories at the next cocktail party.