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TV’s urban explorer

Don Wildman takes viewers off limits

Created date

August 23rd, 2011

It s hard to say where you might find Don Wildman on any given day. It could be more than 660 feet in the air, walking the edge of the Space Needle in Seattle, Wash., or 30 feet below the earth s surface in an abandoned coal mine in Chattanooga, Tenn. While they may seem strange, these destinations all have something in common. They are feats of engineering the building blocks of modern civilization and they are the subject ' of Wildman s new Travel Channel series Off Limits. In each episode, Wildman takes viewers off the grid and into the lesser-known locations of some of the most traveled cities in America. From the dank dungeons of California s San Quentin State Prison to Buffalo, N.Y. s crumbling Central Railroad Terminal, the show tells the story of those places that people rarely see and almost never think of. The subject is a perfect fit for Wildman, whose past TV credits include the History Channel s Cities of the Underworld. This has been a lifelong interest of mine, he recalls. We don t often think about what s going on behind the scenes or about what s beneath our feet. In the rare cases that we do, these thoughts tend to enthrall us. Overall, though, people don t take enough time to consider what they don t see on the surface.

Hidden treasures

And Wildman s doing something about it. Scaling walls, hopping fences, and scouring the nation s underground, Wildman opens the public s eyes in each episode to hidden treasures right in their own urban backyards. One site, in particular, is truly off limits, a chilling reminder of the long-running tensions between democracy and communism. Along the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., 32 feet below the sun-baked desert sand, is a remnant of America s Cold War past. Here, the U.S. military housed 18 nuclear missiles capable of vaporizing a city halfway around the world. At the start of the segment, the silo s owner orders Wildman and his crew to turn off their cameras before entering. Moments later, they come back on to reveal a subterranean labyrinth of concrete walls and brightly lit control panels that could have been ground zero for a third world war. The missile silo was a great place to feature because it highlighted something designed for a specific period in American history, explains Wildman. This show is about man s miraculous creations, and the irony in this instance is that we have an amazing example of engineering, the purpose of which was to destroy the very thing we re supposed to sustain civilization. Other locations that hint at the dark underbelly of America s past include a secluded compound in Los Angles, Calif., built 80 years ago, some believe, as a haven for Nazi sympathizers. The refuge was entirely self-sustaining, equipped with its own power station and a 400,000-gallon water supply. A shell of rusty metal and vandalized concrete are all that remain today.

Present-day marvels

But Wildman emphasizes that his show is as much about the present as it is the past. When you think about the millions of people that live in our nation s cities, it s mind-boggling that the modern metropolis can even exist and function, he says. Off Limitssheds light on the many things that make it all work. Wildman and his camera crew descend into the depths of mine shafts where for years we ve harvested natural resources like coal and precious metals. These products give us power and allow us to forge the steel and iron girders that support the towering structures piercing the skyline of every major American city. With only a safety harness as his lifeline, Wildman intrepidly climbs the heights of bridges and dams, and slogs through the muck of sewage systems that run beneath cities like Washington, D.C., all to show viewers what makes their daily lives possible. Like a true urban explorer a modern Indiana Jones of sorts Wildman shrugs off danger. No hole runs too deep, no space too tight, no structure too high. We could do the whole show through narration, but there s something real about actually taking you there, no matter how hazardous the situation may be, he says. This creates an organic attachment to the places we visit, which, in turn, gives the audience a vivid experience. That s what we do. michael.williams@erickson.com

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