I am standing in the alligator pit. This is not a euphemism. About 10 feet away, a dozen gators slowly swirl around an ankle-deep pool of swamp water. My job: Walk in, haul one of these critters onto a patch of sand, and tackle him before he flips me into the famed “death roll.”
At times like these, I have flashes of my real life — Boston Globe arts reporter, husband, father of two — and I consider the absurdity of the moment. I’ve wrestled with some elusive sources over the years, but never one who could bite my arms off.
The director signals that we’re rolling. My green T-shirt is sweat-plastered to my skin as I spring into action as host and writer of “Edge of America,” a new series set to premiere Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel. I’m following in the footsteps of bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations”), the free-eating Andrew Zimmern (“Bizarre Foods”), and pig-out master Adam Richman (“Man v. Food”).
My show is about the unexpected things people around the country do for entertainment and fun. I’m not just scribbling in my notebook. I’m throwing myself into the action.
That means bike-jousting in Oregon, racing lobster boats in Maine, and, in this case, tackling an alligator in Florida. Why alligators? Because the whole point of “Edge” is not to do the predictable. No trip to Disney or Miami Beach for our Florida episode. Instead, I headed to Pensacola for a localized version of Spain’s running of the bulls, only with roller derby girls, and to Weeki Wachee Springs to experience life as a mermaid. I also explored another popular entertainment option that falls outside the mainsteam, the Native Village in Hollywood, Fla. This place is known for its gator wrestling shows.
Under the watchful eyes of our guides — they coached me for about a half-hour; they also had me sign a “death waiver” — I haul the gator out of the muck. He’s much heavier than I anticipated, hundreds of pounds, and his claws grip into the sand to resist. I strain, keep pulling, and then, in the split second he’s in position, launch myself like a juiced-up linebacker.
“America, you are welcome,” I shout, as soon as I’ve got his jaws apart. The clouds open, as if on cue, and I leap off my gator and dart to the opposite side of the pen.
So how did a 42-year-old writer with a liberal arts degree from Tufts University end up wrestling alligators on national TV?
A few years ago I produced and starred in a documentary, “Do It Again,” chronicling my attempt to reunite the ’60s rock band The Kinks. David Padrusch, a friend who happens to be a Travel Channel executive, saw the film at the Independent Film Festival Boston and later recruited me. That led to the 13-episode season 1 of “Edge of America.”
I know what you’ve probably read about “reality” or nonfiction TV. That it’s staged or scripted. I can’t speak for those bearded “Duck Dynasty” guys with their oh-so-perfect one-liners, nor for the entire industry, particularly since I still feel about as much a part of it as a pork roast at a PETA convention. But if you’re wondering about whether I have a stunt double, talk to Frank.
He’s my physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital. I started seeing Frank after hurting my right shoulder throwing a rusty bike at a competition in Oregon. Sometimes, my ailing wing improves. Then I head to the next shoot and do something stupid. Like play unicycle football. Back at MGH, Frank smiles, shakes his head, and assesses the damage.
Nobody at Magilla, “Edge of America”’s production company, or Travel Channel forces me to bike-joust. In fact, there’s always a staffer on set trying to get me to wear a bigger helmet or strap on my seat belt. By now, though, they’ve realized that I’m my own worst boss. If we’re going to do this show, we’re going to do it. You can’t really feel what it’s like to leap into the unknown unless you’re willing to, well, leap.
Living the experience . . . of haggis
I am sitting at a table in a field and wearing a kilt. Behind me, a dozen men blow bagpipes. As hundreds of people cheer, a steaming tube of animal innards is placed under my nose. The gun sounds and, using my hands, I begin to shovel the revolting meat into my mouth as quickly as possible. Gag. David Lynch couldn’t cook up a scene this bizarre.
This haggis eating contest is just one of my experiences at the Celtic Classic, which draws a quarter of a million people to Bethlehem, Pa. And despite the temporary nastiness, it’s what I love about “Edge of America.” This is not a show about stuffing my face. It’s about living the experience. I can be eating haggis one moment and throwing a giant log — the caber — the next. I now get paid to fly planes, crash cars, shoot pigs, climb trees, and chase down rattlesnakes. For somebody who grew up reading Jack Kerouac, followed Charles Kuralt’s rambles, and spent the last few years watching Bourdain on “No Reservations,” it’s a dream come true.
As host and writer, my job is to make sure each episode has my best performance and voice. Magilla takes care of virtually everything else, from budgets to editing to snacks.
But as much as I enjoy making “Edge of America,” I’m not ready to trade in my laptop just yet. I love writing, feel a deep connection to Boston, my hometown, and to The Boston Globe. I’ve spent more than a decade building up the arts beat and I know how to cover it. I’m also no idiot. Even “All in the Family” got canceled. I haven’t even hit the air yet.
So we’ve tried to cope. For me, that has meant working seven days a week for nearly five months. I fix up Globe stories in deep Maine, rural Oklahoma, and Ouray, Colo. One afternoon my editor called to chat about an assignment. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, as we spoke, I was lying on a dock in Florida wearing a mermaid’s fin.
The sacrifice for my wife, Carlene — a writer who teaches journalism full time at Northeastern University — has been considerable. She’s played single parent with Lila, 10, and Cal, 2. She also had to take a year off from leading journalism students through the Middle East each summer. Carlene and I have had to deal with being apart. That’s the funny thing about being a Travel Channel host: I love traveling, but I love it most with my wife. And I miss being home, sitting in front of the fire with Carlene, sharing the Sunday paper.
That said, I’m proud of “Edge of America.” Making it has taught me that the creative process, at its best, is similar whether creating TV or writing a story. To make something special, you need to stretch yourself and take chances. Which might explain how, on a sunbaked afternoon in April, I ended up in a field in Oklahoma with a pair of clamps and an angry bull.
Why was I here to castrate a bull? Because in Stillwater, the annual Calf Fry draws thousands of people for music, beer and, yes, calf fries — otherwise known as sliced, battered, deep-fried bull testicles. They’re a tradition in Oklahoma, where cowboys have been performing this act to keep the beasts from mauling each other, and also because the meat of a bull is too tough for anything other than bologna.
I could have handled the annual Calf Fry like many TV hosts. Go to the festival, chew on a cooked testicle, and make a funny face. But that’s not why I signed onto “Edge of America.” This show is about going under the surface. About understanding the roots of popular and special local events that the rest of the country has probably never heard of. You might wince as I do the deed — I know I did — but I imagine you’ll also find yourself wanting to watch the next segment, just to find out where this leap takes me next.