I’m not a thrill seeker. Far from it, I’m generally a wuss. I don’t succumb to peer pressure – but sometimes professional pressure wins out. Twenty-eighteen has been a banner year for getting me out of my comfort zone.
I thought I’d had my thrill for the year when I zip-lined in Palo Duro Canyon. Little did I know that higher and faster experiences were in my future in Henry County, Georgia.
Henry County is just southeast of Atlanta. The largest towns in the county are Hampton, Stockbridge, Locust Grove and McDonnough which range in population from 5,500 to 26,000. But size isn’t everything.
Our press trip got off to a swift start in Hampton at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. I gave silent thanks to Weight Watchers as I struggled into a racing suit. Donning a helmet, I waited for my turn to ride shotgun in a NASCAR race car.
These racers don’t have doors that open – you get in through the window. So I was picked up and slipped in, feet-first. We took off with a roar for three laps around the 1.54 mile track, gaining speed with each lap. By the last lap we were going 170 mph and as we swooshed around the 24-degree banked turns, it did occur to me that I might die. But I didn’t. We came to a stop and I was extricated by the same team of good-looking guys. Fantastic way to start my adventures!
Track tours are offered Monday through Friday for $10 and include a tour around the track in a van. A ride-along like I did, it costs quite a bit more. If you want to drive the car yourself, start saving your money now. Still, for die-hard NASCAR fans, this is an ultimate experience. (www.atlantamotorspeedway.com)
But even bigger thrills were in store in Hampton. We visited the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to save American’s Army aviation history and to restore and fly vintage helicopters. The volunteers, many as vintage as the aircraft, most veterans of conflicts from the Vietnam War to operations in the Middle East, are great people with great stories. And you can actually take a ride in a restored helicopter.
AAHF has four flyable Hueys and five flyable Cobras. The Hueys are large utility helicopters; the Cobras, smaller attack helicopters. Most of the aircraft flying here were shot down once or twice.
Six of us loaded into the large Huey. I was one of the riders installed in the gun wells. We faced out of the sides of the helicopter – with no doors. We were securely harnessed but the positions provided real thrills, especially when the pilot banked the craft. The ride was pure fun for us but the rides are often very emotional for veterans or families of those airmen who didn’t make it back.
You can check the Foundation’s web site, https://armyav.org/, to see a schedule of appearances by the group and cost and schedule of public flights. To see a Huey up close, visit the Oklahoma History Center’s exhibit, “Welcome Home: Oklahomans and the War in Vietnam.” The exhibition runs until November, 2020 but the helicopter will be a permanent part of the gallery featuring the military.
Hampton has another claim to fame. A number of scenes of “The Walking Dead,” Season 6, were filmed here. There are no monuments to the show but in the alley east of Main Street, we found a police-style outline of a body where one particularly gruesome scene was filmed. Arrange for a tour at the SpeakEasy Book Store.
Lots of other films have used Hampton as a location. Walk down Main Street in Hampton and you’ll see plaques in the brick sidewalks with names of movies and dates they were filmed in the area.
There’s so much to do and see in the county. We visited a haunted café – BridgeView Country Cooking in Stockbridge -- for breakfast. The skillet-slinging spirit failed to show up but we had great biscuits and gravy and a wonderful country store – W.D. Miller’s Store – in McDonough, where a great group of seniors meet every morning to talk, play games, eat and instigate ways to help others.
Barn Beautiful in Stockbridge features creations made from salvaged woods – with histories included. French Market & Tavern in Locust Grove carries great gifts and décor and dishes up super food for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch in a historic building. We tried international cuisine at Italian Oven and Yumi Japanese Steakhouse – both great. And I think it’s illegal to leave the area without a visit to Shane’s Rib Shack. You won’t go hungry in Henry County.
We also visited Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary – more than 1,500 animals from birds to bears. A sudden, heavy rainstorm cut our visit short – the usual tour lasts about an hour and a half.
Topping my adventures was tree-climbing in Panola Mountain State Park. The park, designated a National Natural Landmark for its beauty, geology and rare ecosystem, offers a variety of activities. And we were going to learn how to climb up into a giant oak where guests can walk on the upper branches, laze in a sling swing or even spend the night hanging in a hammock.
I was skeptical about my ability but got hooked into a harness and led to one of several dangling ropes. I don’t understand the physics involved, but the technique consisted of doubling up, putting my feet in a loop and quickly standing while working up the main rope – I looked like a large inchworm! I got about 15 feet off the ground, while younger colleagues were still struggling below me. I decided I’d proved my mettle and didn’t need to go any further. That’s the beauty of age.
What an adventure-filled trip this was. I challenged myself to do things I never thought I’d do. I’m so glad I did them. But I still won’t bungee jump!