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4 Trips That Teach You While You Travel

From Texas cowboy fun to NYC billiard lessons, these courses are too cool for school.

Colorado travel lesson

The Andromeda casita, framed by the towering Palisade behind, is the ideal place to reflect on a day of dinosaur tracking. (Photo: Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa)

Lesson 1

Colorado: Going prehistoric with an earth science expert

“Hold out your arm; we’ll use it as a timeline,” Zebulon Miracle, whose actual job title is Curator of Curiosity, says to my six-year-old. “The distance from your shoulder to your fingertip is the length of the Earth’s hist-ory.” He touches the first segment of Hank’s finger. “That’s how long humans have been here.” He indicates the second joint. “And that’s when the dinosaurs were here.” We all pause, taking in the enormity of planetary history on this tiny hand. “Now let’s go find some dinosaur tracks,” he says, pulling down the brim of his hat and leading us deeper into the canyon. We trek past clumps of sage and cacti, flowering yellow and pink against the red-rock cliffs and sharp plateaus, and stop at a huge boulder. It’s a prehistoric Instagram: on the flat surface are the prints of a three-toed Grallator (a cute version of T. Rex, apparently) and a proto-mammal called Brasilichnium (which resembled a giant rat). The find is so new that local paleontologists haven’t checked it out yet. “You know who you remind me of?” Hank asks, squinting up at Miracle. “Indiana Jones.”

If I’m ever going to wrap my mind around the universe, I’ve come to the right place. Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa, in the middle of nowhere Colorado, is a celebration of science, speed and stuff that’s bigger than us. Combining educational programs with outdoor adventure, this 800-acre playground is the brainchild of John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel. A stay here is your favourite documentary come to life. The property hosts curiosity retreats that bring together luminaries in fields like quantum physics and conscious capitalism (think Club TED rather than Club Med). To explore the almost-untouched high-desert setting, there’s a fleet of cars, including a Tesla Roadster and a convertible Bentley, which guests can take for a spin along the ribbons of canyon roads. And at the Adventure Centre, pro climbers will take you bouldering. I’m checking into one of the luxurious casitas with my grade-school son because it’s also a rare place where parents’ and kids’ interests actively intersect: cars, space, dinosaurs, swimming pools and Indiana Jones (this last for slightly different reasons).

Colorado travel lesson

Getting perspective on Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa from atop the Palisade mesa.(Photo: Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa)

The next episode leads us to the helipad. There’s no better way to get a grasp on the landscape of southwestern Colorado, which is straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. As the blades of the AStar helicopter begin to whir, I settle into the buff leather seats, adjust the Bose headset and squeeze Hank’s hand. Soon we’re hovering like a giant dragonfly over spikes and fins of dorsal rock from the Ancestral Rockies that the pilot explains eroded more than 300 million years ago. We learn to recognize the differences between Wingate Sandstone, granite and the Morrison Formation, rich in dinosaur remains. We wind over Dolores River, named by the Spaniards who trudged rather sorrowfully through this landscape in the 1700s, and then peer down at Sewemup Mesa, where cattle thieves stole away to sew new brands into the animals’ hides and hid out while waiting for them to heal. Back on land, Hank and I give each other the thumbs up – our 50th since breakfast.

There really are opportunities for learning around every corner here, even after dark. Wandering past the cottonwood trees and ponds full of bullfrogs on our last evening, we meet an astronomer named Ricky, who aims his telescope at Jupiter and its four largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the ones Galileo identified in 1610. Then we zoom in on our moon, its milky surface splatted with craters. “That line is called the terminator; it separates day and night,” he explains to Hank – a perfect cue for bedtime. We’ve watched Cosmos at home. Here we’re starring in it.

Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa 43200 Colorado 141, Gateway, 970-931-2458, gatewaycanyons.com

How to Get Curiouser and Curiouser, according to Zebulon Miracle, Curator of Curiosity

1. Start young. “Growing up, my parents instilled in me the value of learning. We’d go to Southern California and spend one day at Disneyland and three days at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. No matter what their age, people need little reminders, boosters, to keep their curiosity going.”

2. Mix it up. “I’ll be hiking first thing in the morning, showing guests the local wildflowers, modern uses of medicinal plants and the geology of the land. In the afternoon, I have office hours at the library, and I’ll discuss ancient astronomy or paleontology. I also give talks on local history. There’s one I call ‘Murder, Madams and Mayhem’; with these three topics, I can usually get people’s attention!”

3. Be interested in yourself. “The most unexpected thing about this job is what I’ve learned about myself. I never realized how interested I was in plants or birds or geology until I started studying and helping others understand them. I am amazed at how much the landscape and region can tell us; you begin to realize that there is just so much to learn that you’ve been blind to.”


New York travel lessons

Lesson 2

New York: Taking cues from a master billiards instructor

“I peaked when I was 12,” I’m telling Fran Crimi, certified master billiard instructor (and the first woman to earn that distinction from the Billiards Congress of America), about my early training as a pool sharkling in northern New Brunswick, where I learned to call the shots on my grandfather’s basement table. “Now I’m sporadically intermediate.”

I meet the Queens native at Amsterdam Billiards & Bar, a roomy 27-table pool hall near Astor Place where she gives lessons. Crimi, whose student roster includes everyone from Al Pacino prepping for Carlito’s Way to father-son duos looking for a way to bond, has me shoot a few balls as she asks me to point to a particular weakness in my game. I think as I take aim at the three-ball, trying to cut it into the corner pocket, not slicing it fine enough. “That,” I say. Crimi asks if I know which eye is my dominant one. I don’t. After a quick diagnostic, it’s the left eye that wins.

“Bring that eye over the cue when you shoot,” she says and has me readjust the stance I’ve just been taught. For the next hour, Crimi runs me through the fundamentals: stance, cue position and the all-important alignment. Your right heel, back hand, elbow and the pool cue should all form a straight line aiming toward the target ball. (Flip that if you’re left-handed.) Halfway through our lesson, she films me taking a shot, and the footage confirms that I look as awkward as I feel. But as the one-ball drops into a corner pocket, I can’t argue with the results. “Remember to get low, and stay low,” Crimi tells me as the lesson winds up. As with most things, it’s all in the follow-through.

Amsterdam Billiards & Bar 110 East 11th St., Manhattan, 212-995-0333, amsterdambilliards.com
Book lessons with Fran Crimi: 718-846-1967

Three signs you’re in a real pool hall

1. The chalk “The surface should be pretty flat,” says Crimi. If it looks like a hole’s been drilled in it, that’s a sign those using it don’t know how to chalk a cue – tilt the stick, and brush the side of the chalk over the tip.
2. The cue The tip and the ferrule – the part that joins the tip to the shaft – should be flush with the wood on the cue. Also, roll the cue across the table to check that the wood isn’t warped.
3. The table The cloth should be clean, and the rails (the wood underneath the cushion) should be sharp and offer a lot of rebound when a ball is bounced off one. Dead rails are a dead giveaway.


Texas - learning the ropes

Photo: Tyler Sharp

Lesson 3

Texas: Learning the Ropes from a Hill-Country Cowboy

Kitted out in a uniform that looks endearingly like that of an overgrown Boy Scout, Scott is teaching us how to throw hatchets at a pair of targets hewn from tree stumps in the woods five metres away. Launch the mini-axe so that it spins gracefully, and the corner will chew satisfyingly into the stump. (Hit the blade head-on and you’ll “flat it,” making it fall with a thud to the ground.) I am not sure where this skill will come in handy, but it’s certainly more intimidating than darts.

Here at Travaasa, a kind of cowboy summer camp for adults in Austin hill country, you can learn to lasso a plastic calf from a cattle rancher who started roping at age five. (As he explains in his classic drawl, “I had to lasso a bale of hay 1,000 times before they let me near a real calf.”) There’s even a rumour going around that nine-time world champion rodeo king Ty Murray is staying here tonight, though I’m guessing it’s for a soak in the infinity pool rather than the mechanical bull-riding class. Perched on the edge of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Travaasa Austin is only backwoods in the geographic sense. You can even get your spa treatment in a room that is suitably on theme, with a carved deer head on wood-panelled walls and a ceiling illuminated with bona fide constellations. Classes let you brush up on the cowpoke arts, which on any given day might include harmonica playing, two-stepping or chicken keeping.

Down at the stables, plaid-clad cowboys Keith and Jodie are teaching our group the basics of horse whispering. I’m paired with Remp, a bourbon-brown horse who once belonged to Calgary Stampede legend Gary Rempel. We’re brought over to a round pen, where we get a lesson in horse mentality – their herd instinct thrives on honourable leadership – before we’re challenged to lead our animal around. No bridle, no reins, no commands – just our energy. “In everyday life, we don’t consciously think about how our energy has a huge impact on others. The trick is to focus your attention so the horse understands what you want. Their attitude will be based on yours. When they’re relaxed, they respond. Call it Leadership 101,” explains Keith. Focus on the front of the horse, and he’ll turn around. Focus on the back of the horse to get him to move in one continuous direction. Project calm authority, and the horse will walk over and bend his head down for a pat. Remp and I get along just fine – it might be the Canadian connection – and before long he’s trotting over like a golden retriever and snuffling while I ruffle his mane. Apparently, this is the sign of a happy horse, and I leave hoping I can transfer some of my lesson in personal dynamics to my kids and co-workers.

Later a Brazilian teacher explains some pelvic movements on a Pilates ball that I cannot possibly recreate before giving us a go at mechanical bull riding. I am quickly dispatched from the back despite the controls being set to the slowest possible speed. That’s okay because it’s surrounded by a giant inflatable cushion. I lie back on the grown-up bouncy castle and think that rather than burying the hatchet, I’m going to mail-order a set for home.

Travaasa Austin 13500 Farm to Market Rd. 2769, Austin, 871-261-7792, travaasa.com/austin

Proper form for riding a mechanical bull

1. Squeeze your thighs, arch your back and curl your feet into the bull, tightening your core.
2. Your hips follow the direction of the bull while your spine moves the opposite way.
3. One arm holds the bull; the other goes up in the air in a motion opposite to your spine.
4. Yee-haws are optional and likely best performed at a bar after a stiff drink.


West Virginia - The Greenbrier Resort

Lesson 4

West Virginia: Holding Court with a Grand Slam tennis champ

I am standing at the baseline, poised to serve, in what is easily my life’s most surreal moment. Across the net stands Pete Sampras, racquet ready and gaze inscrutable behind oversize sunglasses. The hushed crowd looks on as I toss and swing hard – too hard. There are gasps and “oh nos” as the ball pelts my doubles partner in the posterior. There is silence. And then, up go those famous brows, and a boyish grin sneaks across his face. Pistol Pete is amused. (My partner, not so much.)

I’m in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, for the two-day Pete Sampras Tennis Clinic at the historic Greenbrier resort. Nestled in the lush Allegheny Mountains, the hotel has long been a tony playground of U.S. presidents, boasting a PGA championship golf course and a tennis club where Sampras signed on as Tennis Pro emeritus in 2014. All 20 participants in this clinic are keen players, primed for running and hitting, but I don’t think any of us expected to spend so much time on the court with the Grand Slam champ. And when Sampras chooses a seat at our breakfast table, goofy smiles and flushed faces beset the group, men included.

But we are here to play. With the emerald Old White course as a backdrop, we volley, slice and smash under the tutelage of resident pros with serious credentials of their own. (Jennifer Tuckwiller, for instance, formerly captained the West Virginia University women’s tennis team.) Sampras ambles from court to court to weigh in on form: “Throw the ball higher, hit the ball harder and just seriously calm down,” he advises, regarding my circus- worthy contortions when serving. Between sessions, we gather to watch him effortlessly beam forehands down the line or pound out a few aces. Then, thoroughly humbled, we return to our own courts, star-struck game faces on. ­

The Greenbrier 300 West Main st., White Sulphur Springs, 855-453-4858, greenbrier.com

Power and poise, according to Pete SAMPRAS

1. Power should come from the rotation of your core, not from your swing: “Your arm and racquet are just along for the ride.”
2. Calm your game by controlling your nerves: “It comes with experience and confidence in your ability. Once I’d get out there, I’d tell myself, I was born to do this.”
3. Focus your concentration on the game you’re playing – where you’re going to serve, what the score is and finding your timing. “I’m so distracted with my own stuff that I don’t have time for someone in the audience yelling at me.”

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ADVENTURE TRAVEL    

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