The best times in Branson come with a release form.
In two days, I signed away my life four times. Not my life exactly, but the right to sue should my life come to an abrupt end in a tragic ziplining fall or ATV crash.
Most folks don't see the danger lurking beyond the mega-theaters and golf courses. To them, Branson is all dancing stallions, soft-serve ice cream, mini-golf and Yakov Smirnoff. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Who doesn't appreciate a timely Mikhail Gorbachev joke? But to me, Branson's best attractions both celebrate the region's natural beauty and exploit our deepest fears.
ATV RIDING: 4 SKULLS RATING
Everyone who signed up for the 5 p.m. tour at Triple-G ATV Rides knew how to ride an ATV. Except me. I had never been on a quad; didn't even know a quad meant ATV.
My utter cluelessness did not faze Doug Gaar, owner of Triple-G and one of its guides. For one reason, I had already signed that release form. But Gaar truly believes anyone can learn to ride.
"Beginners always have some insecurities," said Gaar. "It's what you're willing to work through. A lot of people say, 'You know what, I think I'd rather be a passenger.' And that's fine, too. But most people can do it once they get past that original scare."
We'd see. Before setting off on our two-hour ride, Gaar sized up our abilities on a test course, matching his various quads to our level of experience. Despite Gaar's patient coaching and cheers of encouragement from his wife, Lee, I could not master the course's gentle hills and curves. I gave up and hopped on the back of my husband's quad.
Gaar believes that passengers get the biggest scares because they can't see what's coming, but I loved the view from the back seat.
Gaar moved here 30 years ago. His father and uncles, tired of San Diego's traffic jams and sprawling subdivisions, traveled the country searching for a peaceful parcel to call their own. How could they have guessed Branson would experience its own construction boom? Still, the Gaars' 500 acres of prairies, fields, hills and wildflowers feel worlds away from the strip.
After crossing a rushing creek — an exciting obstacle and, on warm days, a favorite splashing spot — we took off our helmets and enjoyed the countryside. Stagecoaches used to cross this land en route from Springfield, Mo., to Harrison, Ark., and an 1800s house still stands on the site.
"A lot of baby animals have been born in that house," said Gaar. "Once we saw a baby vulture. It was not cute."
We then grabbed a drink from a spring-fed hose and hit the "roller-coaster" portion of the ride. The hills came fast and hard leading to the final stretch, a sharp climb up the mountain back to the test course. There, Lee offered us Fla-Vor-Ice and cold water. What I really wanted was a stiff drink.
More info • Triple-G ATV Rides, 7698 State Highway 176, $65 per rider, $25 per passenger. triplegatv.com
ZIPLINE: 3 SKULLS
"Hi there! This is my first day."
"I don't know if the line can hold you."
Those are just some of the things you never want to hear your zipline guide say. And here's another: "Am I doing this right?"
That's what our guide Andrew said to his colleague Dustin, as he harnessed me into my gear. A wry grin let me know he was joking. Turns out, ziplining guides are known for both their deadpan humor and sadism.
Branson offers no fewer than five ziplining businesses, but we picked Branson Zipline for its natural beauty. Set among 35 acres of forest and wildflowers, the Wolfe Creek Reserve features several ziplining tours and a photo safari, perfect for scaredy cats and children not big enough (zipliners must weigh at least 70 pounds) to ride the lines. Rumor is outlaws hid in these hills before Eli Wolfe settled here and tried, with only moderate success, to mine the hills for zinc and lead.
Today's owners have had much more success catering to Branson's thrill-seekers. Even the photo safari included an encounter with a snake. It wasn't poisonous, but our guide David Duckworth has spotted rattlesnakes on site.
"Most rattlesnakes are not aggressive, but a diamondback is just ornery," Duckworth said. "If you wake it, you will get bit and you won't get a warning."
Hikers are far more likely to meet turtles, fawns or lizards. And those you howls you hear? That wasn't a mountain lion but zipliners traveling 20-plus mph through the trees.
Duckworth explained in detail Branson Zipline's safety precautions — the custom-made harnesses, the cables that can carry 26,000 pounds, the inspections, the testing. Still, stepping off that block onto the Blue Streak Fast Line took courage I typically reserve for Black Friday shopping, and once I was riding — the zip lasted all of 20 or so seconds — I felt exhilarated by the speed and rushing trees. But upon arriving at the Free Fall Xpress, the fear came back hard. There is only one way off this 100-foot tower, and it's straight down. Dustin instructed me to jut my toes just over the edge and, on the count of three, step — not jump — off the edge. It's amazing how long three seconds last when they could be your last. One — "Who will detangle my children's hair when I'm gone?" Two — "Will workers' comp cover my funeral expenses?" Three — "Who will get my All-Clad?"
I landed safely before I could decide.
More info • Branson Zipline and Canopy Tours, 2339 U.S. Route 65, $39.99 to $99.99; Wolfe Creek Photo Safari, $19.99; bransonzipline.com
PARASAILING: 2 SKULLS
Sam Sandt, aka Captain Sam, has been giving tourists the ride of their lives for some 25 years.
"It takes no skill, you don't even have to get wet," said Sandt.
He's talking about the passengers, of course. Sandt, himself, has plenty of skill, working in Mexico, Catalina and Hawaii. He moved to Table Rock Lake to establish the region's first parasailing operation. He'll take two, even three, riders up at a time as long as their combined weight is less than 500 pounds.
I was flowing solo on this warm day. Strapped in a harness, I sat on the edge of the boat's rear bench. A winch system slowly released me into the air, taking me 100, 200, 300, 400 feet up, high enough to see the grandeur of the pristine lake and forested hills. Oddly, the higher I floated, the more serene I felt. I actually wondered if anyone ever falls asleep up there. Slowly the winch reeled me back into the boat, but not before Sandt skimmed my feet in the water.
More info • American Para-Sail at State Park Marina, $79 per 10-minute ride; stateparkmarina.com
KAYAKING: 1 SKULL
We closed our trip with a leisurely kayaking in Lake Taneycomo, which actually flows like a river from Table Rock Lake. Kayak Branson will drop kayakers off for free in Table Rock Lake or, for $25, collect your group at various pickup points along Lake Taneycomo. We chose the latter and were wowed by the lake's clear waters and peaceful surroundings. Surely, more tourists will arrive in summer, but on this day, the egrets far outnumbered the fishermen.
We completed seven miles in about an hour. Finally, I had found an adventure that was just my speed.
More info • Kayak Branson, 5403 State Highway 165; rentals start at $25; kayakbranson.com
"Family dining" is shorthand for chicken strips and French fries. Branson is, first and foremost, a family destination. Still there are two restaurants we enjoyed during our trip.
Why wouldn't the leading retailer of waders and saltwater rods run one of Branson's best restaurants? Bass Pro Shops' White River Fish House (5 Bass Pro Drive, restaurants.basspro.com/WhiteRiverFishHouse) does everything right — each table has a view of the water, prices are reasonable and the service is friendly and efficient. I had the pan-fried trout ($13.95); my husband opted for pan-seared scallops ($15.95). Both delicious. But the real treat was the complimentary cornbread in the cast-iron skillet.
Table 22 (114 East Main Street, table22branson.com) is Branson's valiant attempt at a trendy Niche-style bistro. I wouldn't alert the James Beard Foundation just yet, but the wine list is extensive, the service friendly and the food quite good. This night the standout dish was the gnocchi ($16) a small dish of potato dumplings topped with a farm-fresh asparagus purée, asparagus tips, sautéed shiitake mushrooms and Parmesan cheese.