Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Elegy for the Flightless Bird

It’s no surprise that while tooling around national parks, I come across a lot of retirees. For some reason, people spend their youth sitting cooped up in an office or changing diapers rather than really living while their bodies will allow them to. Once their careers fade away and their children grow up and move out, people reflect on their lifeless lives and hate themselves for what they are or what they’re not, and spend the rest of their time here on earth making up for the time that’s been lost.

One might say “Avoiding Regret” is a last-ditch effort by the quickly aging, whose Bucket List helps them figure out what they must do before they die. The problem is assuming that one’s Bucket List is or could even be finite – that you can conjure 10 or 20 activities (skydiving, making love under a waterfall, getting a mudbath, whatever) that, once completed, will allow you to die happy. In reality, if you’re really living, experiencing one of those adventures will make you think of two more to add to the list. And at that rate, if you don’t start on your ever-growing list until you’re 50 or 60, you will die with an overwhelming sense of regret – more so than if you’d never made your list at all.

I am young. I am not in very good shape or in very good health, and it’s probably only going to get worse as I get older. I’ve got to get my kicks while I can.

The last month has actually been relatively leisurely for me compared to the pace at which I normally take vacations or even NYC life, but I sure have crammed a lot in. Since I don’t know when I’ll be able to take a trip like this again (although I am looking), I wanted to end it with a bang. Taking advantage of North San Diego’s tremendous cliffs over the ocean, I took a flying leap.

I went paragliding.

a solo flight

Of all the aeronautic sports, paragliding is probably one of the least intimidating. Unlike hang gliding, there is no hard equipment or apparatus. Your wings are the soft parachute above you. Your seat is strapped to you like a backpack. Your steering mechanism consists of wires and two soft handles. You’re not being towed by a boat or a truck that can crash or go too fast or too slow. There’s no blazing hot fire above you or fat tourists next to you weighing your basket down. It’s just you and the wind.

And, in my case, the pilot strapped to my back.

Before I ever even heard of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, I was inspired to go paragliding after skydiving for my 30th birthday. In retrospect, I don’t know what led me to skydiving in the first place. I don’t like small planes. I get airsick. I have a fear of falling. I pass out under stressful conditions. But I wanted to do something big and splashy and invite some folks to join me, and it just seemed to fit the bill.

The event of it was fun and memorable – our caravan of cars driving from New York City to the Poconos full of snacks. When it came to the dive itself, the freefall felt more like an endurance test rather than an exhilarant. I wouldn’t call it fun per se. But when the parachute opens, dizzyingly righting you from horizontal to vertical, you get a nice, leisurely sail as you drop in altitude, peering over the mountains much like in a balloon.

I thought, if I can get that nice parachute drop without the whole falling-out-of-a-plane ordeal, now that would be fun.

So that’s pretty much what you get with paragliding, save for the whole jumping-off-a-cliff ordeal.

It’s a trickier science, too, because, like ballooning, you depend on the wind which is as unpredictable and fickle as anything. I first went to Torrey Pines on Sunday, immediately following some courage-inducing winetasting in Temecula, and was turned away because of lack of winds. “Um, we’re not taking anyone up that’s over 120 pounds,” the bleach-streaked girl said, sizing me up. I asked if I should wait. She said no. I asked if I should come back tomorrow. She said, “You can try.”

I put my name and number down but didn’t wait for them to call me about the winds. Monday morning at 8:56 a.m., four minutes before they officially open, I started calling to ask about the winds. “Yeah, they’re pretty slow…” a young man said in a slightly Mexican drawl. “We’re waiting for them to pick up. Maybe in another 45 minutes?”

I walked four miles in Balboa Park and called two hours later.

The girl from yesterday answered. “Um, yeah, there’s, like, no wind right now. We’re hoping it’ll pick up around noon? So yeah, maybe try again at, like, 1?”

Kiki

I really had nothing else to do, no greater goal than paragliding on Monday so I showed up shortly after 12. I put my name down and got ready for a long wait. A diet orange soda, a bag of Sun Chips, a surprisingly delicious chicken Caesar salad and a 19 year-old dog named Kiki (that ruthless beggar) kept me company while I ate on the sky blue-painted picnic table and watched the weathered and bleached pilots sit around and wait for something to do.

“Are you a pilot?” I suddenly realized a golf shirt-clad gentleman in his 50s was sitting to my right and addressing me.

I laughed, “No, I wish!” and he introduced himself as Greg. He explained that he’s a hang gliding pilot visiting from Austin, how much he loves flying in formation with the birds but how it’s a strain on his marriage, when he travels so much for work and his little time at home he spends as a pilot and not as a husband. So while on a business trip to La Jolla, he was hoping to rent some gear and get a flight in. He would have to wait longer than me for the winds to pick up enough for the heavy load of a hanglider.

We were joined by Walt, another 50-something who became a certified scuba diver only five years ago. He regrets not starting it sooner, and worries that his understanding wife won’t let him take on “another expensive hobby.” But he was trying paragliding anyway, taking his first flight tandem just like me. He probably knew that he’s running out of time. Maybe his list is growing too.

trying to catch the wind

After about an hour and a half of waiting, I started to see some pilots – locals and the gliderport pros too – testing the winds. One pilot got a good running start, caught a little bit of wind, and then lost it and sank over the cliff (presumably landing on the beach below). A few of them got their chutes up in the air enough to get whipped around as they tried to stand up straight, eventually losing the draft and deflating in a crinkly, tangled mess of wires.

The wind must have picked up imperceptibly because I saw the first tandem flight of the day to take off. That meant my turn would come soon. I could still back out. I didn’t have to do this just because I came twice and waited for two hours. I hadn’t even paid yet.

And then I saw a tiny older woman, maybe 65 or 70, 115 lbs (she declared though she looked lighter), feebly tip-toe over the red “Pilots Only” curb towards the field. She struggled to get her backpack on. Her feet did a crazy, erratic dance when the glider went up and the parachute wings were overhead. She stumbled forward, lifted her feet while the ground was still under them, and took off in flight.

I was not going to wait until I was that old. I may never make it that long.

It was my turn next, so I paid, signed and initialed pages upon pages of idemnifications, certified that I may die or break my legs and would not sue, and so on. I got fitted with a bright green helmet anchored with a digital camera that would record my flight (since they would not let me photograph it myself!). I walked onto the field, a little head wobbly, and handed my purse off to the counter girl who would watch it for me since I had come alone. Steve, my 50-something pilot, was gruff and of few words. He rattled off instructions which I forgot immediately, and strapped me in. As the glider lifted above us I stumbled like the old woman before me, and before I knew it, was letting the pilot behind me push me forward with his own run, sending my feet into a running stumble towards the end of the earth. Lucky for me, Steve was probably a good eight inches taller than me so my feet lifted before his did, letting him be the one to really take the leap for both of us.

A moment of panic set in. If something was going to go wrong, it would probably happen now, right after takeoff. Would we sink behind the cliff like the pilot I’d seen earlier?

Instead, we sailed straight out over the beach and hung a gentle right turn, getting a little lift off the wind and riding the ridge of the cliff north towards the golf course. It was beautiful, a bit cold, and surprisingly comfortable. You’re not hanging from anything. You’re just sitting down, having a nice little ride.

“You ever crash one of these things?” I asked Steve. I think I was trying to gauge my safety level as well as looking for a good dramatic story.

“Ha, nope. You wouldn’t be riding tandem with me if I had. We don’t let pilots who crash do tandem.”

So that means some pilots do crash…

Steve was confident enough to actually let me steer the glider for a good few minutes, speaking clear instructions into my ear – “a little up on the right” “now lean left” “pull really hard down on both” – and occasionally placing his hands on my forearms or elbows to guide me. It is a rare gift to see the direct effects of your actions on your movements, your direction, your speed and your altitude, and that is exhilarating. I felt in control, like I knew what to do even before Steve told me. Those few minutes as pilot (though still basically sitting in Steve’s lap) made the entire experience worthwhile, and more than just memorable.

We were in the air for about 20 minutes, and lifted to about 150 feet above the cliffline, about 500 feet above the beach. With winds barely gusting at about 10 mph, we picked up speed to about 25 mph and did some basic turning maneuvers – right, left, right into a figure eight – before heading back to the open field where we originally took off. Steve didn’t prepare me for the landing until he’d already started bringing the glider down, and only told me, “We’re just going to try to get you to stand.” I asked if it was a running landing and he said, “Nope, should just be a step or two.”

Panic set in again. The air is soft. The ground is hard. Would Steve be strong enough to land this thing gently without breaking my legs?

True to his word, Steve set me down from the sky on my own two feet, more gently than if I had stepped off a platform myself. I thought we’d bonded a little bit up there in the sky, with all the questions I’d asked him about flying and his honest and witty answers. But once we’d landed, it was over. Steve’s focus was back on the gear. And although I thanked him profusely and said all the niceties of meeting someone for the first time and sharing an aeronautic experience, Steve only looked down as he said, “You’re welcome.”

Some people aren’t meant for this earth. They’re meant to fly.

Since paragliding wasn’t that harrowing and was actually really fun and scenic, I’ve added hang gliding and parasailing to my list as well. And I’m not going to wait until I’m diagnosed with an incurable disease to start working on them.

Video of my first tandem flight (edited down to 10+ minutes, about half its original length), to watch click here:



To become a fan on Facebook, click here.