The day started out in the dark, the rain lightly spitting on our windshield. As we slowly crept up and up the steep mountainside, the fog became more and more dense. As we got near the top, the fog was so thick that I nearly missed the stop sign. If my wife had not pointed to it, I might have driven right off the cliff in front of us.
I turned the corner and there, in the darkness, there, in the fog, there, in the mist, was the Lookout Mountain Flight Park office. I was going hang gliding. And after the day, my life would never be the same.
I stopped the car and got out. The wind howled as I stepped closer to the edge of the steep mountain. All I could see was the dense fog surrounding “The Bandit,” the curved, concrete takeoff point atop the mountain. It did not look so scary until the wind blew strong enough to push a few clouds away, and I could, momentarily, see the bottom nearly 1300 feet away, way, way below where my now shaky feet stood.
After signing in at the office, and fearing that I was signing the rights to my life away, I drove down the mountain into a little valley where I followed the flight instructor over a very muddy and bumpy dirt trail. If I only would have known that we would have had to go down such a rough path that meandered out into the woods, I might have taken my truck instead of my wife’s Lexus.
The two flight instructors were very meticulous in their instructions, especially in regard to safety measures about Carabiner clips and cords, although at one point, it was hard to take the main instructor seriously because he looked a lot like George Carlin. He had a long pony tale and a rough and itchy-looking beard clinging to his chin. I kept waiting for a joke about seven words I could not say. But I was intent on becoming a hang gliding pro, and on staying alive, so I shrugged off the comparisons and listened.
I did several test runs on the ground, and I could feel the glider pull me up in the air. I was getting near. Then, we moved to the big hill. On my first attempt, I ran and ran and felt myself lift off, my feet still running in mid-air. I immediately pushed myself forward to get some more speed, and then immediately pushed myself back to get the glider up into the air. I did this several times, never allowing the glider to hit the ground until the very last possible moment. I soared.
I was flying! And it felt great.
On my last jump, the wind had really started to kick up, and there was talk of packing up for the day. I still had one more flight. I was standing behind someone who had done this for 20 years. He stood at the top of the hill, waiting, waiting, waiting, for what seemed like hours. What is he waiting on, I thought? The wind did not seem that bad. But he waited for the wind to die down before taking off. He watched his streamers, and then, seemingly effortlessly, took off and landed. Then it was my turn. “George Carlin” looked into my eyes and asked if I were ready. Definitely. I took off, point fixed, but something was wrong. The wind kept trying to blow my glider up from the left. I took off into the air, soaring, and the wind immediately took over, pulling me to my right. I tried to correct by pulling myself back to get more altitude and then by pulling myself to the left to try to get the glider moving straight again, but the wind was too strong, and I was too inexperienced, and, suddenly, too late, I realized why the professional hang glider was waiting so long. He knew that a few miles per hour could make a huge difference, and he was right. I managed to get the glider nearly straight just before impact, but still I hit hard on the right wheel, my right knee not too far behind. My first response was, “My wife is going to kill me if I am hurt.” Luckily, I was fine, but I could not say the same for the glider. I bent it.
And I learned my first lesson of the day that might apply to many aspects of life: pay attention to those who are more experienced.
2000 FEET IN THE AIR
But later that afternoon, I tried my first tandem flight with a pilot with a penchant for acrobatic moves. I got there early, and another trainee who liked to talk like he knew everything would not stop talking. I was nervous already, but he kept talking and talking and made me even more nervous as I watched the instructor get everything ready. Then, when the ultralight that was going to tug the glider in the air disappeared up into the clouds, a lump emerged in my throat. Am I really going to go that high? From the ground, the altitude seemed too daunting, and I thought, momentarily, about calling the whole thing off.
So, I volunteered to go first because I thought waiting would be too much. I also had to pee, so I did not want to pee on the instructor. I do not think he would have liked me much after that.
Once strapped in, the ultralight pulled and pulled and lifted us up in the air. As we continued to climb, I thought to myself, this is okay. This is cool. But I was not prepared for what came next.
“There will be a slight drop,” the instructor, an ex-Marine, said. After he undid the line, there was, indeed, a slight drop, and it was the coolest thing I have ever experienced. I felt myself floating in the air, completely free, almost as if gravity did not even exist, as if my body weighed absolutely nothing. In some ways, I felt like nothing and connected to everything at the same time. The altitude, from this angle, did not scare me at all, and, in fact, I started to wish that we could go higher. We crept along the ridge of the mountain, and I felt just like a hawk looking down, looking for movement from his prey. I saw tiny cars creeping along. I saw everything. I felt like I was soaring above everything and at the same time, I was now a part of everything. The instructor then let me steer, let me practice what I learned at the big hill, and I moved the glider to the left, pushed it downward and allowed it to gather speed, pulled it back in a stall, and then pushed it right. I felt my body move slightly one way and the glider slowly react. I was flying!
I felt so often that I was just floating still, but whenever I looked at the gauge, it said we were going 18-20 miles per hour. Because my pilot wanted to test me, he did a few acrobatic moves, and I admit to feeling a little bit nauseous at the time, and I kept thinking that I did not want to throw up on him. I did not want to pee on him, and I did not want to throw up on him. But in those moments where we were not buzzing hillsides or spinning in circles, I felt so free.
I never wanted to come down.
My flight instructor earlier that day had told me about people who do not want to come down so they just pee their pants. When they eventually come down, their pants are soaked with pee, and their faces are red from both the sun and the wind. I could actually understand why. It was so liberating. I was above all my cares and worries. I was way above everything.
When we landed, my legs were weak. I felt like I did not belong on the hard earthen ground anymore than Daryl Hannah did in Splash.
But after my head stopped spinning, I really realized that being in the air, floating, flying, gave me several new lessons that I did not think a 40-something-year-old could still learn. For one, I learned not to control things so tightly but to let loose. In order to control a glider, you do not grab tightly on the bar and wrestle with it but mostly just let the glider fly itself. My instructor kept saying that it is an inanimate object, yes, but it actually wants to fly, so just let it. Let it. And, I gave up control when my instructor took over just before landing. I learned that sometimes we do not have to hold so tightly in order to control the things in our lives. Sometimes holding loosely will work just fine.
The second thing I learned is about perspective. When I watched the ultralight disappear, I got nervous, thinking that was a long ways up in the air, that I would disappear and that would be it for me. But, the funny thing is that I did not think it was too high when I was finally up there, and everything below me looked so different. It was even different than being in a plane. Since there was absolutely nothing but air underneath me, what I saw under my dangling feet was suddenly much different. My perspective changed. After 40-some years, there are still new perspectives out there. We should be open to them. All of them.
Hang gliding is now in my blood, in my soul, and that will not be the last time I take to the skies with, as my friend said, a kite strapped to my back.
I will be back one day, sky, and I will be back, willing and open, for even more lessons that you might have, any you are willing to share.
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