Learning to Fly…Again?

Back in 1980, I couldn’t care who shot J.R. because I saw something else on TV that rocked my world. I was watching a kids’ science show called 3–2–1 Contact that presented a segment on hang gliding and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: human beings — without an engine, or even the body of a plane — flying. Back then, hang gliding had only been around for a few years, so it seemed incredibly lucky that over the course of 300,000 years of human existence, I happened to arrive on the scene right after we figured out free flight. Because I feel certain that Neanderthals (and I mean REAL Neanderthals — not Republican members of Congress) gazed up longingly at soaring birds and thought to themselves, “I sure wish we had TVs.” I feel doubly certain that they also wished they could fly. The Ancient Greeks yearned to fly, and so did Da Vinci, and now, so did I. Not only did I decide before the end of that segment that I was absolutely going to fly, I couldn’t understand why any adult anywhere wouldn’t immediately drop whatever they were doing to learn how to do this.

As a post-grad, my dream was put on hold for years while I scraped by on a meager nonprofit salary; then, finally, I took a job as an associate editor at a trade magazine. I knew this job would be boring AF, but I was twenty-eight and needed some real disposable income so as to accomplish three specific things:

1. Buy a used motorcycle.

2. Buy a share in a beach house.

3. FINALLY learn to fly.

So in the spring of 2000, I bought a 1986 Honda Shadow VT 700, put down a deposit on a sharehouse in Southampton, and found a flight school in Ellenville, New York. By then, I had swapped out hang gliding for the newer sport of paragliding. A paraglider’s single, curved wing allows for flight in a greater range of conditions, while the equipment folds into a pack you can carry on your back (or strap to a motorcycle) whereas a heavier hang glider would have never even fit in my NYC apartment. The only downside was the flight position. With a paraglider, you sit back in a harness, whereas hang gliders fly in the prone position. Like Superman. Also, hang gliders are faster. But as with motorcycles, this was never about speed. I just wanted to move freely through the air. So I began riding my Shadow up to Ellenville, chasing my life-long dream of achieving liftoff.

After spending several hot and tiring afternoons standing atop a bunny hill, repeatedly attempting to raise a wing — only to have it crash down on me in a tangled mess — the day finally came when I properly raised and inflated all of my wing’s cells, feeling its upward pull as I bounced on the balls of my feet. Then I ran down that hill, running with everything I had until that magic moment when my feet began spinning in the air.

I bought my own wing, learned how to set up a landing, and progressed to actual, short flights, none of which lasted anywhere near as long as I wanted. Then, on a student trip to the Spanish Mediterranean coast, I ridge-soared for the first time, riding a steady updraft (created by the wind curving up the mountain’s ridge) communicating via two-way radios with instructors as we flew a thousand feet above the silver crests of the sea. Glancing down on the backs of birds soaring beneath me, I felt like I was living George Peppard’s tagline from The A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

That’s me flying over the Mediterranean coast near Malaga, Spain.

Unfortunately, the camaraderie I felt with a lot of the guys was limited. (FYI, All the Single Ladies, ninety percent of pilots are guys, making paragliding the sports-dating equivalent of moving to Alaska. Be warned, however, that while the odds are good, the goods are odd.) A lot of my fellow pilots were either nerds or speed freaks — or some combination thereof — and while I loved their sense of adventure, I was less interested in perpetual gearhead conversations about building computers or souping up jetskis or blowing things up. Still, we shared something larger in common, specifically our discontent with remaining on the ground. That’s not normal, and I suspect there are reasons — including depression or early trauma — that might further instill a mad desire in someone to literally rise up above it all and fly free.

Making a turn in Valley de Bravo, Mexico.

In the Fall of 2002, I flew for the last time. I didn’t know that then, but the following year my life began a new chapter (inspired by that Southampton beach house) that led to my renovating a beach sharehouse out on Long Island. This crowded out the flying season, and paragliding, with its extensive knowledge base to maintain, is not a sport to drop in and out of safely. And I knew that the longer I didn’t do it, the less likely I’d ever do it again.

So while I long ago sold that beach house, and replaced my motorcycle with a convertible, I still have my wing. And for the first time in twenty years, I’ve found myself dreaming of getting back up there. And it’s impossible not to wonder if our dismal state of affairs might be driving this. Is the bad news cascading all around us fueling my desire to fly again? Because paragliding is hands-down the coolest, most spectacular thing I’ve ever experienced. Catching an updraft and soaring higher in the sky is godlike and the very opposite of feeling stuck and helpless on the ground.

What about you?

Is there something you once did (or that you never got to?) that you’re now burning to do again or for the first time? Please email/DM me or post a comment on FB because I’d love to know what it is, why you might feel inspired to get at that now, and if you’ve got a plan of action. We need plans, large and small, collectively and individually, and you might even inspire me to fly once again.

Besides, I love it when a plan comes together.

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