For my last birthday, Emily bought me a LivingSocial certificate for a hang gliding ride. Surprise! She gives creative gifts, that wonderful wife of mine. To tell the truth, my feelings were mixed. I’ve always wanted to fly – dreamed about it ever since I can remember. But, growing up in my church ward, there was a paraplegic man, a former Navy Seal, who had snapped his spine during a record-setting hang glide from Phoenix to Tucson in the early ‘80s. Whenever I talked as a teenager about wanting to fly or hang glide or skydive, my parents would warn me that I’d break my neck, like George. I wish I could have known George before his accident. I’m sure he was a bold adventurer. I picture him in the enthusiasm and strength of youth, standing firmly on strong legs, preparing to launch his glider into the wind. All the years I knew him, George was kind, cheerful, and friendly. And determined. Many times I saw him muscle his wheelchair through the neighborhood on his way to church or to go home teaching. I’ve wondered how those same attributes would have shined in connection with physical strength and daring. I never had the courage to ask him about hang gliding, about his accident. But I always viewed his story as a caution against severe physical risk.
With all of that in the back of my mind, I sat on the LivingSocial certificate for nearly a year and didn’t redeem it. But it itched at the back of my mind. Just a few weeks before it expired, I finally called the hang gliding guy and scheduled a flight. I figured that, if I died, Emily couldn’t complain for my having taken a stupid risk. She put me up to after all. My brother, Austin, had also bought one of the same certificates. We scheduled a day to go together, last Monday morning.
If you’ve ever driven from Provo to Salt Lake City on a breezy summer day, you’ve seen the hang gliders and paragliders, circling the Point of the Mountain like eagles over a carcass. How many times have I watched them, wishing I could go where they go. It turns out I know one of those guys – my friend, Jeff Silk, is an avid paraglider, here in Provo. He does the Point of the Mountain, and, on clear days, the majestic mountains of the Wasatch Front. I told him about my upcoming adventure, and he offered to go with me for moral support and to take pictures.
The morning arrived with the perfect winds and clear skies. I picked up Jeff and Austin and we headed to the Point of the Mountain Flight Park, arriving right as the sun rose above Mount Timpanogus. The hang gliding guy, Kevin “The Birdman,” showed up, set up his glider, and had us sign our lives away. Literally, at least prospectively. I read the whole dang waiver with lawyer’s eyes, and didn’t see any loopholes. If I die, I guess I just die. No wrongful death lawsuits to drag it out.
I volunteered to go first. The Birdman strapped me into the harness, then instructed me to give him the longest man-hug I’ve ever given in my life. “Don’t touch this bar; don’t touch that bar. Don’t touch this wire; don’t touch that strap. Just reach around me and hold on. Anything else could be really bad. Got it?” Got it. We inched up to the precipice in our tight, tango embrace. Nose into the 20 mph wind, Jeff held down the cables so we wouldn’t lift off prematurely. “Clear!” the Birdman yelled. Jeff jumped out of the way, and the Birdman and I jumped off the cliff.
Up and up and up. The wind lifted us as smoothly as an elevator, as evenly as the hand of a child lifts his model airplane. It wasn’t until that first little dip that the butterflies exploded in my stomach. But I held onto the Birdman and held onto my emotions. We glided and spiraled in the wind. Hawks floated and swirled off our wing. I breathed in the air of the altitude and lived in the moment. We slid along the ridge, glided above paragliders, and twirled below another hang glider. We dive-bombed Austin and Jeff. We circled above the gravel pits. Cars hustled by on the freeway. Houses soaked in the rising sun in the cool of October. The chill wind broke into my body and gave me shivers, but I looked down on the world like a bird would. I existed in that sphere.
My 20 minutes went fast. Before long, we were approaching the hilltop from the east, and the Birdman was yelling, “Clear for landing!” We put down, landing into the wind, only a few feet from where we had taken off.
My feet on the ground, I finally allowed my emotions to engage and felt an excitement of life.
Austin went next and flew through the same routine. Just as thrillingly, just as safely.
As we drove home on the freeway, Jeff and Austin and I talked about flight. We talked about dying. We talked about risk. Jeff told us about a long-distance paraglide he’d once taken, skimming above all the majestic mountains of the Wasatch Front, from the Y above Provo, then above Timp, and into the mountains above Salt Lake City. He said he saw Springtime streams of water, trickling through granite rivulets and into mountain pools.
Thanks, Emily. I really had a great time. And thanks, Jeff. Thanks, Austin. Thanks, Birdman. And A footnote: Knowing that my parents would stress out about this little adventure, I hadn’t told them about it. But Austin told them, the night before we went, and it really did stress them out. And yes, they reminded Austin about George and warned him about the risks. But thanks, mom and dad, for praying for a safe landing. The landing was great, and the flight was amazing.