For ages, it seems, man has looked up to the birds soaring free in the boundless blue and dreamed that one day he too, through some ingenious mechanism of science or powerful wizardry, could manage never to hear anything about Donald Trump or the goddamn Kardashians ever again. Also it would be kind of nice to fly.
My own experience with human flight mainly involves paragliders (essentially elongated, elliptical parachutes), and has been variously terrifying and exalted. The last time I flew one was on a crisp, spring morning at Point of the Mountain near Salt Lake City, Utah, almost thirty years ago.
I'd gone there to learn paragliding from a qualified, professional instructor. This represented a distinct departure from my previous approach to the sport two years earlier, which consisted more or less of pulling the thing out of a box, strapping it on, and jumping off a cliff. I don't recommend that. Not even if you're in a real big hurry. It very nearly killed me, and it cost about a year of my life and the bottom third of my right lung.
Two moments from that SLC trip have kept their shape and mass, not yet sublimating into a formless, invisible gas like so many other lost memories. The first was a particularly cool top of the hill landing.
Getting your basic paraglider pilot "A" rating back then required you to do a couple of things including landing right back where you took off from. The ridge-lift was good on the morning I was to attempt this; ten to fifteen knot winds sweeping up the mountainside and curling skywards. Important, because you can't land back topside if you don't climb first.
The trick for a solid top landing, once you've won enough altitude, is to turn ninety-degrees from the plane of the ridge face and fly straight downwind, out of the lift band and right over your takeoff site. Then you make a 180 back into the wind at just the distance you're going to need to glide down without overshooting the ledge. But how do you compute all that without instruments, without knowing your actual speed, and angle of descent?
I don't know. But the calculations my brain made unconsciously on my very first attempt were perfect. It was as if I were just remembering some ancient and infallible instinct. Like walking. It was effortless.
My instructor stood maybe fifteen feet from the windward edge of the plateau. And without thinking much about it, I just willed myself to land there beside her. I made my upwind turn, then intuitively adjusted the brakes that curled the trailing edge of my ram-air wing. Pulling them, easing off, pulling again, slowing my forward motion, sinking in, floating down closer. I was headed pretty much straight at her. She didn't move. Just smiled up at me, hands in pockets, the breeze at her back fluttering her fine, blond hair forward.
Barely moving forward at all now, I softly touched my feet to earth. A few feet in front of her and a little to the left. Like Superman, or a god descending from Olympus to visit awhile with mortals. That's the first moment I mentioned.
The other one occurred later on the same day. I have to explain first that a paraglider cuts through the air at about twenty or so knots. So if you're heading into the wind, and the wind is blowing at that same twenty knots--your ground speed is going to be around zero. And if there's no lift under you, you will just sink vertically, down to the ground, as if you're riding the world's least practical elevator.
But with lift? Ah, well, that's something else entirely. With the right amount of lift in fact, just equal to your sink rate, you sort of hang there in the air. It's like a magic trick, or a miracle. You've probably seen hawks doing this on hillsides or near cliff edges. And I saw that sight too, on that day. But from a whole new point of view.
The wind had been picking up steadily all morning and it just reached my canopy's penetration speed. I knew that because when I banked into that wind, I found myself frozen there in the sky. From the ground I might have appeared like a giant, multicolored hawk, hunting the mountainside.
Not terribly high up, maybe three stories over the slope, I sat gently rocking under the canopy, making small directional corrections with the toggles. I don't think I had up to that time ever known such a sense of ease and satisfaction. No fear. Nor excitement. Just peace. Stillness. Just being. It was... perfect.
And then, looking off my right wing tip, I spotted it. Maybe fifteen feet away. An actual hawk, a Red-Tailed Hawk. It was stationary in the air too, at precisely my altitude. And I had the distinct impression that it was flying not just beside me, but with me. I imagined a brief conversation--
What are you looking at? Prey
No. No, not hunting. Just flying. Sorry.
No hunting? Why stay so still?
Uh, just because I can. I'm new to this. I'm not really supposed to be up here at all.
You are here. You belong. All who are here belong, or else are not here.
Yes, I was there. I did belong. And I felt as though I'd been accepted into a very exclusive club right then. Just another bird, me, a large one who may have spotted something tasty down there that was worth inspecting.
We flew together, hawk and man, for maybe three or four minutes, until my new friend seemed to conclude that there was in fact no gopher or rabbit to be found here, and soared away.
I can close my eyes right now and still see the whole scene, feel the cool air on my cheeks, hear the soft hiss of the wind through long grasses below, smell the Utah dirt as it surrendered the captured night moisture back to the day, watch the wind ruffle the Red Tail's primary wing feathers. It's a treasure, that memory. The only real kind of treasure.
Two years before, it was all not nearly so lovely. I still have those memories too. I remember cracking open sticky eyelids, not knowing where the hell I was or why my breathing felt so mechanical. A PFFFFT, PFFFFT sound repeating somewhere nearby. I remember seeing a young intern's face, smiling down at me.
In a cartoon surfer's voice he laughed and said, "Du-hude! You almost didn't make it, man!"
Black Rocks salt flats, near Las Vegas, Nevada. The world's land speed record was set there. Also it's the place where a series of my own personal mistakes and fears came to a very bloody head.
At the north end of the flats there's a slope of dark, volcanic rock. All boulders, about the size of small cars. Not grassy and forgiving hillsides, like the terrain near the Point of the Mountain take off spot. No, flying at Black Rocks you either made it to the bottom and to the dry lake bed out there, or you landed back up at the top of the hill. Or you were seriously fucked.
"I wouldn't try it. If there's not enough lift..." Mike said.
I'd picked a launch spot that had a steep drop off before the slope shallowed out farther downfield. I didn't know it was the worst thing to do on a low wind, low lift day like that one. I didn't know anything about flying then. You get airborne off a cliff in a set-up like that and then moments later, if there are no updrafts, your glide angle turns out to be steeper than the slope below the cliff. Which, you will remember, consisted here of giant, sharp-edged lava boulders. Not good.
My best buddy and performing partner, Mike, was imagining precisely that scenario. And he had just given me the sternest warning that his deep respect for individual freedom of choice would allow. I had imagined it too, by the way. I just didn't care that much.
Mike and I were working together nightly as a comedy juggling team in the Folies Bergere back there in town. It was the average variety performer's dream come true, but it had turned into my artistic nightmare. A nightmare that paid me very well to work for less than twenty minutes a night alongside giant, naked women. Yeah, I know. Pity me.
Problem was I had no desire to spend my life as one half of a two-man juggling act, even a successful one. Nothing wrong with it, just not my dream. At the same time, though, I was terrified that if I attempted other things, say, stand-up comedy, acting, whatever, and I failed--well, that would be a disaster, right? I might even have to surrender the extremely convenient fiction that the only reason I had never achieved anything resembling greatness in my work was that I had never really tried. And I couldn't risk that.
However, throwing myself into space without any real preparation, where an accident could be disastrous, or even fatal? That I could do. Because I wasn't terribly afraid of dying. It was living that was scaring the shit out of me.
I launched, I was airborne, the canopy fully-inflated. I started gaining speed, and straightaway it looked like I was headed right at a jagged boulder down there below the cliff. I wasn't sure though. Maybe I'd clear it. But no, my glide angle was too steep.
I should have flared the canopy then. That would have turned my speed into lift, and then even if I stalled and sank down, it wouldn't have been from very high up. But I didn't. I did nothing but hope for the best, which turns out to be a rather ineffective aeronautical maneuver.
I slammed into the rock at full speed. The impact crushed my ribcage and shards of splintered bone tore into my right lung.
"Are you okay?" Mike shouted down from the takeoff site.
I knew I was hurt. I thought it might be pretty bad. In a few minutes my right lung collapsed and breathing started to be a challenge. Then the real pain arrived. Yeah, this was bad.
"I can get a life-flight helicopter," Mike said.
There were no cell phones back then for the not rich. Mike was suggesting he hike back down off the ridge, jump into the car, and drive to the nearest pay phone. I probably wouldn't see him again--if I saw him again--for at least an hour. Likely more.
"Take my arm. Help me climb down to the car."
I decided without hesitation that I would rather die trying to get to a hospital than sitting there alone on that empty, black, lava slope. I was already fighting shock. Mike was fighting tears.
We struggled down, boulder by boulder, and raced back to town.
During emergency surgery my heart stopped beating. There were no visions. No lights or tunnels or smiling bygone relatives. There was nothing. But earlier, before I finally and blessedly blacked out, there was a revelation.
All the fears that had stagnated my life: fear of artistic failure, of loss of income, of disapproval, even of my own potential mediocrity--as the ER staff at Sunrise Medical Center prepped me, with blood still flooding my pleural cavity, squeezing out my one good lung...
None of that stuff meant anything. It was not important right then. And that was not the revelation. The revelation was that it never had been.
People sometimes ask, when they hear about the whole episode--"Did it turn your life around?" And the answer is yes, and also that this doesn't mean what you think it means.
Yes, I got turned around by it. I was facing a new direction. I had a new perspective, and I was looking down a road I'd never looked down before. But that in itself didn't change anything. It was going to take a lot of walking in that new direction to do that. With a lot of side trips, and a fair amount of backtracking. And a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, two years later, to try and learn how to fly.
But I'm still on that road. And I still see things a little differently. And I'm still learning how to fly.