“I wandered way out on a cliff with the brilliance of an angel…”
I’ve marveled at (and feared) the art of flying underneath a canopy of brightly colored nylon for many years. When I was a little kid on vacation at the beach, I would stare wide-eyed at the parasailers soaring over the waves and wonder if they could float up to the moon given enough rope. Years later, I spent some time taking scuba classes in the Dominican Republic. After dive lessons during the day, I would hop on a rusty, old motorcycle I rented from one of the local beach bums and I’d cruise down the coast to Cabarete to watch the kitesurfers in their evening sessions. It was like poetry in motion. Dozens of kites dancing amongst the waves pulled by a force that none of us could see but that we could all feel. I almost signed up for lessons then but I let my fear get the best of me… Fear of drowning, fear of looking like an idiot, fear of a catching a rogue wind and being swept off to Haiti.
Fast forward several years to one hot, summer evening when I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed instead of prepping for court like I should have been. One of my favorite social media accounts belong to Sean Blanton, otherwise known as the RunBum. Sean is a runner and director of some of the most popular ultramarathons on the East Coast; not the least of which is the (in)famous Georgia Death Race. He’s also a paraglider. It was Sean’s video that put everything in motion. I watched in awe as he soared above the Swiss Alps with his legs dangling in the air much akin to a child in a playground swing set. As I replayed the video, I felt simultaneous pangs of terror and excitement. Was that something that I could do? Where did he plan on landing? Would I enjoy such a thing or be too frightened to embrace the experience? Do they even do that sort of thing around here?
I closed out my social media and googled “paragliding in the southeast.” I soon found myself chatting with David Hanning of Flying Camp located outside of Chattanooga, TN. Dave reassured me that not only could I go paragliding but that I could do so with a seasoned instructor who would control everything and allow me to just enjoy the flight. It just so happened that Flying Camp was even offering a Groupon. And I could do this outside one of my favorite cities? Fine. Sign me up. Take my money. Fly me to the moon. Or just get me back to the ground in one piece. Whatever works. Let’s just make it official before I talk myself out of it. I’ll deal with the fear later.
I booked my flight the next morning and sent the Groupon link to several friends as well. I was only slightly optimistic that I could talk somebody into joining me. The first few responses confirmed my suspicions. Yup, not gonna happen. This might end up being a solo excursion. Not necessarily a bad thing. At least none of my friends will be there to see my get cold feet.
But then, a few minutes later, I got a text from my buddy, Ben. I took this as a good sign. Since we were little kids, Ben and I have seemed to feed off each other’s appetite for excitement and we’ve had quite a few adventures together as a result. I won’t go into all that but if you want to read more, be sure to check out Ben’s account of one of our most cherished trips here.
Before I even opened his text, I could read in the preview screen something along the lines of “heights are not my favorite thing.” Yeah, yeah. I know where this is going. But, when I opened the text, I was surprised to see this at the end of the sentence – “but maybe it’d be good for me.” Nice! He was nibbling at the bait. All I had to do was play it cool and let the seed I planted do the rest of the work. I casually changed the conversation to some mutual friends and left it at that. Later that night, I got another text – “Ok – I bought the paragliding Groupon…let’s go!”
The next day we compared schedules and agreed to book our session for August 1st. My nerves increased exponentially as the day grew closer. On the eve of our flight, I called to check the paragliding forecast and was disappointed to hear that it wasn’t looking favorable. There was a high rain percentage with only a small time window where we might be able to fly. It was a crapshoot at best. A seven hour roundtrip crapshoot. We balked and rescheduled hoping for a more optimistic outlook. A month and two more weather related cancellations later and Ben and I are getting antsy. The rollercoaster of excitement, anticipation and disappointment starts to become a bit tedious. We’re ready to do this thing already.
And then, the day before our fourth scheduled flight, I get this message from Flying Camp – “Good winds from the SE which means we will be flying.” OH SNAP! It is on. That night, I lie in bed imagining what it will be like to fly off the side of a mountain. I can literally feel my heartrate increase as my brain begins running through the same old, tired scenarios. “Will I chicken out? What if I puke? Is there a parachute if something goes wrong? Maybe I should unfollow the RunBum.”
Sunday morning arrives and finds Ben and I cruising up Interstate 75 headed toward southeast Tennessee. We don’t talk much about the day’s planned activities. Instead, we are content to catch up on family, work and travel. There is a nervous energy in the car. We are both aware of its presence but refuse to acknowledge it. The wheels are in motion. There is no turning back now.
We’re cruising through small mountain towns and turning on progressively narrower, winding roads that eventually lead us up onto a ridge section of the Cumberland Plateau. As we begin to gain clearance over some of the surrounding treeline, we see almost a dozen paragliders circling in the skies above us. We are struck by not only how many of them are visible but also how high up they appear to be. Some of the vibrant kites are hundreds of feet above us. How did they get way up there? The road doesn’t seem to go up that far. Is there another launch site that we don’t know about?
We find the address we were looking for and make our way out to the launch site where dozens of people are hanging out in various stages of fright prep. We would soon learn the answers to those questions we were pondering minutes before. Turns out that the road doesn’t go any higher; this is the only launch site here and those people above us got way up there through a thing called ‘lift’. This came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I pictured paragliding, I imagined flying away from the hillside and floating gently back to earth in wide circles much like the plastic parachute Army men I played with as a child had done. It never occurred to me that going up was also an option. An option it is and one that I later learned paragliders exploit to enjoy flights that can last over ten hours and cover hundreds of miles.
While waiting to sign waivers and pretending to be casual and aloof, Ben and I noticed a strange-looking vehicle sitting off to the side near a small shed. It was the size and shape of a soap box derby car but with an exposed frame and only three wheels. I had not seen anything like this in Sean’s Instagram videos. Could it possibly be for something other than paragliding? Perhaps racing down the curvy mountain road we had come up earlier? Chattanooga is known as one of the greatest outdoor towns in the country and people there are always coming up with new ways to enjoy the outdoors.
While admiring this tricked out mountain buggy, we noticed a guy in a wheelchair nearby who also happened to be eyeing this mysterious contraption. Introductions were made and we soon learned that Ryan was there to go paragliding for his wife’s birthday and that the chair we were looking at was to be his personal vehicle for the flight. Dave at Flying Camp is partners and friends with Project Airtime whose mission is to welcome disabled individuals, the elderly and veterans to the world of paragliding. The sensation I had at that moment is a familiar one. It is the one I get when I’m allowed the opportunity to examine my weak excuses through the lens of another who may have a genuine rationale for not engaging in a fearful, challenging or risky endeavor but chooses to do so anyway.
The enthusiasm that everyone there had for the adventure that lay ahead was palpable. Ryan and his wife, Sarah, were both so excited to be taking to the skies and the passion that Dave and his instructors had for sharing their love of flying with others was evident. I knew then that Ben and I had made the right decision. These are exactly the types of people that we love to be around. A few minutes later, we stood by and watched Ryan roll off the side of the mountain and start flying towards the clouds, wheels still spinning.
It wasn’t long before it was our turn. We stood peering over the edge of the cliff at what lay below while our pilots fastened buckles and tightened straps. I heard Ben’s instructor yelling “Go, go, go” and turned to watch my friend run off the side of the mountain, lurch left a couple times and then soar away into the great blue yonder.
Seconds later, I was airborne as well. The initial sensation of falling as the mountainside dropped away below my feet was soon replaced by one of being carried up, up and away. The variometer strapped to our rig began to beep to indicate how fast we were rising. My heart seemed to match the beat. Not only were we hundreds of feet above the ground and rising but I could feel the g forces pressing me down into my seat as the updraft pulled us higher. It was simultaneously thrilling and slightly nauseating. My stomach was not entirely prepared for its sudden relocation into the base of my throat. It wasn’t long however before my pilot, Chris, took us into a slow turn where we leveled off and the beeping and my pounding heartrate began to subside. I relaxed the white knuckle death grip I had on my hand straps. The rest of my body followed suit and I settled in for the trip.
As the adrenaline rush started to subside, I began to notice the incredible view all around me. Deep, green forest stretched below me in every direction. I could see the Tennessee River and parts of Nickajack Lake to the south. Above was nothing but blue skies, white clouds and the occasional kaleidoscope canopy. Over a thousand foot below me lay freshly cut fields where other pilots were landing. The only noises were me muttering “wow, wow, wow” and the sound of the wind under the wing. I began to relax even more and leaned back fully into my harness allowing my legs to swing freely in the air below. All the anxiousness had subsided. The fears that had haunted me for weeks leading up to this seemed silly and out of context. I was now truly enjoying the experience for what it was completely unimpeded by any of those negative emotions.
The next twenty minutes were sheer bliss. Words fail me here. I can’t adequately describe the combination of excitement, happiness and pure gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us that filled my heart and soul. As we made our way to the valley floor, flying in those wide circles like the plastic army men of my youth, I was reminded of my need for experiences like these. The need to remember that most of the things I worry about never occur; the need to be reminded that sometimes it is best to just let go and relax and that when exploring realms outside your comfort zone, sometimes it is best to take an old friend along for the ride.
I’ve been back on the ground for several days now but part of me is still in the clouds. Ben and I are already trying to figure out our next adventure. If you have any ideas for us or would like to share a story of your own, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.
I hope this finds each of you doing well and I extend my heartfelt thanks for checking out another edition of The Juandering Advocate. Until next time, much love and happy trails…