Lake Norman & Mooresville

Thoughts fly out of mind in mid-air

As a kid, I remember seeing commercials for Grandfather Mountain, a tourist attraction near Boone, 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. The ads touted scenic walks and the famous mile-high swinging bridge. And hang gliding.

When I realized that it was indeed possible to soar like a bird over the landscape, I was intrigued. I knew I was going to go hang gliding someday.

Years later, when I moved to the Boone area, I phoned Grandfather Mountain to inquire about lessons.

"Oh, we used to offer lessons," said the receptionist. "But the instructor was killed in a hang gliding accident."

You might think that this information would have discouraged me. Besides, I was in Boone for intellectual pursuits. I was not there to fling myself off the side of a cliff.

But, rather than being extinguished, my desire to fly was merely delayed.

Then, this summer, some 10 years after I left Boone, I finally got the chance to go hang gliding. My family traveled to the Outer Banks where, at Jockey's Ridge State Park, hang gliding lessons are offered on a much more forgiving surface than mountaintops. Within the park, there are sand dunes the size of mountain ridges, and a whole staff of instructors, very skilled and - more importantly - alive.

Before the lesson began, each person in our group signed a four-page waiver. I had never seen the phrase "including death" repeated so often in such a short space.

We watched two videos on the history and technique of hang gliding, and the instructor demonstrated how to get into gear and attach ourselves to the hang glider. Then, we donned harnesses and helmets - our only protective gear - and headed for the top of the dune.

Now, nothing about my physical appearance suggests athletic prowess. Indeed, my intellectual pursuits, limited as they may be, have far outweighed my physical ones.

Still, the instructor, David, chose me to make the first flight. And perhaps if I had spent years developing my body rather than my mind, and perhaps if David hadn't overheard me mutter something about his own harness making his shorts look like Daisy Dukes, then perhaps I wouldn't have been in such an awkward position in the first place.

But here I was, poised to run headlong into thin air. Eat your heart out, Jon Krakauer.

David sized me up pretty quickly.

"Erica, you've got to turn off your intellectual brain. Stop trying to put words to everything," he said.

I had asked about a dozen questions since we began ascending the dune. "Just feel it," he added.

"I know." I thought, supremely offended. "I'm not here for intellectual pursuits. I'm here to fling myself off the side of a cliff."

So: forget all the words; don't over think it. Just remember what you're supposed to do. Keep a loose grip on the handlebar. Pull like a sled dog. Relax your body. Stand erect. Don't look down. Look at the target. Walk-jog-run.

Other than that, just feel it.

Right.

As I took that first step into air, where nothing but a whiff of ocean breeze pushed back against my pedaling feet, every single verbal thought left my intellectual brain, and I felt an overwhelming joy - joy at having fulfilled a lifelong dream, joy at having overcome my physical timidity, joy at being alive and in this place and in this moment.

Similar, I suppose, to that final moment when one's life flashes before one's eyes, all of these thoughts lasted no more that one second. And then I looked down. And then I ate sand.

Actually, I didn't so much eat sand as grind it into the two fresh wounds that had opened on my shins when I skidded across the handlebar during the crash.

Still, David counted that as my first flight (Eat your heart out, Wright brothers), and helped me set up for my second attempt.

Did I mention that I studied education while in Boone? I could see the pedagogical frustration on his face, along with a bit of sand.

Luckily, my four successive flights were more successful. The landings were very much the same, minus the bleeding, but I was able to get some significant lift. It really is a lot of fun, just as I had imagined.

Oddly enough, I think I attempted hang gliding for one of the same reasons that I went into education. I knew that being around young people, and continuing to learn new things, would keep me young. Ironically, to maintain that youthful spirit, you sometimes have to do things that could kill you.

And it's important to strike a balance between physical and intellectual pursuits.

I guess that's why, when you go hang gliding, you wear a helmet.

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