“I Can Fly”

By Pat Snyder

I never thought I’d be a human bird. It happened quite by accident. We were headed south on Route 1 toward Carmel on our annual trip west, scanning bayside exits like buzzards, looking for a likely picnic spot.

“Try that one!” I shouted, at the sight of the word “Marina” on the sign. My husband swerved the rental car down the ramp and we headed down a skinny blacktop road. Magically, over the crest, was a postcard view of Monterey Bay and a sign that said: “Hang Gliding Lessons.”

“Cool!” I heard myself say. “Maybe I’ll try it!”

He shot me a quizzical look.

“It’s an opportunity!” I explained. “How many places in Ohio offer this? Maybe you should try it, too.”

There was no doubt, from the way he shook his head, that his role in any hang gliding adventure would be limited to carrying the health insurance cards to the emergency room. But he was willing to humor me and explore the launching site.

There, at the top of a dune, we spotted the giant white glider resting in the sand. It was perched high, ready for a launch, its wings ruffling with anticipation in the afternoon breeze. After lunch, we circled the giant beached bird and tried to imagine how a huge fabric contraption, strung with poles and wires, could lift a human off the ground.

A tanned surfer stood nearby. “Want a lesson?” he asked. The lines of his sun-bleached mustache crinkled a little, as though he were amused.

Bravado fading, I shook my head. “Just window-shopping,” I answered. “But how much?”
“$98 for the first one.”

I hesitated. “Too much,” I said.

My husband was enjoying this change of heart.

“Go ahead if you want,” he nudged. I looked at the dune and imagined launching and landing on the beach way below. I felt 8 years old again, bare feet pacing on the sandpaper surface of a diving board – debating, while the swimming instructor treaded water.

“Jump!” he had said.

“Can’t!” I had wailed.

I walked up to the glider again for just a moment.

“Too much,” I told the surfer, and headed back to the car.

On the road back to San Francisco, I congratulated myself for my good sense, marveled that I’d even considered it…and periodically, over the next year, wondered out loud what it would be like to fly.

That would have been the end of it. But packing our bags for the next summer’s trip west, my husband brought it up again.

“You could still do it,” he said. “That hang gliding. You seemed really interested.” This time, it seemed like a dare.

Nothing can stoke a dream like a dare, and nothing feels safer than an adventure weeks ahead and miles away.

“Maybe I will,” I told him, then proceeded to tell everyone but my mother that I would be flying off a very large sand dune onto the beach, dangerously close to the Monterey Bay. Mothers, at any age, worry too much.

As the time and place got closer, I wished I’d never said a word. Didn’t life insurance applications ask about hang gliding? What if I lost my nerve? I felt the diving board beneath my feet. “Jump!” “Can’t!” “Jump!” “Can’t!”

Nothing inspires creative lying like fear. I imagined how I could still weasel out and save face.

“Could not find the place!” I would tell my friends. “Got there, but it was closed.” “They raised the price. I drew the line at (95? 90? 85?) dollars.”

But on the road south to Carmel, the sign still said “Marina.” Down the skinny blacktop road, almost nothing had changed.

The hill seemed higher than before; the regimen more organized. Now, there was a brochure. Lessons were at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The brochure mentioned a three-hour course, including a one-hour video. It was a Wednesday. I would have to return on Friday for the lesson. I would have to sign a very long waiver form promising not to sue them for anything, including ordinary negligence. The hill seemed very high.

“Well,” I told my husband, “we’re obviously not coming all the way back”

“We’re not doing a thing on Friday,” he said. It happened to be Friday the 13th.

Between Wednesday and Friday, I saw every quadriplegic in Northern California. They were in restaurants, on sidewalks, de-boarding from vans. I gulped. I wavered. We returned.

On Friday morning, Monterey Bay was breathtaking. Blue water, a few fluffy clouds, wind about 10 MPH, exactly the recommended level for beginning hang gliders.

“We’ll wait a few minutes for the other student,” said Steve, the owner and “certified instructor” I was entrusting my body to.

“ I could watch the video,” I offered.

“Aw, we haven’t shown that for about a year,” he said. “It’s pretty much launch and land, launch and land. I’ll tell you what to do. That’s how you learn.”

He tossed a tiny orange hang gliding manual, the size of a golf score card, across the picnic table.

“This will give you an idea,” he said.

It didn’t give me the slightest. I wasn’t until Barbara, a more seasoned student, arrived and we went up on the dune that I started to catch on.

At this point, the glider was unfurled – its huge wingspan stretched out with light poles across the dune, a rectangular set of bars hanging down, where I’d be suspended and hanging on mosquito-like during the flight.

Steve had the grace to let the other students – his 14-year-old son Andy and this tiny woman named Barbara – go first.

I watched as they tethered themselves with a giant clip to the underside of the glider, grabbed hold of the bars, and following Steve’s directions, walked-jogged-ran right off the edge of the dune toward the bay. As they ran off the edge, the wind picked them up and they drifted bayward toward a soft, airy landing on the beach 15 feet or so below.

It almost looked like fun by the time my turn arrived. My biggest fear – that I’d somehow fly out over the bay and sink to a watery grave – could not happen, I was told. The air current would hold me back.

Up close, the glider was very large, and the edge of the dune was not far away.

“It will seem a little strange,” Barbara had told me, “running off the edge like that. I had trouble letting go at first. I just had to keep trying.”

Barbara lived in Monterey, designing web pages in her home. She could keep coming back and jumping off the dune whenever she wanted. In fact, she called it an anti-depressant, an endorphin rush and escape from a solitary, sometimes lonely occupation.

But I didn’t live in Monterey, and I couldn’t come back. And as I stood near the edge of the dune,

it occurred to me why I was there in the first place. It was that diving board, the one I just couldn’t jump off. I wanted this to be different, to take the plunge, finally to jump off the edge, to melt the frozen, horrible feeling of being stuck.

So when Steve called “Walk! Jog! Run!” I did. Right off the edge, into the air. And straight down.

The next thing I knew, I was a very large folded bird, beak in the sand, arms exhausted and slow to move. A very fast crash landing.

“You looked down!” Steve said accusingly.

It never occurred to me to look anywhere else.

“You will go where you look,” he said. “If you look down, you will crash.”

It was a long, tormented climb back to the top of that dune for another chance at the glory of flight. I trudged through a mountain of soft sand, and groaned trying to control the glider that rode on my shoulders. When I finally reached the top, Barbara took me aside. There, looking out over the bay, she told me something I’ll never forget.

“There’s a secret to this,” she said. “You have to look straight out at the horizon, and believe the wind will carry you. If you don’t believe, you will crash.”

My hang gliding career was very short. I never did a perfectly graceful glide like Andy, or go as high as Barbara. I never stuck around to buy the “eagle package,” which would have had me soaring 12 miles down the beach. And I’ve endured the ribbing of good-natured co-workers, who ask if I signed up for the “ostrich package” instead.

But the next time off the dune that day, and the next, and the next, when I ran off the edge, I did not look down. I looked straight at the horizon and believed the wind would carry me.

And it did. Every single time.

Copyright 2000 Pat Snyder

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