Flying Free: Why Hang Gliding Is Heaven

The first time I geared up to go hang gliding, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I had probably smiled three times in the three years before that because life had been incredibly difficult.

Now I was turning 40 and I was actually smiling because I was about to do something that my soul had been longing for. Something life-affirming. Something fun.

I wasn’t smiling on purpose — this was an autonomic phenomenon, like breathing or maintaining blood circulation with your heart. And I knew it — I knew that my permagrin was rooted in every part of me — body, mind, spirit, soul — all of me anticipating great joy.

And it was an immense feeling, setting off at high speed down the runway, taking flight into the summer sky. My guide and I were secured to a hang glider that was tethered to a plane that lifted us from a flat green field into waves of warm air. As we ascended I felt a joy like the joy I feel when taking off in a plane, but much stronger, with vastly more awe as the gentle breeze streamed against my face.

It was exhilarating to look down and see how small and far ordinary life was. It was delicious to look ahead as I drank in the sky at this height, 2,000 feet above the ground. It wasn’t like a view from a 35,000-foot airplane flight. It was infinitely more visceral because I was suspended in the open air.

Words like elation and euphoria form new definitions in your bones when you’re literally high.

This kind of floating felt exactly like a dream, one where I’m flying above treetops, getting a glimpse of how beautiful life can be. The universe showed me its expansiveness and I could feel more hope and goodness than I ordinarily imagine possible.

Anytime we got a ripple of wind it was like soaring up in a giant swing. When we disconnected from the plane, there was a little bounce-back, and jolting forward again was like a second taste of the takeoff.

I tried to cement every instant of the 15-minute flight in my memory, so the experience would be there for me to return to in detail whenever I want. It helps too that there was a GoPro on our left. Here’s a condensed version of the video, cut together with a little footage from my phone on my second flight:

Isn’t hang gliding crazy?

Isn’t it dangerous? Wasn’t I nervous? Wasn’t I scared?

All I was aware of was being thrilled. My brain had been starving for endorphins, and this was like manna on my tongue after a long famine.

Speaking of food, after our flights, my friend Angela, who loved the experience too, took me to a Mexican restaurant I’d never been to, where the beans were ambrosia. I’ve been back there since and they’re definitely good, but not like that magical dinner after a free-fly in the sky.

Though it should be said that I am afraid of heights in certain ways. My chiropractor, for example, has virtual reality equipment that’s intensely realistic. There’s one beautiful under-the-sea program, and another grim futuristic city program. In that one, you’re on top of a building on a black, high-tech, dystopian space station. The building is taller than the Empire State Building. Since it’s VR, you can theoretically step your foot out, but it feels so real that when I tried it, my brain was convinced that I would plummet to my death. I couldn’t bring myself to stretch a toe out a millimeter. I think it had partly to do with being vertical, and significantly to do with an aversion to the antiutopia.

Hang gliding is different for me. Maybe because I’m horizontal like a bird, maybe because rural Wisconsin is beautiful, definitely because I feel carefree. I consider it no more dangerous than getting in a car. Or than living life for that matter, where we have no limit of frightening things like all the shit that’s in “the news” every day.

I meant to go hang gliding again this past summer, but I spent the warm days working, and then in September I went to Greece, and it was halfway through October by the time I set off to get back in the air.

One of the things I love about going to Wisconsin Hang Gliding is the drive. You could definitely say I like locomotion. I live to travel ground that I don’t cover every day, and it intrigues me to see fresh landscapes. On the two far-apart occasions I’ve made the drive, every bend in the road felt new to me, curving with rolling hills, scattered with farms, wetted with marshland.

On this glorious autumn day, the orange and yellow leaves caught the sun as I cruised past untroubled cows, gnarled oaks, and pumpkin patches. At one point I saw a boy of about 10 fly off his school bus and race up the long drive toward his house. Was he running to get faster? Was he rushing to see something he’d missed all day? Was he thinking, “If I get to the barn before the dog barks, I’ll get what I want for my birthday”?

I dunno, but he was part of the idyllic scene for sure. He and his beautiful free soul.

hang gliding

When I got to Wisconsin Hang Gliding, the office was empty because Rik, the owner, was in the air. Danny the tow pilot was on the ground, out in the field, waiting for Rik to land. While I waited for them, I took photos of the grounds and a video of Rik’s landing:

A minute after this, we were preparing for my second tandem flight. I was thinking about friends who’d said, “Hang gliding? Are you serious?” or “All I can think of is the hot-air balloon accident” or “I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.”

So I asked Rik and Danny:

“What do you say to people who think hang gliding is crazy, risky, or dangerous?”

Obviously I’m not implying that if this is your perception, you should go hang gliding. I asked because I have a different view of crazy, and I wanted to know if they do too.

Rick said that tandem hang gliding with an expert is probably the safest sport you can do in the sky. What Danny said was one of the best things I’ve ever heard anyone say.

He said:

“It’s only crazy in your mind.”

It’s only crazy in your mind.

Like, what do you consider crazy?

When I was thinking about leaving my full-time job, I thought, “It’s crazy to give up health insurance and paid vacation and a stable income and a job I love.”

But I did it because I needed the liberation of working remotely for both my soul and my family obligations. And I’ve never regretted it. I was afraid to do it, but as soon as I did it, I learned that it had been crazy only in my mind.

That’s when I looked at it as doing something crazy because I’m sane. If I hadn’t done it, I would still be living the restrictive life that wasn’t good for me. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to take a 23-day vacation to Greece. And I sure wouldn’t be hang gliding on a Monday.

So now we were taking off again, Danny in the plane and Rik and me on the glider. We soared into the air and there was the wind again, streaming against my cheeks as I felt the freedom of flight. We soared up and the wind was invigorating. The fall colors radiated brilliance. Because it was my second flight and I was obviously a convert, this time we went to 3k high.

Flying like a heron

I thought of how my grandfather had once asked me, “Wouldn’t you love to be a bird flying in the sky?”

We were in marshland at the time, and we’d just seen a blue heron lift out of the water and float into the air.

My grandfather was a brilliant bird carver, and a fervent collector of Owen Gromme‘s wildlife art. I wondered if he would have liked hang gliding like a bird. I thought he might, because for a mild-mannered chap he was a bit of an adventurer, especially when he was in his late eighties.

That’s when he took a helicopter ride over a volcano with me, rode in a rowboat in the choppy Pacific with me and my mom and my aunt watching for whales, and took a motorboat with us down the river and through the jungle of the Dominican Republic. He very well might have loved hang gliding.

Helicopter Ride

I’d asked Rik if I could film with my phone, and he didn’t mind. I think it was because he could tell that if I dropped it, I would realize it was my own fault. I had my phone strategically placed in a pocket on the chest of my harness. Rik had given me gloves to wear because the wind was chilly, and it was quite an ordeal to take each one off while up in the sky, tuck them in my cleavage like my grandma safekeeping Kleenex, unzip the little pocket, and wrangle my phone out.

It was tricky business, but eventually I succeeded. I got my security code pressed, and the camera app open, the slider set to video, and the video turned on. I filmed the 30 seconds you saw above and decided that was more than enough. It would help preserve the memory, but it was taking me out of the moment. It was better to gaze in awe, so I spent the rest of the flight locking every glorious detail in my mind. I even decided to consider taking lessons to become a solo flyer like this guy. If I could, I’d fly every day.

Fear and perception

Now there are crazy things that are super crazy-crazy. Because crazy’s on a spectrum. But sometimes when you do something kind of crazy, it’s actually more liberating than you imagine.

What I think is crazy is not doing what you feel you will love. Of course, I’m not saying go hang gliding. If you don’t want to go hang gliding, don’t go hang gliding. What I am saying is:

Are all our fears for real?

Just about everything we do is crazy. Driving 4,000-pound steel boxes at 70 mph is crazy. Bombing people is crazy. Having healthcare that bankrupts people is crazy. Even having a child is crazy because of the physical, emotional, and financial risks it brings to the parents — and the risk of life it brings to the child.

It’s only the seemingly “weird” stuff we classify as crazy.

But it’s only crazy in our minds.

When we landed, the wisdom of Danny’s words was still slaying me. As I wobbled onto my feet, I wondered if he’s some kind of Zen Buddhist master.

But as far as I know he’s just a guy who, like Rik, has been hang gliding for 40 years. They’re both in one piece, so that’s a good sign. Not only that, they look strong and healthy. At 58, Rik moves like he’s 16. Doing what they love seems to keep them young.

When we were leaving, Danny said that if he doesn’t get in the air after awhile, he gets antsy. He waved goodbye and ducked into his car wearing watershoes. I think he was headed for another crazy adventure. Maybe scuba diving.

When I drove away, I was still smiling. And I smiled all day.

Hang Gliding 2

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