Of wings and prayers 

Feet on the ground and flying

Something was wrong with the man wearing the backpack.

A second ago he'd stepped off the top of Mount Jumbo, 1,500 feet of bare air separating him from the valley. Above him flapped a violet, crescent-shaped sail. He must be a parachutist, I thought. Slowly, surely, he would drop.

But the man failed to fall. Instead he rose, climbing to 5,000 feet, then 6,000. Weightless, he swung, turned and floated among his ethereal companions, birds and clouds. On the sidewalk below I was a speck to him, my house a tiny clod. Cars, congestion, what to eat—such concerns lay literally beneath him.

As the man rose higher, so did my heart. He's flying, I thought. But how?

He was, I would learn later, a paraglider. Unlike airplanes and hang gliders, paragliders don't rely on motors or fixed frames to become airborne. Instead, wind simply fills a parafoil's pockets (called cells), inflating the fabric canopy into a rigid wing and enabling flight.

This design allows the entire rig to be stuffed like a sleeping bag into a backpack and carried up a mountain. Given the right conditions and proper training, one just unpacks, straps in and flies. Employing both prevailing winds and rising columns of warm air called thermals, paragliders can stay aloft for hours and cover more than 100 miles.

Toys "R" Us sells kites of the same design for less than $10, although the kites are of course smaller and leave the pilot grounded. It's akin to the difference between training raptors and being one. I wanted to be one.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

But time also flies, and somehow two years came and went without takeoff. Then one sunny summer afternoon I found myself outside, sharing a view of the mountain with Ruth, a neighbor on my block.

"Oh!" she said. "Look!"

I followed her gaze to see a paraglider backpedal off the mountain and swoop upward into the sky. Beside him, a bald eagle hung on broad wings, making time in an adjacent thermal.

We stood in silence and, I thought, common admiration and envy, until Ruth at last spoke. "It always makes me so sad to see those."

I looked down, at once serious. "Why?" I said.

"Well, you wouldn't know, but the gentleman who lived in your house before the people who were there before you, he used to do that flying thing all the time. He just loved it," Ruth said. "He had a disabled daughter—she was in a wheelchair, I mean—and she wanted to see him fly up close. So he drove up the Mount Sentinel back road, set her down next to him, and then he took off."

"What happened?" I said.

Ruth paused before answering. Her voice shook. "The wind changed," she said. "He died, driven right into the mountain. All with his daughter there, watching."

In my family we're social liberals, but physical conservatives. When I was a child, my parents read me the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, the father-son flyers who fashioned wings from feathers, twine and wax. "All look up, in absolute amazement, at those airborne above," I remembered the words of the poet Ovid. "They must be gods!"

Icarus, though, ignored his father's warnings and climbed dangerously upward.

"[He] soared higher, higher, drawn to the vast heaven, nearer the sun," wrote Ovid. "And wax that held the wings melted in that fierce heat, and the bare arms beat up and down in air and ... took hold of nothing."

I hung my head. "Ruth," I said. "I'm so sorry."

That conversation was five years ago, and on summer days since I've regularly looked up from my front steps, scanning the sky for the colorful crescent wings that mean people are flying. Paragliders still awe and amaze me even as I cringe at the thought of anyone becoming another Icarus. The reward of flight is majesty.

Late this spring I received from my parents a multihued parafoil kite. On nice evenings I walk, string and sail in hand, from my front door to the top of Mount Jumbo. My mood is humble.

Flying a kite is not the same as flying; I risk nothing worse than knots. Yet atop, at the first strong wind, I stand on tiptoe and release the parafoil. The kite swings briskly to the left. It bobs. It weaves. I unfurl more and more string and up it flies. My spirit soars with it.

Adding something of my own to the sky delights me. The way navigating a canoe around an unknown bend makes your heart race. The way pointing at a shooting star gives you shivers.

Flying a kite, my feet touch the earth, but the heavens tug my arms. I do not rise. Neither, though, do I fall..

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