Going Places: Tales from the road: The eagle within

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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In search of the eagle within

When Jabe first caught the paragliding bug about four years ago, the ranch was home to a school called Parapente USA. But its owner was plagued by financial woes, facing foreclosure threats from three separate groups, all of whom would probably have subdivided the land and sold it to developers. Flush with Microsoft cash and eager to preserve this vast pilot's heaven, Jabe bought the ranch and got the school started again last year under the new name.

To my surprise, my class is not full of cocky, 20-something men. Two couples--Jeff and Dawn, and Art and Cheryl--are there to celebrate Dawn and Art's 40th birthdays. Janet, a 47-year-old accountant, also tags along to rack up some flights. She's an intermediate student, working toward her pilot's certification.

Our teacher for the weekend is ace pilot Dana McMillan, a tall, thin brunette who speaks authoritatively, addressing us as "ladies and gentlemen." She's like a friendly drill sargeant, the type of person who makes you really want to earn her respect.

Our helmets humble us quickly, putting an end to any concerns that adrenaline-pumped egos will prevent safe flying. They are baby-blanket pink. And in order for Dana to instruct us while we're in the air, they have black radio receivers attached to either side. The radio antennae complete the Junior Spaceman effect.

We spend most of the first morning on the 100-foot bunny slope. Dana and a second instructor, Mike Smith, stand in front of us, one at a time, giving us our countdowns. The usual "three, two, one" is followed by "lean, run, open, brake." We lean into the wind, run forward to inflate the wing, open up our hands to let go of the front risers, and pull the brakes down to neutral position.

But it seems I can do no more than lean, run, open, brake, and fall flat on my face. My hands are scraped up and bleeding a bit from blocking so many falls. Not very birdlike. Not at all.

Rob Davis, an advanced pilot who is helping us out, leans forward as if to tell me a secret.

"You know what the biggest thing is?" he says, almost whispering. "The run. The person with the strongest, most aggressive, most bullheaded run is going to get the best take-off."

Aggressive. Run. Got it. Ready for another try.

It works. Barely 20 feet off the ground, but exhilarated by my first taste of airtime, I give a little whoop. I try to get in touch with my inner bird. But it's too late. The ground comes up and I have to land.

At the end of the slope, I meet ranch manager Don Poirier, who introduces himself as a "paradude" and a neighbor of the flight park. I ask him if he's a bird. He laughs. "Well, I bought 80 acres of land out here so I would have a good place to paraglide," he says. "So I guess I am."

Unfortunately, we have to stop. The winds that carried me up into the air were thermals--or rising currents of warm air. It's the kind of stuff experienced pilots love because that's how they gain altitude, soaring up to the clouds. But it's too risky for us "eaglets," as Dana now calls us. We break for lunch.

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