Going Places: Tales from the road: The eagle within

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In search of the eagle within

Setting up the gliders
Now we learn the art of "parawaiting." Wind conditions need to be nearly perfect for us novices to fly safely. So eaglets spend a lot of time waiting for the wind to change. A lot of time.

More than five long hours go by. We wait at the ranch house. We wait on top of our first-choice slope. We wait at our second-choice slope. Eventually, the wind cooperates and our class gets a shot at our first so-called "altitude flights" from a 500-foot hill.

One by one, Art, Janet, and Dawn take off. They soar through the air, shrinking to tiny figures on the valley floor below. I volunteer to go next, knees shaking, but dang tired of all this waiting.

Dana points out my runway with a sweep of her arm. A lunge forward, a bullheaded run, and I take off, the hill falling away beneath my feet. The scenery opens up around me, snowy mountains on the horizon and endless green hills far below my dangling boots. It takes a few moments before I realize I'm not scared. Instead, it feels calm and graceful, like a recurring dream in which I run so fast I can fly. The wing holds me firmly in the air, strong and secure. Gliding through the sky as if suspended on a high-altitude swingset, I hear a gentle whooosh as the wind rushes through the risers.

On the radio, Dana tells me to turn left and aim for the spot where the other eaglets have landed. The sky seems darker, and the wind is getting stronger. I pull down on my left brake handle and lift up on the right. It doesn't turn. "Left. You need to turn left," she says again. Further down with my left arm, further up with the right. Still nothing. I am gliding a little too close to a hill on the far side of the valley. Eeek.

"I need a left turn now," says Dana's voice in my ear.

Cursing the wind, I decide it's time to stop being wimpy with the controls. I pull down farther than I think I'm supposed to, but that does the trick. The glider turns. Bumpily, I lose altitude until I reach the landing zone. After a little more trouble making the final right turn, I'm back on solid ground. The long day has left me tired and hungry, and frustrated that I had trouble making turning. But beneath all that is the excitement of my first real solo flight, and a whole lotta pride.

On the radio, I hear Dana announce that the last two eaglet flights are cancelled because of the strong wind. The window of opportunity has closed.

By the end of the second day I get two more flights--one from nearly 1,000 feet.

The author, getting
ready for liftoff
They last only a few minutes, barely long enough to stretch out my wings. But each time, my knees are considerably less shaky on takeoff and I feel more and more comfortable with the idea of running off the top of a huge hill. My turning improves.

As we leave the ranch Sunday afternoon, Dana waves. "Good-bye, eaglets!" she calls. "You're eagles now!"

Driving home, I find myself looking at the sky, picturing myself in it. I figure that if I were a bird trapped in a human body, I would know it by now. But I'm still unsure. So maybe I am a normal human being. But something's there. And I know one thing for sure: I won't find it here on the ground.

Claudine Chamberlain is Outside Online's copy editor.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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