Learning to Leap

I’m what people call a “late adopter.” I generally mull over even the most minor of life’s decisions, waiting until I see someone else do something successfully before taking the leap myself.

For instance, I finally got my ears pierced at age 20, but only at my little sister’s request on her 10th birthday – and I made her go first. I went on my first roller coaster ride at age 21, but only after my college roommates peer pressured encouraged me (and after taking 2 Dramamine). And I finally bought my first pair of skinny jeans at age 25, but only after my boss made me do it while we were in LA for a shoot and she thought I needed something trendier to wear to dinner that night.

So, imagine my surprise when I decided, of my own volition, to run off a mountain in the Swiss Alps with only a parachute strapped to my back.

I was studying abroad in Avignon, France the summer after my sophomore year of college. On one of our long weekends, I traveled with 5 other students to Interlaken, Switzerland on an overnight train. We arrived at the train station around 10 a.m., groggy from a night of fitful sleep in cramped quarters.

I’ll never forget how quickly my mood lifted though once we exited the train and had our first look at the town. It was incredibly picturesque – tall green mountains surrounded us on all sides, and some snow-capped ones could be seen in the distance. Quintessential Swiss homes and shops lined the streets, and the two lakes on either side of the town were a stunning blue. The weather was absolutely perfect.

As we lugged our bags to the hostel, I looked up and saw people suspended by colorful parachutes dropping gracefully from the sky.

“Skydivers?” I asked one of the other travelers in our group.

“No, I think they’re paragliders. It’s basically skydiving without the whole jumping-out-of-an-airplane thing.”

I couldn’t stop watching as each parachute made smooth, gentle circles in the sky, weaving back and forth until they finally came close enough to land in the grassy park in the middle of town. I was hooked.

“I have to do this,” I told the group.

“Cool, yeah, let’s see if we can go tomorrow. I’m sure the hostel can set something up,” one of the girls said.

“No, I need to do this today. If I don’t do this now, I’ll chicken out and won’t be able to bring myself to do it tomorrow.”

Luckily the rest of my friends were less calculated than I and agreed we’d go paragliding that afternoon.

We dropped our bags in the communal bedroom at the Funny Farm Hostel, and then proceeded to sign all the necessary paperwork – essentially a waiver saying they were not responsible if we got injured/died – and handed over 150 Swiss francs.

At 4:30 that afternoon, a van picked us up at the hostel and drove us high up a nearby mountain to our takeoff spot: a grassy meadow on a steep hill overlooking the town. By this point my good senses, and their accompanying nerves, were starting to kick in.

I paired up with a guide named Peter and instantly started peppering him with questions.

“How long have you been paragliding?”

“Since 1980.” Good, good, I thought. Longer than I’ve been alive.

“How often?”

“Maybe 3 days a week?” Ok, solid experience. Nothing to worry about, I told myself, taking comfort in the numbers running through my head as I calculated how many times Peter had done this.

Once we were properly strapped to each other and to the sail, Peter gave me brief instructions for learning to fly.

“Just run. Don’t stop running. Even if you feel us lift off the ground, keep your legs moving. You see that line of trees down the hill?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously.

“We need to be in the air before we get to those trees.”

I took his advice to heart. Running, good. Trees, bad.

Peter tugged on the sail, checked the direction of the wind and let me know it was time to go. We began to jog, and eventually run down the hill. Before I knew it, we were gently lifted up over the line of trees, soaring beyond the edge of the mountain.

Paragliding1It felt as if I were looking out an airplane window onto a miniature town far below. But this familiar feeling was made wonderfully unfamiliar because I could stretch my arms out into the wind, unrestrained.

Even as we looped around in circles near the rocky side of the imposing mountain, I never once felt unsafe. I was too busy enjoying myself. It was as if my harness were actually a swing in a playground; I sat on the seat with my legs dangling freely beneath me, the wind blowing in my face, tempting me to pump my legs to take us higher. Every so often I’d get my wish and we’d hit a warm pocket of air, lifting us further into the sky.

After a few minutes of acclimating to the sensation of flying, Peter asked if I’d like to take the controls. I carefully but eagerly took a nylon loop in each hand, pulling one side, and then another, gently weaving us back and forth. I beamed with happiness as I took in the incredible views from every direction, determined to store each second of our 10-minute ride into my memory.

Before long, the details of the town started to come more clearly into view, as if I were rejoining the world below. As I prepared to land in the grassy park, I saw a scattering of people looking up toward the sky. I suppose they could have just been admiring the scenery. But I like to think that they were mesmerized by the graceful descent of the paragliders, deciding in that moment that they, too, wanted to leap off a mountain one day.

© Sarah Porwoll 2018

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