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Big Adventure: Learning to Hang Glide

My first dreams were of flying. I stood on the top of the bunk bed I shared with my brother and started flapping my arms. As an adolescent, I climbed onto the roof, extended my arms into the night air, and fantasized that angelic-like, golden feathered wings sprouted from my shoulder sockets. In college, I climbed water towers. Up in the dark night’s sky, I imagined leaping off and flying above campus, free from the worries of exams and career planning. I clenched my eyes tight, and wished I could fly away. I wanted to soar.

I finally had the chance to take flight at Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding School just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just after sunrise our class gathered around a petite, tanned blonde named Julie.

Four others were learning to hang glide. There was Joe, a grandfather fulfilling a bucket-list goal. He brought along his entire family for a weekend in the mountains, but only convinced his daughter, Mary, to fly. Mary was terrified of the prospect of actually being airborne, but delighted by the prospect of spending an entire day away from her four children. Andy and Mandy, adorable newlyweds, rounded out the class, yearning for adventure on their honeymoon.

We gathered around a hang glider as Julie explained how to put on our harnesses and connect the harnesses to the gliders. She quizzed us on the basics of performing safety checks before we headed over to the bunny hill, a gentle grassy slope.

Beneath the glider, I felt transformed into my alter-ego, one with flying superpowers. The resplendent red and yellow striped wings of the glider extended from my shoulders, and I became a mythical half-butterfly, half-woman creature. Julie did one last wind check before giving me the go-ahead.

“Raise the glider for the perfect angle of attack. Pick a visual out there.” Julie said, pointing to the mountain ridges on the other side of the valley. The age-old adage of looking where one wants to go holds true for flying. Julie had warned that if I looked down, I’d end up going down. Instead, I fixed my gaze on a single tree on top of the peak just opposite of me, just slightly higher than eye level.

“Perfect! Now jog!” Julie instructed as I started trotting down the hill, “and now run!” Determined to fly, I ran as fast as I could, never taking my eyes off that mountain.

Julie jogged next to me yelling, “Think Wiley Coyote.” Just like the cartoon character, Julie had told us to keep on running even if our feet lifted off the ground because sometimes it took a few ups and downs before the glider truly took flight. As long as students keep running, the glider will fly again.

“And let go!” Julie reminds me, “let it fly, let it fly!” When students hold on too tight, which we all tend to do in life when we get nervous, we hold ourselves back from taking flight. As I opened up my hands, I let the glider slide through my fingers, and felt a light breeze lift the glider. My feet ran through the air for a few seconds before I realized I was flying. I was flying!

The sensation of flying was the pure expression of freedom. In the air, the terrain blended seamlessly together. The individual blades of glass blurred into a soft dreamy green contour. The streams, fields, trees, and mountains stretched before me, a feast for my eyes. I heard the call of a hawk and the water flowing below, and always the sound of the breeze. In that moment, I felt as if I had taken my place in nature. The perspective showed me just how connected we are to the environment. I was no different from other feathered flyers, reliant on the whims of the wind.

As my glider dropped nearer towards a grassy landing, intuitively I pushed away from the control bar, my body stretching out horizontally. The glider slowed down, and then the wheels touched the ground, a gentle reintroduction to reality.

As the glider came to a stop, I looked up the hill to see my classmates jumping up and down for me, their whoops and cheers echoing in my head. I pulled the glider back up the slope, and reveled in the incredible feeling of flight. Taking off gave me that perfect, zen-like-feeling of balance, just like rolling a kayak or jumping a horse for the first time.

One by one, each of my classmates took flight. I watched Joe realize a dream, I watched Mary become revitalized, and I saw Andy and Mandy share one of their first adventures as a married couple. As I stood watching the brightly colored hang gliders swirl like a leaves in the breeze, I realized that hang gliding is the perfect metaphor for life. If we can fix our gaze on a goal with determination and run toward that goal with speed and steadiness, and at the same time manage to let go, anything is possible, even flight.

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