“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Paragliding in Italy

OK, if you were shooting a video here’s what you’d see:

Behind me are the Dolomites, the rugged crenellated mountains that saw through the northern reaches of Italy. Facing me, maybe thirty kilometers on the horizon, the Gulf of Venice gleams in the summer sun and just to the right, barely discernible, Venice looks like a smudge on the sea (although describing Venice as a smudge seems sacrilegious). Above me my paragliding wing is a thin neon green strip of fabric outlined against the blue sky and 500 meters straight down the church steeple in the tiny Italian village of Dardago is peeking up at me between my boots. It's so far below me it looks like a child's toy village. 

A funny sight that; it catches me off guard. I imagine I am Gulliver, my huge feet stomping through the village.
But this whole paragliding thing is catching me off guard. I was pumped for an adrenalin filled adventure, something akin to skydiving or bungee jumping. But this is different. Sure, it’s exciting but it doesn’t have that falling-to-your death feel of jumping out of an airplane or plunging off a bridge.

I knew from the get go that this was a different kind of adventure. I hooked into my harness, took a half dozen running steps down a gentle alpine meadow above Dardago and—almost belatedly—I realized I was no longer standing on Mother Earth.

It’s smooth, thrilling and—get this—comforting. It’s a feeling I’ve never encountered before. I thought: Wow, so this is what flying really is all about. No engine, gauges, propellers, cockpit, fuel, tires, wings, rudders, pedals, sticks, throttles. Just a brightly colored canopy stretching languidly overhead. One minute you’re running, then your feet are treading air and you realize you’re airborne. Simplicity.

This was my son Michael’s idea. He is an accomplished paraglider and he and a buddy took me out for a flight. My pilot Neville, an impish Aussie who spends his summers fooling with paragliding novices like me and his winters teaching skiing, seems pleased that I am loving this flight.
And he delights in giving me the full flight experience.  We have hardly cleared the grassy slope when we catch an updraft and climb rapidly, maybe 500 meters above our takeoff point. Neville banks left and we swoop parallel to crest of the mountain ridge. It is gorgeous. I swivel my head from side to side, jagged mountains fronting a blue Italian sky on my left, the sparkling Adriatic on my right. Updrafts thrust us up another 300 meters and we are looking down at the mountain crest.  I love the feel of riding the updrafts and downdrafts, like an invisible roller coaster.

We scud along the mountain ridge before gently arcing right, over the valley below. I look down and see a falcon soaring beneath us. How cool is that? I’m flying above a falcon.

I spy Michael and friend flying in formation near the valley floor a thousand or so feet below us. They are skimming along, seemingly able to touch their boots on treetops, although they later said they were much higher. It’s a beautiful sight, two brightly colored paragliders in a gentle ballet over the picturesque Italian countryside.

We bank left, floating above a sinuous road that tracks back and forth down the mountain towards Dardago. We circle over the village and I lean forward in my harness and gawk at the red terracotta roofs in the Lilliputian village below.

I suppose it sounds like a cliche to say I feel like a bird--in fact, I know it does because I say those very words a few minutes after landing and my son and his friend give me such a raft of crap I instantly regret it. (But just between us, it's true.)

Tacking east, we head toward the landing field and begin our approach, gradually losing altitude as we line up for landing. Everything is relaxed; the earth rises up slowly and things on the ground become increasingly larger. We skim over a line of trees bordering the field and glide down toward a large white "X" on the grass. I put my feet down, promptly lose my footing and scoot across the field, just a few feet before sliding to a stop. Nice and easy.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I loved paragliding. It’s a dichotomy, both exciting and relaxing. Paragliding is as close as a human can come to flying like a bird. I didn’t use any verbs like plummet, lunge or dive because this isn’t that kind of sport. Like any extreme sport, it can be dangerous but it doesn’t seem that way; when you’re lazily soaring over a gorgeous countryside, danger is the last thing on your mind.

Details: Pay your money and take a tandem flight, it’s that easy. But be forewarned, the sport is almost immediately addicting. If you get the bug you’ll want to get your (required) paragliding license. In the states, check out the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, http://www.ushpa.aero/ for info on schools, requirements and tandem and solo flights.

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