Where I flew in Vermont the mountains are smaller than these in our desert west, but plenty big enough for starters. A perfect little ridge lay three miles away, linked to another one only ten miles long reaching well beyond sight from the airport. In New England’s cool cloudy weather many summer days offer no thermals at all, but ample slope lift might be available if one hugs those hills close enough.
Having no one to learn from, I explored that new environment with obsessive passion, timid at first, yet eager to find my way. While subject to the same fears and missteps everyone should have when new to mountain soaring, I was determined to learn the game without killing myself — or anyone else. On the ground after flights my hands often shook from surging adrenaline, but each increment of progress felt more natural, and despite all kinds of personal shortcomings I knew I’d found my calling.
Tip-toeing near any hillside amplifies all of flying’s pleasures. Visual, physical and mental sensations are fused in vivid detail as your shadow leaps across trees and boulders, shrinking into hollows and JUMPing out between them. You scatter swallows and startle sunning squirrels, maybe even a hiker or two. But the combination of low airspeed and proximity to the surface also amplifies the hazards of flying. You must maintain a minimum of speed for safety, and when the earth is too close adding more becomes impossible.
A further peril occurs when you’re already on a ridge that has been working, but it weakens. A slackening of wind, a change in direction, or change in the slope itself, any of these can ambush the unwary – from below!
Have you ever tried to swim in water too shallow for stroking arms and kicking legs? Instead, you have to pull yourself along the bottom hand over hand. Well, one summer a period of calm, flat weather had gone on for weeks, and in trying to stay aloft when that wasn’t really possible I fell into a habit of crawling even slower and closer. Then one night I dreamt I was pulling myself by hand from tree to tree – and sat up in bed with clarion realization that the safety margin had been rubbed too thin. It was time to back away.
Every few years a similar wakeup call would come, another instinctive warning to recalibrate. Each was timely in its own way, and I believe that heeding them is why I’m still around. On my very first flight here at Crystal, after one close look at these mountains I vowed to quadruple my minimum safe distance from the surface until I grew more familiar. No way to prove it, but that might have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
And twenty-some years later? Such wakeup calls have become only more frequent, the way power poles squeeze together like fence posts as you accelerate up a highway. Now entering my final chapter, they’ve blurred into what I suppose they should have been in the beginning — a continuous dialogue with the silent voice inside. Yes it’s taken this long, but I may have finally reached something equivalent to what should have been in the first place: uninterrupted vigilance.
Really, you ask? Ah, time will tell.