I started flying paragliders when I was 17, and from the moment my feet first left the ground, flight consumed my life. It wasn’t until I had kids in my late 20s that my time spent flying—and in a sense, the identity that had defined my youth—was necessarily reduced. But I’ve never given up my first love entirely, and my own three kids have spent plenty of time immersed in the world of paragliding with me–playing with matchbox cars on launch, helping fold gliders in the landing zone, camping out near flying sites. So I was not totally unprepared when my nine-year-old son, Finn, came to me and said those words I’d been half-anticipating, half-dreading: “Mom, I want to fly!”
How could I possibly deny him? Other than my children, taking flight had been the most transformative element of my life –how could I not want my kids to experience that feeling– but it was also one that came with true risk.
Getting ready to launch a paraglider is something of a leap of faith. You’re poised and ready, but you have to pick your moment. Standing on a hill, a cliff, a mountain, the world is literally at your feet and you’re feeling the wind against your face.
You need a cycle that’s just right—straight in, not so strong you get ripped off your feet, but powerful enough to provide lift. And you’re waiting for your moment and you’re excited and you’re nervous. Because maybe you’re about to soar! Yet flight can be an unforgiving endeavor. A pilot who’d helped guide me through my first years of flying once forgot to connect a single carabiner before launching. Thirty seconds later he was dead.
When your cycle comes and it’s perfect, bearing warmth from its birth on the valley floor three thousand feet below, do you fly? Or do you drop your shoulders, fold up the glider, and go home?
And what kind of person are you if you do?
My own first flights were with a friend on the hills below the UC Santa Cruz campus where I was a freshman. My friend, Honza, showed me how to strap into the harness attached to the glider laid out on the dry grass like a crescent moon. As bikes whizzed by on the path beside us, I learned to run into the wind, to resist the backward tug of the rising canopy. But once the glider was overhead – flying—it was weightless. And as soon as I stepped into the wind, so was I.
My very first flight ended with a crash into a bush. I picked leaves out of my hair and tried again. On my second flight, a small breath of wind caught the glider just as it was inflating, and this time as I stepped into the wind, I was propelled upward, my entire body surrounded by sky. I didn’t hold my breath, but it seemed as if the world below did, time itself pausing while reality rearranged itself. And then the ground came up gently but eagerly to meet my toes, like a new puppy—and I stepped down and into a whole new world.
I remember calling my mom and reassuring her that I wasn’t “really paragliding,” just playing around with the glider, because even at that age I knew that having a kid participate in an extreme sport was a terrifying prospect. As that “playing” turned into my first altitude flights – from a 300 foot grass ridge to a 1200 foot coastal hill to a 5,000 foot mountain– my post-flight-still-euphoric routine never changed: still breathless, I’d find a payphone (remember those?) and call my mom.
“Just call me when it’s over,” she always said. “I don’t want to know before.”
For most of my 20s, my life revolved around foot-launched flight. In France, I flew over Bridget Bardot’s castle. In Australia, I flew along a windswept ridge on remote Fraser Island. In Peru, I flew over Machu Picchu, and I did realize that my life would never be the same.
But as much as paragliding had defined and enriched my life, the risk could be overwhelming, especially as I contemplated letting the power of flight near anything as important as my own small children. Turbulence can twist risers, tossing the pilot through the air, and it can yank and toss the glider until it’s little more than a crumpled wad of fabric. The risk also took a more corporeal form: I was first on the scene to so many accidents that I earned my First Responder certification, wanting to be able to do more for a helmeted body crumpled on the ground than wave my arms and dial 911.
There were broken wrists, broken femurs, broken backs, broken skulls. Broken dreams. And of course, there was death.
How do we dare to give our children the sky when the return to the earth might steal them from us?
But I couldn’t entirely keep them from this wonder that had enveloped much of my own life. So I turned to Honza. Unlike me, Honza—the same friend who’d taught me years before—had never slowed his flying career. As a licensed tandem pilot, competitor and even professional meteorologist, he seemed like the best choice to introduce my own son to paragliding through a tandem flight.
And so I found myself preparing to help toss my nine-year-old son off a cliff south of San Francisco. With the Pacific Ocean stretching out below and a sea of colorful gliders circling above, I helped strap my son into his child-sized harness, buckled his legs, helmet and chest strap, and checked everything twice, three times, and then again once more just to be sure. Finn seemed to feel none of my nervousness. He was bouncing with excitement, his hazel eyes sparkling as he watched other the gliders soaring overhead.
I grabbed Finn’s harness to anchor him as Honza brought the glider up. As it steadied over their heads, Finn’s small body was airborne before he’d taken a single step, and together they were off, airborne over the Pacific. They turned and made a pass above me, gaining height in the smooth coastal air, and I could see Finn’s small feet kicking with joy in the sky. I had to smile when his shout rained down: “Mom! I’m flying!”
Once they’d safely made the crossing to the main ridge (and disappeared from my sight), I hooked into my own glider and launched, heart racing, perhaps because I carried all the burden of doubt so that my son didn’t have to. Without bothering to wait for height, I crossed straight to the main ridge, skimming ice plant. As I turned the corner around the saw-toothed, wind-eroded ridge, I spotted the tandem glider above the tallest sea cliffs to the north, soaring smoothly. Keeping it in my sights, I worked my way up the ridge, catching up to them in the fat lift band that, from 800 feet over the beach, afforded us all a mesmerizing view of the Golden Gate Bridge. As we soared together for the next hour, I couldn’t make out a single word Finn shouted into the wind as they buzzed by, but I could easily make out the tone of his joy.
At sunset we all touched down on the cliff top, wind-burned and exhilarated. Dark hair askew and eyes on fire, Finn was bursting out of his skin with a kind of electricity I knew all too well: it was the magic of flying, or maybe it was just adrenaline, but either way there was nothing like it on this planet.
I held my breath as he recounted every instant of his flight, his words tumbling over themselves. In a way, I was still on the precipice I’d let my child step off, and there was no going back. From here on out, I’d be teetering there, uncertain of whether I was on the brink of soaring or plummeting.
Paraglider pilots don’t like to talk about fear; it’s always the elephant in the room. Sometimes it feels like the kind of person I want to be is one who can soar so full of joy there’s no room to be afraid.
But I’m not that person. I’ve had moments of sheer light—gliding at 13,000 feet above a mountain in sheet glass air as the setting sun lit the granite peak with alpenglow; soaring over California sand dunes, the ocean’s texture changing in a way that made me feel like I’d flown into a painting.
But too much of the time, the true euphoria of flight didn’t come for me until I was back on the ground. Only from the safety of the earth could I relax and appreciate the majesty of the air. I’ve accepted that I’m a person who feels the fear but must fly anyway.
When it comes to my kids, however, the questions are harder. What if they become the kind of people who seek exhilaration even at the cost of true personal risk? What if they follow my example and decide they want to learn to fly?
But also… what if they don’t?
For now, I’m still wavering on that precipice, reaching for the horizon and holding my breath.