The pilot pushed hard to the right, all the way to full power. He knew he was taking a risk and surrendered the horsepower available but was rewarded with a rise of less than a foot. He landed immediately somewhat hard to the left and then a more-hard right raising dust followed by a syncopated left-right-left combination only to slide the last several feet into the small opening in the circle arranged for him.
It erupted in laughter.
It was a family circle of fliers, though not all of them would agree to that description. Gathered high above the Amalfi Coast they had awaited the laggard as they neared the end of a six-mile hike.
Good judgment – as well as a healthy dose of self-preservation – had caused them to make a gap as the 250-pound Pilot came hurtling down the path, staggering to a stop.
On his left were the Skydivers: “Graceful!” they chimed in unison and chuckled privately about their own “Jinx-you-owe-me-a-Coke” moment.
Next to them, the Skier at 17, too cool. “Interesting,” he managed, a smile mostly hidden.
The Equestrian had no similar restraint – pealing laughter gave flesh to the crying-laughing emoji: “Whoa big boy! Slow it on down!” The mirth echoed down the valley as workers in the nearby lemon groves noticed and smiled at the boisterous, beautiful American.
Closing the loop, the Marathoner had nothing to say. She could only shake her head. She had seen it all before.
They met over a dog and the friendship became more. Hikes and runs were exciting to them, but not nearly as much as the thought of voluntarily departing a perfectly good airplane in flight. And so, they did. At 10,000 feet over Charleston, South Carolina, they engaged in the most foolish behavior on Earth. Well, the sky anyway. With Earth to follow shortly. They jumped.
“We knew we just HAD to do it,” he said, as she nodded vigorously. “There is no feeling like it!” she added.
“The rush of the wind, the view, the gliding down on the parachute…” he enthused, searching for the right words to sum up the experience.
She found them: “It’s magic. That’s all I can say, up there it’s magic.”
“We can’t wait to do it again,” he finished her thought and they smiled at each other, the shared memory indelibly linking them flier to flier.
Later that trip, they took what some would also consider a foolish leap when she accepted his offer of a ring.
Both high above the Tyrrhenian Sea and high above the Carolinas they knew:
In their hearts and in their minds, there was no place they’d rather be.
At three he started to ski. And though not a full-time mountain dweller, by 17 there weren’t many parts of lift-served Breckenridge he hadn’t seen. Or Copper. Or Keystone. Or Telluride.
Pick a terrifying run – Whale’s Tail, Devil’s Crotch, Needle’s Eye, Iron Mask, The Black Forest, Spiral Stairs, The Burn, Six Senses – he would only laugh.
“Been there, skied that.”
After a day with one of the top instructors in southwest Colorado dropping into the trees on 36-degree slopes and jumping off cornices 10 feet high, he reported with his best superlative:
“Man, we were FLYIN’!”
The smile on his ruddy, wind-chapped, happily exhausted face said it all:
In his heart and in his mind, there was no place he’d rather be.
Eventing, the British word for a day-long equestrian competition involving jumping massive immobile fences and showing how your horse can dance, has the dual charm of being one of the most expensive and the most dangerous of sports.
Pick 100 women at random and you will find one – there’s always at least one – smitten with training gigantic animals who can outrun a greyhound equipped with a brain the size of a peanut. The combination is unpredictable – and can be lethal.
The Equestrian knew all this and still paid her money and took her chances.
The experience has included broken bones in three of her four extremities and vet bills that would have the average person taking out a third mortgage.
But, oh how she can ride! On the right day with all the stars in alignment, the combination of horse and rider is a fluid tapestry of courage, commitment and craft, of human requests granted by beast, a thundering, leaping, twisting ballet that from a distance cannot be compared to anything else. Judges are trained to look for an illusion during the ride: effortless, lilting, in control, composed are the preferable descriptors.
The up-close reality is gritty, smelly, painful, costly – and enormously difficult.
The average fence is 3.5 feet high, requiring a vertical leap of 48 inches and a linear distance of over 9 feet. It is in this flying moment that all classic Eventing photos are taken and where horse and rider are most closely evaluated.
Those images of the Equestrian’s eyes reveal:
In her heart and in her mind, there is no place she would rather be.
She stopped counting the marathons at 10. That didn’t include the ultras that went past 26.2 to 30 miles plus or the half-marathons that are “only” 13.1 miles.
There’s a certain lunacy that surrounds a willingness to punish your body under a wilting sun for five hours or more. There’s a condition that goes with it, too: Athletic Heart Syndrome. After many kilometers, the heart swells and can increase its size by nearly 50%.
While the long-term effect of long-distance running is open for debate, ask any extreme athlete how they are feeling today. An honest response will release a litany of ailments: knees, backs, tendons suffer the most abuse; stress fractures are as common as shoelaces.
A female marathoner who finishes in 4 hours and 30 minutes has a stride of approximately 4.5 feet. It will take nearly 31,000 of those strides, some of them agonizing, to end up right where she started.
In the process she will lose 7% of her body weight and will spend 19% of the time off the ground. She will fly nearly five of the 26.2 excruciating, character building, awe-inspiring miles.
Her day will end in exquisite pain as evidenced by her grimacing smile over a limping gait, the only visible reward a trinket of metal and ribbon hung around her neck. It is literally worth nothing and everything at the same time.
She picks up this prize in a vomit-scented stretch just past the finish line where the best EMTs in the city watch closely. Heat stroke and dehydration are frequent; fatal heart attacks have happened. Her family anxiously waits nearby.
On the next second Sunday in October she will rise before dawn to be one of 40,000 stories of guts, desire, exceptionalism and perseverance that line up in 80,000 carefully chosen shoes along Chicago’s Columbus Drive waiting for the starting gun, waiting for a chance to fly around the course. In truth there is another 10,000 or more who didn’t get the golden ticket, who would be there if they could.
Her steely determination and months of preparation prove:
In her heart and in her mind, there is no place she would rather be.
The Pilot checked the weather one last time at Albert Whitted Field (KSPG) in St. Petersburg, Florida. He made the decision to start.
It was not an easy call. It was not made lightly.
Work had expanded to later than planned and end-of-flight fatigue was a concern. But the 8-hour trip would make an 11-hour, 45-minute workday. This stayed within his self-imposed duty limit of 12 hours – barely.
A fuel stop past the Smoky Mountains promised a garden variety instrument approach in an 800-foot overcast with moderate rain, but he would arrive before sunset. There would be clouds to deal with in Chicago, too, after night had fallen. No rain was expected there.
Worst of all he badly wanted to be home and knew that desire could complete a deadly chain. The weather the next two days would leave him or the plane trapped in Florida for the weekend if he didn’t go now.
Up the coast in brilliant sunshine, the windows of the aircraft magically turned to post cards every time he looked.
Man, he was FLYIN’!
The Cessna gracefully danced around and over the fences of afternoon clouds.
An annoying headwind, greater than forecast, fattened Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana, turning the night into a grueling marathon.
Breaking out of the clouds and spotting the runway 11 miles from home he knew:
In his heart and in his mind, there was no place he would rather be.
“Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.”
– Helen Keller
Most who live by those words are fliers, in one way or another. Try to think of an avocation, a passion, an adventure, that doesn’t involve the release of a person or object from gravity’s surly bonds. Those that don’t often use the verbiage of flight to describe some part of the activity or its tools.
Regardless of the risk or the cost, how or what they launch airborne, the pain, the fear, the preparation – those who refuse to allow their lives to be nothing are all a part of our circle.
They know the moment of flight where the daring adventure of life is attained.
The six fliers gathered the final time in the Italian sun. The Skydivers would stay behind in their bliss as the Skier, Equestrian, Marathoner and Pilot left by car for Florence.
The road along the coast is famous for its own brand of adventure. Carved hundreds of feet above the water, only a flimsy guardrail, ancient and in disputable repair, is between the vehicles and the sea. The driver seemed competent, although he spoke almost no English, and the car was relaxed and quiet as all took in the scene.
Rounding the corner near Positano, the Skier broke the silence.
“Those guys are insane!” he exclaimed pointing out the window.
On the ocean surface a half dozen jet skiers were screaming across the water, hitting waves and the wake of a passing cruise ship, launching into the air.
“Can you believe how high they are jumping?” marveled the Equestrian.
“Looks painful,” commented the Marathoner.
The driver noticed the commotion and pulled off the road onto the narrow shoulder, apparently to provide a better view. Before the Pilot could complain, the driver motioned all to draw near as he flipped through photos on his phone.
The first image was of a jet ski on a trailer. “La mia moto d’acqua (this is my jet ski),” he said as proudly as any Bonanza owner. The next image was of him astride the machine, his gap-toothed face smiling broadly as he squinted, his hair full of salt, sand and sea.
Then a series of images, some seemingly professionally taken, of him and his ship rising high about the waves. The circle formed tightly as the newest member was revealed and accepted as they praised his skill and bravery. He seemed to understand.
The Pilot pulled up a phrase book:
“È divertente (is it fun)?” he asked.
“È la mia vita (It is my life)!” he declared. He tried to switch to English. “Bestest,” he said and paused, searching the Pilot’s face for understanding then resorted to a mixture of gestures, English and Italian.
He laid his hand upon his chest – in his heart;
He tapped his temple with a tanned finger – in his mind;
He made the motion of an umpire calling a runner safe and said:
“Nessun altro posto (there is no better place).”
The enlarged circle watched the show on the water for another minute and then the daring adventurer looked for one more picture.
“The bestest bestest here,” he said handing the phone to the Pilot. The jet ski was above the water in a flat attitude, his hands off the grips, feet trailing behind in the classic Superman jump, his body parallel to the moto d’acqua.
“Volaré,” he said. “That is bestest bestest. You know? Volaré?” He locked eyes with the Pilot hoping he made the connection.
The Pilot nodded and laughed out loud. Oh yes! The Pilot knew. They all knew. It’s the same in every language.
The Jet Skier had to say it one more time as he pulled back onto the highway.
“Volaré. The bestest bestest.”