Go ahead and jump
At 13,000 feet and 120 mph no one can hear you scream.
There’s a moment of clarity that comes when you’re hurling through the air at terminal velocity—around 120 miles per hour—with nothing between you and the rush of wind but a complicated series of straps that look like something out of a dominatrix’ toolbox.
You find it after the few seconds of pure panic that overload your brain right as you sit in the doorway, your legs dangling out of the plane 13,000 feet above the ground—when every fiber of your being is screaming, “You’re going to die.”
You tumble out and are instantly disoriented and distorted. But once your brain catches up with your body (and your body catches up with your brain), you remember that you did this to yourself. That’s when you get your bearings. The horizon shifts from a terrifying blur to an exquisite landscape painting, because nothing looks real. At that speed, from that angle, even familiar landmarks are unrecognizable in their extraordinary beauty. But I’m still flying through the air so fast I can barely take it all in.
My fists are clenched around two pathetically small straps across my chest. Tyler Wareham, my one link to life, a NorCal Skydiving instructor and Zen Buddha of the sky, is harnessed to my back to ensure I don’t become a human pancake. He has to literally rip my arms open, spreading my wings so I can “fly.” And that’s when things get good, really good, and my mind goes clear.
Free-falling at (I’ll say it again) 120 mph is not at all what I expected. There’s no hint of that dropping sensation you experience on rollercoasters—the one that sends your stomach rocketing through your feet. To the contrary, it almost feels like being lifted upward—the colossal pressure of the wind seems to carry you like a bird on the breeze. It’s like nothing I ever imagined.
I lock eyes with Mark Forget, the free-falling photo-ninja who snaps pictures of me with a camera adhered to his helmet. For a moment he hovers in front of me, waving wildly to draw smiles from my face for the photos. Then, with a quick high-five, he’s off. I can barely turn my head against the force of the wind, but in my peripheral vision I see him float behind and above me— navigating the sky like a swimmer through water to shoot me from different angles.
Suddenly Mark is back, dangling his foot in front for me to grab. It’s like trying to move my arms through quick-dry concrete —the sheer force of concentration required to manipulate my limbs is staggering. I can only contemplate this feeling for a fraction of a second before I see Mark wave, and suddenly I am pulled upward as a canopy of orange and black unfolds above me, celebrating, it appears, the world champion achievements of the San Francisco Giants.
Then, everything goes silent— partly because of the ringing in my ears from the rapid pressure change; partly because, at that height, you are above the din of traffic and any other sounds of humanity. It’s almost startling, the rapid transition from the biggest adrenaline rush of my life to this perfect moment of peace. I take a breath. It feels like my first since leaving the plane.
The air feels cleaner, crisper here. From the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, from the crystal waters of Clear Lake to fog-packed San Francisco, the entirety of Northern California is a vivid canvas laid out in front of me. This is when Tyler transitions from a bad-ass sky-flyer to the best tour guide working at altitude.
He masterfully maneuvers the parachute, spinning us around so I can see the rivers snaking their way into and out of Lake Sonoma before pivoting back to point out the outline of Mount Tamalpais. “Do you want to do some spins?” Travis inquires. Does he even need to ask?
We twirl our way toward a vacant field in Cloverdale, and about eight minutes after jumping from the plane at 13,000 feet, I am back on earth. Solid ground feels strange under my feet—they say once you know what it’s like to fly, gravity never feels 100 percent right again. Immediately, I want a do-over. I want to experience it without the fear and trepidation, I want to relive it knowing exactly what to expect so I can better take it in. It seems almost everyone who skydives feels like this, so much so that NorCal Skydiving in Cloverdale offers a discount if divers book a second jump within 24 hours of their first.
“About 40 percent of first-time jumpers take us up on that,” says NorCal office manager Elysha Lee. About 50 people a week seek the chance to fly with the birds, ranging from 18-year-olds to 86-year-olds. It’s a year-round sport; as long as there’s sun, you can fly. And NorCal Skydiving offers holiday gift certificates for those thrill-seekers who are oh-so hard to shop for. I know what’s topping my Christmas list to Santa: another chance to fly.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA