Last week, the World Headquarters of Paradise Hang Gliding, Inc. was moved temporarily to California, although most folks probably never realized it. Maryann and I flew into SFO to visit some old friends of ours now living in Murphys, CA, and join them for a concert with Sheryl Crow and G. Love.
Starting with a fun afternoon/evening in San Francisco, we wandered over to Ft. Funston, I was praying for perfect flying conditions and lots of gliders set up, hoping that one would be somebody I knew and that I could take their glider for about a 20 minute joyride. Unfortunately, we were greeted by thick fog and no locals. So, we settled for a romantic evening spent wandering about the wharf area and eating crab dinner, and the next morning we drove to Murphys the next day to join our friends Bob & Lynn. We had a couple of extra hours to kill, so with Lynn as our guide, we drove the short distance to the Big Trees State Park to have a look at the giant Sequoias. Only a short hike from the parking lot in the north Grove, one can see the largest living things on earth, many of which are more than 2,000 years old and over 300 feet tall…! Look closely in the photo, at the bottom, to see Lynn and Mare standing inside this gargantuan organism.
After a sumptuous feast of lamb chops and mixed vegetables with our hosts, we headed off to the Cheryl Crow concert at the nearby Ironstone Vineyards. The show was great, this venue has attracted many top-name entertainers this season including Willie Nelson, Faith Hill, Sugarland, ZZ Top, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among many others. They have a beautiful new outdoor stage, plenty of parking, and of course, a lot of wine.
We were fortunate enough to have seats only a few rows back. The concert was, as expected, great. During a break between G. Love and Sheryl Crow, I stood up to take a break and walked to the aisle to head for the port-a-pots, when, much to my surprise, directly in front of me was standing none other than fellow hang glider pilot John Borton. The last time JB and I had seen each other was when I served as meet director for the 2002 Speed Gliding National Championships at Lookout Mountain (which JB, of course, WON) It’s hard to say who was more astonished, but we both just stood there for a couple of moments stammering something like “What the f*&% are YOU doing HERE???!!!” Truly amazing to be in a winery in the hills outside a small town 3000 miles from home and have such a chance encounter. We spent a few minutes chatting and catching up on the high points of our lives, a very small-world it is indeed…!!
The next morning, Mare and I were on our way to Yosemite to meet up with site monitor Dave Merriman and Bill Cuddy for some hang gliding at Glacier Point. After a flurry of phone calls, text messages, and chasing each other around, we finally all linked up over some fabulous pizza at Degnan’s Loft in Yosemite Village. Bill & Shelley were down from Reno in their motor home, and both looked a little tired from the drive over Tioga Pass. We transferred gliders onto Dave’s truck for the morning and all headed off to our campsites.
The next morning it was up at 5am in order to be atop Glacier Point by our 7am meeting time. We all piled into Dave’s Avalanche and up we went, to be greeted by a beautiful morning and perfect flying conditions. Bill was letting me fly his 190 Falcon and pod harness, so setting up was a breeze, leaving plenty of time for rigging our new GoPro HD camera.
The last time I had flown Glacier point was almost the same date in September, 1982, when I traveled there with my late friend Curt Graham and his girlfriend Carol. We both had brand new Comet I’s and Raymond cocoons. It was very sentimental time for me to be there again, I had been thinking of Curt a lot and telling Maryann about some of his/our crazy exploits from back in the day.
As in 1982, I was the first off the hill, and the thrill was even better than all those years ago. 3 steps and the big Falcon lifted me into space and off we went into the enormity of the shadow of Half Dome. Within yards of takeoff, we were floating 3200′ above the valley floor.
It is almost impossible to describe the emotional high of those moments. It seemed as though my entire life, every event, every success, every mistake, all the joys and sorrows, all of it had come into focus and was being manifested in the now. It was all so clean, so perfect, free of clutter, none of the usual noise in my head, and I was trying to expand my mind to fill the Yosemite Valley, to flow into every crevice & shadow, to meet up with every sunlit cliff, urgently hoping to capture every detail forever.
The flight only lasts 12-15 minutes, even with a big floater like the Falcon, so one hopes to prolong the ecstasy for as long as possible. I explored as far as I could over toward Yosemite Falls, but the limitations of a single surface glider only let me go so far. The falls were not flowing, having dried up as a result of being late in the season after a dry summer. The cliffs of the south face of El Capitan are so immense that it can be difficult to judge one’s distance from them, but my surprisingly tiny shadow let me know I was farther away than I thought. A few tiny bubbles of lift from the warming rock faces were starting to tickle my big wing, and I made a few turns just to eke out a little extra time in this heaven.
Too quickly, I was facing up to the fact that I must soon land, and the approach into the huge field in calm conditions with an easy glider was, well, uneventful. Some dew from the thigh-high grass wet my pant legs as I flare, and just like that, I was standing there on the earth again.
Bill and Dave both landed within a couple of minutes, and we spent a few minutes shaking hands, patting backs, telling stories, and doing our best to re-live the magic moments. Dave already had us convinced that there were blueberry pancakes calling our names from the Yosemite Lodge, so we hastened the breakdown of the gliders and made our way over to the promised land of breakfast. The food was great, the coffee was perfect, and so was the company.
Feeling freshly energized, we decided that a hike was the only solution to the mega-excess of calories we had just ingested, and so we decided to return to Glacier Point to make yet another descent into the valley, although via a much different route. The 8.2 mile trail is mostly downhill, extremely scenic, and unquestionably one of the most strenuous downhill hikes I have ever undertaken. The first 6 miles was a breeze, with only about 1 mile being uphill with a 700 foot gain. However, the last 2 miles, starting with the top of Nevada Falls, was quite challenging and hell on bad knees. The trail literally stair-steps down a steep, winding route over a gnarly mix of well-placed square steps and a random mish-mash of difficult footing on which every step must be carefully chosen. It was amazing that none of us twisted an ankle, and Mare went down once, placing a bleeding raspberry on her elbow fresh out of bursitis surgery. Good thing for first-aid kits in day packs.
At the end, we were all absolutely spent but happy, and none of us would have traded that day for anything. We all dragged ourselves back to our camps and food with the solemn realization that 5am and the next day’s flying would come very soon.
The morning conditions were a carbon copy of the previous day, and once again I was impatient and ran off the cliff first. Today, I was able to focus more on an efficient flight path, making the most of my glide in order to get a better view of the dried-up falls. Also, I had set the GoPro to shoot HD video. As per the previous day, we all had happy landings, followed by blueberry pancakes and the best coffee on earth.
Sadly, I was time for us to go, and it was hard to say goodbye to everybody. I wanted to stay and fly every day, to hike more, eat more, laugh more, and to make the dream go on and on. We drove a meandering route back to the Bay area, stopping only briefly near Mariposa for a visit with site monitor Mike Butler, who was injured in a hang gliding accident a couple of months ago. We wished him well and continued on our way.
Our next accommodations were waiting in Sausalito, where we spent 2 fantastic days exploring the area. Muir Woods was as impressive as the Big Trees, and finding the hang glider launch at Mt. Tamalpais made me quite jealous of all the fliers who have such nice foot-launch sites so easily accessible.
On the flight home, shortly after takeoff from SFO, we were able to see the coastal bluffs of Ft. Funston, and I almost jumped out of my seat when I saw a couple of hang gliders soaring. It was a fitting end to a fabulous journey. Almost 7,000 miles of travel, and we had the time of our lives. For the same 2 sled rides from Glacier Point, I’d do it all again tomorrow.