Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chasing the Sun (part 1)

This is a story about taking chances.

August 2013 I took what I knew would be my final extended California vacation to follow the end of my summer work.

From 2009 to 2014 I spent several weeks of my summer working out of UC Santa Cruz. From 2010 to 2013 I marked the end of each residency and the end of my busiest season of work by renting a car and driving around the west coast, including sight seeing in LA, visits to the Facebook and Google campuses in Palo Alto, a swing through Napa Valley, hiking in Yosemite National Park, concerts, wrestling shows, visiting with friends, and no shortage of time spent on the beach.

By 2013, I had done most everything I really intended to in California. So, I made plans to revisit some favorite spots, hit a few nooks and crannies I hadn’t made time for earlier, and see some friends I hadn’t connected with in too long. And I booked a reservation to go skydiving.

I’ve had a passing fascination with skydiving for as long as I can remember, and on a whim that preceding spring, Googled the best places to do so, with a vague notion I might give it a try to commemorate my upcoming 30th birthday.

I opened a countdown of the top locations to skydive in the US. The first place selection: Santa Cruz, California.

I booked my dive that very day.

And so, I looked forward to this trip--the time off from work, the relaxation, the bit of adventure. And, aside from a couple pre-planned social stops, I looked forward to the isolation. After seven weeks of intensive supervisory work (preceded by three months of long hours at the office) the California trip had become a traditional period for me to embrace my introversion, taking care of myself as I listened the music of my choice alone in a car, napped and read books on the beach, enjoyed quiet meals seated at the bar or in my hotel room.

Then I met a girl.

In reality I had met Heather three years earlier at a conference my employer puts on in Baltimore, and interacted with her at the same event for each of the years to follow. But summer 2013 marked the first time when we worked together at the program location in Santa Cruz. And it wasn’t until the last few days of working together that the two of us really got to talking.

The conversation moved from work to music to movies to food to relationships to travel to yoga. And by the time we closed up shop at UCSC I had come to the unmistakable conclusion that I had just encountered one of the most interesting people I’d ever met.

Heather and a mutual friend decided to crash in a hotel room in San Jose before they hit the road for the longer journeys home. They invited me to join them for dinner.

I had a choice to make between my much-desired time alone and exploring this new friendship further. I decided that the me-time could wait and made the plunge.

And had an amazing time.

In the 24 hours to follow, as I settled into my vacation groove and she took the long way home to San Diego, we had established the beginnings of a technological rapport, between text messages and posting obscure musical favorites on one another’s Facebook walls. As such, the conversation continued, interspersed amidst all of the bits and pieces I had had planned.

Then it came time for skydiving.

I signed a series of waivers, including one affirming that skydiving accidents had a relatively high potential to cause death. I watched an instructional video. I practiced curving my body like a banana--head back, legs kicked back at the knees--to make it easiest for Steve, the professional I was harnessed to, to safely steer us.

I’m not one to take high-risk activities lightly, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel particularly apprehensive about this adventure until I had boarded the small plane that would carry us in the air. The plane consisted of a cockpit and an empty space just large enough for two pairs of tandem skydivers--a tight fit at that given that the other customer and I were each relatively tall men.

I watched the earth recede as the plane grew higher. I’ve never been a particularly nervous flyer, but whether it was the close quarters, the immediate sound of the plane’s little engine, or the knowledge I’d drop 4,000 feet in the next ten minutes, reality started to set in.

Then the first pair went. Two grown men strapped together sitting behind us one second and, the next, free falling out into oblivion.

I was on deck.

For the customer, “skydiving” is a bit of a misnomer. Diving implies action. In reality, it’s more of a passenger experience. The extent of my action and responsibility limited to remembering to breathe and not doing anything to actively endanger myself.

Steve pushed off from the plane. For the seconds to follow, our bodies spun like a discus. I hadn’t anticipated that particular element of the experience, expecting more of a downward dive, and by the time we had steadied enough for me to register a thought, I was nauseous.

Still, the view of the ocean, the sand, the buildings, the grass, all from a few thousand feet, looked small and simple and beautiful.

I recalled some of the reading I’d done before skydiving. One of the suggestions was to scream through the free fall. That some people have trouble exhaling and screaming forces the air out. And that it’s fun.

So I screamed.

Steve released the parachute and we settled into a vertical formation. The harness dug into the space where my chest met my shoulders, leaving dark red bruises that would remain for a week. Steve let me steer for a while, then guided me through the final motions for a safe landing.

We touched ground in a field where, even after we had unhooked, I stayed seated for a moment to steady my head and stomach and absorb everything that had happened in the preceding minutes. I recalled something my old friend Gurkan had once told me about a mountain-climbing experience. How surreal and exhausting the journey had been, but how grateful he felt for the earth beneath him and for the experience. How he loved the dirt beneath his feet and gave thanks by willing his body to do one hundred pushups on the spot.

I didn’t do push ups, but felt some modicum of that sensation just the same.

I got CD full of the pictures from my dive. Got in the car and ate the sandwiches I had packed for lunch, then drove to West Cliff Beach to while away the afternoon.

And I thought about Heather.

Since we had parted ways after dinner that Monday night, I had thought about extending that August’s trip past Los Angeles for my first journey down to San Diego. We had already started to exchange texts for that day. Confirming that I had survived skydiving, sharing a brief account of what it was like. And so, as I stood at the top of a set of stairs that would lead me down from the parking lot to the beach--one more descent, if one that I could choose to take at a slower pace than the morning’s fall from the plane. I removed my phone from my pocket one more time and sent a text to invite myself to visit Heather that Saturday.

I didn’t close my eyes or hold my breath. But I did put my phone away, to take it on faith that the answer would come. That it would be waiting for me when I reached the sand.

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