My 2021 New Year’s resolutions took the form of a list of focus areas. I still gaze upon it with some regularity and shape my strivings accordingly. The intervening year, however, shook me to the core and consequently this go around I opted for a single anchoring sentence — “I will live with fear without living in fear”.
A Longer Form Backstory
This narrative, while capable of standing on its own, feels like the fourth logical volume in a larger story wherein the first three installments are here, here, and here.
Hanging By A Thread
In April of 2021 I had a scary paragliding crash that obliterated my confidence and placed me at the beginning of a long journey of recovery even though my physical injuries proved implausibly trivial. By December 2021, despite having done tons of training to become an objectively better pilot, to include receiving generous coaching from Chris Santacroce, completing three SIV clinics with Brad Gunnuscio, and devoting a ton of time to ground handling practice on a much loved wing I acquired from Joey Jarrell, a chronic fear injury persisted.
In the eight months since my mishap the longest flight I had sustained lasted about fifteen minutes, and not for want of opportunity, but rather because that represented what my fear budget could support. The trip to Alaska that Ariel Zlatkovski had suggested before my crash now seemed like preposterously wishful thinking. Although I had found the nerve to fly a few times at The V with Joey’s encouragement and coaching the idea of progressing to Grandeur Peak continued to feel extremely intimidating and, when I was flying, the fun too often tilted toward the Type II variety. Time and again I would show up at POTM-SS and manage my anxiety by just ground handling… for two hours.
Riding the high of my third SIV with Brad in October I signed up to go to Roldanillo for his thermaling clinic in February. Navigating “stall exposure therapy” with him had proven invaluable, leaving me able to actually enjoy deliberately doing the maneuver that I had first experienced by accident and nearly to disastrous effect, but even though the moment was cathartic and rationally I knew I was becoming a much more capable pilot, that glow quickly faded, displaced by a residual fear perpetually lurking in the shadows. Some part of my brain kept seeing Roldanillo as an increasingly intimidating and overly ambitious idea.
Joey suggested that I consider Chris Hunlow’s January thermaling clinic in Piedechinche as a less scary incremental step. I subsequently agonized over a “double down or bail out?” decision point. Finally I worked up the nerve to go for the former option and reached out to Chris on December 3rd… only to find that his clinic was already full. He noted, however, that not everyone was as yet fully committed and so I should keep the faith by maintaining readiness to go, indicating that he was trying to add capacity but that a coincident competition was squeezing local resources. A week later, anxious to know if I might join, I pinged him again but he (quite reasonably and honorably) said he needed to give early registrants a fair chance to finalize their plans. At this point I bared my paragliding soul to him to illustrate what I viewed as the stakes for me and then set to patiently waiting.
As the remaining days of the year ticked down I found myself imagining that Piedechinche represented a forlorn hope and began pondering an option space that seemed to have collapsed to “Roldanillo or bail out?”. A few days before the calendar rolled Brad pinged his group to finalize commitments for Roldanillo and by New Year’s Eve I found myself facing an agonizing choice. For days my finger hovered over the “Send” button of a note to the effect of “sorry, bro — can’t do this” but with the buzzer for 2021 about to sound I instead resolved that “I will live with fear without living in fear” and sent Brad the tuition balance. Roughly twenty four hours later I got a note from Chris saying that although his original tour was completely booked he had managed to scrounge up some extra capacity and a slot was a mine if I wanted it. I accepted immediately and began making plans at once. When I thanked him for making it happen he replied simply — “it was because of your push that you got this spot”.
Pushing Through The Pain
My pre-trip anxiety manifested in my sweating every preparatory detail while Chris exhibited the patience of a saint by answering all the questions I asked promptly, thoughtfully, and exhaustively without exception. The man knows customer service presumably because, among other reasons, empathy ranks high among his super powers. Nonetheless by the time my bags hit the floor of a room at Siga La Vaca one might have summarized my general mind state as “holy shit what the actual fuck am I doing here?”. This trip embodied one of the most extreme manifestations of “fake it til you make it” in my life — stacked atop it being a last ditch leap-of-faith to recover my love for the sport, it also represented my first post-pandemic vacation travel, my first time in South America, my first time paragliding outside of Utah, and a clinic focused on a skill area where I had no proven ability.
On the evening of my arrival the whole group went out for dinner. Chris, perhaps sensing my anxiety, took a seat at the table across from me and provided some extra attention and assurance — “Dude, just have fun; this will be Colombia on easy mode”. He said we would walk the LZ in the morning and that aiming for a simple sledder was a reasonable first-day goal. My nerves were still buzzing but the intensity had dissipated to a manageable level. By force of will I clung to a visualization of what I wanted to be true by trip’s end and kept putting one foot in front of the other.
In Piedechinche your launch faces west which implies a late-ish start to your flying day. Getting to the top of “Seven” after a preliminary walk of the main LZ, I had plenty of time to stew in anxiety. Consequently mindfulness and visualization were key. I set up my gear, dropped my brain into neutral, and waited for my moment. When my turn to setup on launch came I waited for enough of a cycle to reverse inflate and then was off to the races with the expectation of an extended sledder of maybe ten minutes… but that was not to be.
Instead I found the confluence of courage and conditions to have an amazing flight that lasted nearly an hour. Scrounging up the guts to capture thermals by turning 360s close to terrain I found my confidence growing alongside my altitude. The greater my height the less worrisome the turbulence felt. What a moment — that flight would have been magical in its own right but in the larger context of my having spent the preceding nine months too afraid to fly longer than fifteen minutes this represented a joyous conquest of my fears and a renewed sense of hope.
And little did I know that this was just the beginning. I took the next day off because my brain was fried, overwhelmed from the strain of travel, the anxiety of anticipation, the adrenaline of the moment, and the flood of relief having smashed through a barrier. “Don’t be greedy” is a mantra that has served me well.
On the third full day in theater I would strap in again for another flight every bit as excellent as my first one. The jolt I got from this experience was the sense that the first one had not been an irreproducible fluke but rather the first data point that I was onto something — a sense of “I got this” was growing.
The next couple of days proved a rich tapestry of experiences…
On day four I launched either too soon or mistimed to cycles and sunk out with a twelve minute sledder but, seizing the opportunity to exploit the site’s “free refills” I jumped in a truck and immediately returned to the top for another go which proved a hard fight to stay up thirty three minutes in weak and spotty thermals. Reflecting on the second flight later that evening, somewhat down on myself for only flying half as long as as on the previous days, Chris remarked on the adverse conditions of the day and reminded me that it’s not the raw numbers that matter but how well you played the hand you were dealt.
The next day I had a similar quick bomb-out and refill only to find myself seemingly headed for another disappointing sledder, but… I held on by my fingernails and it turned into the best flight of my life thus far. At some point I gave up on milking the weak lift of a ridge and turned toward the LZ, hunting for opportunities but seeing none… until at just about the last possible moment I spied a handful of birds turning together, made it toward them, and then had one of the most focused sustained struggles flying I had ever had. My arms burned as I heard Kevin McGinley shouting over the radio from launch “KEEP WORKING IT!” and I turned and turned and turned, just barely managing to stay in zeroes for what felt like an eternity and then… my dogged persistence paid off when nature delivered, a reminder that 90% of life is just showing up (the “showing up” in 4-D space admittedly being tricky). Perhaps the most magical moment occurred when I realized that other pilots were forming a gaggle around me in the thermal I had figured out in the middle of a flight that broke my records for duration, climb, challenge, and all around fun.
All that aside, a much higher order phenomenon coalesced… At some point during this flight I experienced a feeling akin to the big meaty clunk of a safe’s locking tumblers aligning and the door swinging open. I finally felt awash in a serene joy that had gone completely missing over the previous nine months and at a level perhaps never previously attained. I was flying alongside the clouds above a strange and beautiful land, the thermaling skills letting me get there and the SIV training providing the confidence that with so much altitude I could handle anything nature threw at me. I could relax and drink in the preposterous surreality and beauty. I had burst through the end of one of the longest and darkest tunnels I had ever navigated and the reward tasted incomparably sweet.
The next couple of days offered marginal conditions and I only managed to eke out a simple sledder on each day. I might have tried to fly more but that would have been folly and the terrifying experiences some pilots outside of our group had made me confident in the wisdom of my conservative choices.
On what was to be my last full day in Piedechinche I called the airline and doubled my odds of having another awesome flight by extending by a day. Then I went to the mountains and smashed my personal best for longest flight by a factor of two, flying for just shy of three hours. My log book records only two words for the flight: “holy shit”. The ayvri track would seem to reveal something vaguely resembling an improvised mini-XC triangle. I think the trick to success involved this being the one day on the trip when I forgot to deploy my water tube. In any case, it’s just as well that I wrapped at three hours as my brain was melting and it’s a good idea to have some operable neurons at the LZ.
The next day I had to laugh at the absurdity of my final flight — what now counted as mild disappointment was “only” flying for four times as long as any of my pre-PDC flights over the preceding nine months. What a difference a week can make! My heart left Colombia and flew back to Utah bursting with gratitude and a renewed sense of possibility.
By the time I was returning to Colombia three weeks later for round two in Roldanillo with Brad I felt far better prepared to navigate the attendant challenges and wring optimal value from my time there with him. There the air proved gnarlier, the cloud base more complex, the terrain more committing, and the schedule more stringent… but instead of feeling behind the curve on basic thermaling technique and intimidated by rowdy air and massive power lines I could begin to focus more in earnest on the mechanics of XC flying which were plenty difficult on their own.
All of my landings were “fine” though certainly some were more elegant than others — on my first flight, concluding in a landing immediately adjacent to some towering sugarcane, having an extra tall friend made all the difference; during my most chill landing I didn’t adequately consider how I was going to get out of a fenced in field; on my final flight I partook of a rather more intimate tour of a vineyard than I might have preferred.
This last landing pictured above was from my final flight where perhaps the standout lesson was to be far more certain of having glide to my desired LZ. I hedged my bets in a way where nothing catastrophic was apt to happen but the price of that insurance policy was a sufficiently indirect route that I just missed the subsequent field and nice road I had intended to make my landing spot. Whoops. I landed perpendicular to the vineyard rows, saw my wing fall sideways into the plants, and groaned “argh — not again!”.
Only one of my flights, on the penultimate day, would I file under “arguably a really bad decision” but even that was highly educational in its own right and it proved a “cheap lesson” — ain’t nothing like cramping up from holding in speed bar while listening to your vario’s sink tones for the whole flight as you wonder if you’ll clear the various power lines along the way and make the LZ despite beelining to goal the whole time. Be wary of allowing far off good looking clouds to tempt you into a “Bridge Too Far” kind of ordeal.
The Fickleness Of Recovery
I have been driving for twenty six years and half way through that time I had my first and only at-fault accident. The car in front of me took its crack at the scary launch required to make a right turn from a spur road with a terrible sight line onto a rightward curving state highway so I looked over my shoulder to do the same, let off the brake, and… CRUNCH. Actually the car in front of me had balked at the last possible moment and I rear-ended them at maybe 1MPH. I was mortified. I was also in denial — it felt like the universe had played some horrible cognitive trick on me (probably in the form of leaving me hangry and dehydrated after a vigorous summer volleyball game in a poorly ventilated warehouse). And most interestingly I completely lost confidence in my ability to drive… for about two days. Presumably the extreme brevity of this confidence interlude owed to a huge reservoir of historical positive/unremarkable experiences and a subsequent return to daily driving.
My flying reality has offered a much more challenging progression. About five months into things I had a terrifying experience with a big asymmetric deflation that I just managed to navigate in a way that narrowly avoided it yielding my curtain call by way of high energy pancake. Shaken by this I found myself unknowingly on a deflation-to-stall arc wherein reactive and excessive brake pressure to guard against another deflation put me in the danger zone for a stall just in time for the unfamiliarly strong thermic conditions of Spring in Utah. This time I would prove less lucky, pounding into the ground and taking an ambulance ride to a trauma clinic, though somehow with an unknown combination of mitigating factors limiting my injuries to a mild concussion, a tender upper back and neck, and the jaw pain that probably indicated my helmet strap had done its level best to save my life. The doctors marveled at their inability to find anything at all in my full-body CT scan given the accident reports bystanders had offered. How did I get off so cheaply (at least physically)? Technical skill, physical toughness, sang-froid, or dumb luck, and in what proportions? The concussion wiped most of my memory, witness testimony was inconsistent and incomplete, and there was no video documentation, so it remains forever a mystery. I have had people tell me that that is a gift but given the subsequent journey I’m not entirely sure.
Over-compensation from incident to accident doubtless served as one major factor in ending up in a bad way. A relatively short flying career meant I had a fairly small amount of accumulated positive experiences to damp the negative ones. And a concussion mandated timeout of about a month gave me lots of time to stew in negative thoughts. All in all a perfect storm to engender a crisis of confidence, one whose challenges would take a long time to surmount, and the ghosts of which still haunt me in a way that takes a disciplined approach to overcome…
After returning from Colombia round #2, having handled everything that beautiful country had thrown at me, never suffering more than a tiny tip collapse at any time despite occasionally quite rowdy conditions, I found myself harboring a restored confidence. Again, however, it proved fleeting in the wake of subsequent challenges. Between a couple of bad weeks of weather followed by a mysterious knee injury that left me unable to fly for about six weeks I unexpectedly had two months to lose momentum and confidence.
I knew my subjective reality was ridiculous given what a huge collection of challenges I had navigated successfully in the previous year and yet there it was. I seem to be learning that, for my subjective self anyway, highly negative experiences exhibit a long half-life, highly positive experiences offer a much shorter half-life, and I furthermore (or perhaps consequently?) demonstrate a strong recency bias.
This implies that I must consistently accumulate positive experiences to maintain momentum. When I find myself at the end of a travel paragliding experience I am hungry to fly. If a few weeks pass without any flying my confidence begins to flag and I find myself subconsciously generating excuses why today is not a good day to fly. Notably all of these problems melt away once I am airborne and I dial into that incomparable sense of Flow that aviation brings. The struggle, rather, involves simply showing up.
Finally, after a two month flying drought, and on release from my physical therapist, I had a delightful POTM-SS flight. It was simple but joyous to be back, just a 15 minute ridge soaring session, but just what I needed to get back in the game (a hug from Jimbo and Mark probably didn’t hurt either). I was, mind you, terrified that my knee was going to explode on landing, and I had to yell at myself to stay gentle on the brakes during short final while some of my brain was incorrectly screaming “LET’S SLOW DOWN”, but happily I came in with lots of energy and flared at just the right moment and all was well. Phew.
Then on my next outing, also at POTM-SS, just as I was packing up to leave I witnessed a midair collision and ended up being a first responder. One pilot was fine and another was in very bad shape, face down and not moving when I arrived shortly after other folks. I wasn’t sure how much help I could be with several people already on-site but actually the answer was “quite a lot” because I seem to be much calmer and more rational than the general population when navigating such crises. When I realized that he was still hooked to his wing I designated someone to sit on it lest it repower. When people wanted to roll the pilot over to take off his harness I argued strenuously and successfully that we not do that so as to protect his spine. As the situation developed I asked emergency personnel whether they intended evacuation by ground or air so that if it was the latter we could start to clear the field aggressively. By the end I was glad I had gotten involved but… I was also shaking and having to work hard not to cry or vomit. This pilot’s crash site was almost identical to my own from just a year earlier.
The next time I was clipping into my harness, this time at POTM-NS, I witnessed another pilot attempting a top-landing take a massive deflation that set off a cascading series of failures. I held my breath as she proceeded from big asymmetric collapse to spin to stall to surge to re-stall and… I breathed an arguably somewhat premature sigh of relief when she appeared to transition to back-fly (or something similarly forgiving; I was far away) just before impact which meant she hit the ground at maybe the speed of coming down under a reserve parachute. I imagined that this eerily resembled what spectators got to watch during my own stall once upon a time and that my margins between something relatively benign and something horrific were similarly slim. Blergh.
With my confidence taking hit after hit from things that actually had nothing directly to do with my own flying performance I had the sinking feeling that all my hard won successes were slipping between my fingers.
Ever Onward And Upward
I am, however, if nothing else, persistent, and furthermore blessed with some excellent friends that are continually creating opportunities for me to succeed. So when Ariel re-raised the idea of coming to Alaska I jumped at the opportunity. Well, just as soon a I figured wheels to rent that weren’t going to cost ~$6000 for ~2 weeks that is…
With those plans finalized, though, I had three weeks to fill and was hungry for something to boost my aviating spirits. After talking about doing it forever, and with repeated nudges from Joe Hastings to consider it, I finally did my first ever legit hike-and-fly, braving Grandeur Peak in what turned into a race against time to launch before the wind wend katabatic. We started the hike later than ideal, I forgot to grab my trekking poles before we left the LZ for a nearby staging area in Joe’s car, I strained against ~60lbs of gear that had me grinding at target heart rate for the whole ascent, I nearly had my helmet roll down the hill while I was laying out my wing, I squandered precious moments on an ill-fated reverse inflation as the wind was reversing, and by the time I launched from a forward inflation the conditions had become sufficiently marginal that the bottom of my harness just grazed the hill as I built airspeed (I suspect I inflated in low/no-wind but transitioned into sinky/tail-wind). Yikes. But once I was properly off launch I was completely in the zone, the flight went well, the approach was solid, and the feeling afterward was of pure glory. I was so wired from the experience that I could not fall asleep for hours after getting home despite being brain-fried.
Pulling off that hike-and-fly represented a huge milestone for my time in Utah generally and my aviation journey specifically, one whose realization required the confluence of skills development, gear tuning, psychological perseverance, and physical conditioning. This outing provided just the experience I needed to head to Alaska flying high instead of needing to dig out of a hole.
My first flight in Alaska, starting from the “Lake Hill” launch of Hatcher Pass, began with an exasperating wrestling match in high wind on a steep slope that sported incredibly slick plants and gnarly unforgiving boulders, engendering an uncivilized amount of cursing as I internally debated whether I should just shut it down…
Then actually getting off the hill involved being plucked with an unresolved cravat, an experience that was super intense in the moment but in hindsight weirdly gratifying. I calmly handled the situation the way I had drilled in SIV — firstly maintaining a steer-then-clear prioritization, this being important to avoid turning a mild nuisance into a senselessly ground pounding disaster; secondly endeavoring to strike the balance of terrain clearance and airspeed maintenance, a critical matter as such a wing compromise brings you closer to stall speed; and thirdly explicitly refraining from matching brake toggles to one hand before using the other hand to clear the cravat with the stabilo line, a mistake there risking the initiation of a spiral dive as I learned quite explicitly in class. Once I had cleared that hurdle my heart was slamming, my lungs were heaving, and my guts were churning, but I stuck with the program and maintained a ridge soaring pattern until my body and brain could catch up with my wing…
Lord knows I was grateful not to have done an “SIV” in this moment where the “S” stood for “Surprise” or “Stupid” instead of “Simulated”, my “classroom” experience last October having amply demonstrated what a shit show that can potentially be…
In any case — for all that effort the gods rewarded me with a breath taking hour-long aerial tour of one of the coolest flying spots in the world right out of the gate. Wow.
Worth noting is that after one more somewhat albeit less spicy launch…
… I was grateful to figure out a portion of the hill that offered the wind shadow to inflate in better control and only then push out to where the ridge’s main compression zone was, allowing me the ability to get going in a much lower stress fashion while subsequently enjoying nicely supporting conditions…
It was even pretty nifty to test and debug my new radio setup which provides in helmet comms as well as a push-to-talk button mounted to my left rear riser…
So much of Alaska felt like a tangible reward for all of my earlier trials and tribulations, not just in the sense of the universe smiling on me with good fortune after long struggles, but also in the way that various component skills both unlocked opportunities and kept me safe.
Having survived a grueling hike and stressful no-wind launch in a race against time back in Utah at Grandeur Peak I was better prepared to navigate the challenges of the “Marmot” launch at Hatcher Pass on a day with rapidly deteriorating weather. I even remembered to bring my trekking poles!
Having previously braved Grandeur Peak’s LZ back in Utah, the one at Alaska’s Baldy Peak did not feel impossibly intimidating, and having figured out thermaling in Colombia I was able to upgrade what might have been a simple five minute sledder into an incredibly fun and beautiful twenty five minute flight which finished with what a local observing pilot described as a “textbook landing” in an LZ “the size of a postage stamp” (it was a little bigger than that).
On top of my many adventurous landings in Roldanillo, having arguably blown my glide to the V’s LZ a year earlier (thanks for having eyes on me Joey!) which culminated in an unplanned fire road landing on uneven ground and surrounded by grass hiding leg-busting boulders (my first XC-esque landing)…
… it was no big deal when I blew a transition from “Diving Board” to “Back Wall” at Hatcher Pass and had to contrive myself a snowfield landing in a pinch then hike upward to re-launch into light wind on steep and slippery terrain (actually the latter part was kind of a big deal as I found myself in another race-against-dying-wind slog of a hike and consequently I was quite relieved that Ariel had side-hill landed to help me navigate that part!)…
FWIW, that landing actually felt way more chill than some of the planned ones at Lake Hill’s main LZ where you are navigating a sea of dirt mounds sprinkled liberally with boulders, making both path selection and flare timing crucial…
In any case, I would have to say that the standout experience of the trip involved my last flight at Lake Hill when I put together all the pieces I had puzzled out on previous flights which enabled me to fly a deeply satisfying mini-XC triangle that ended with a top-landing right where I started…
I can’t thank Ariel enough for offering such excellent friendship and mentorship over nearly two years and for serving as such an exemplary ambassador and guide for this magical flying area. He always bringing the positive energy and his care for the success, safety, and enjoyment of others is unparalleled.
There were even puppies.
What a complicated, arduous, scary, meandering, and yet profoundly enriching and regularly joyful journey this has all been… I feel worlds apart from my 40th birthday of ~2.5 years ago which looked eerily like this…
And large swaths of the intervening time have certainly felt like this…
… but ultimately, though fear is a regular companion and circumstances occasionally seemed to be conspiring to get me to quit, I have felt blessed not just by the destinations but also the journey. If it were easy then everyone would do it.
Bigger Than Just Paragliding
To paraglide, some will tell you, is to hold a mirror up to your soul — it is like everything else in life only more so. The highs are higher, the lows lower, and the risks far more visceral and consequential. The sport will amplify your personal character attributes to the extreme. To navigate its perils and reap its rewards over the long haul requires serious intentionality, discipline, dedication, resilience, risk awareness, risk tolerance, physical toughness, body awareness, quick thinking, timely reflexes, attention management, and mindfulness as well as a robust social support system.
As I stare at that list and take a tough look at myself a few potential problem areas stand out. And what really intrigues me involves how those weaknesses in paragliding often serve as strengths in other contexts.
As a hyper-lateral thinker I excel at outside-the-box problem solving but this can just as well generate racing thoughts which drive excessive anxiety instead of mindfulness. I am also hyper-analytic which is great for risk awareness but less so, especially in concert with other traits, for risk tolerance. I am also quite good at focused thinking which offers a very complicated set of benefits and drawbacks — first considering actually flying, on the one hand I effectively push out all non-aviation thoughts while I am in the air but on the other hand risking fixation on one aviation sub-problem to the detriment of others; second considering the surrounding activities, on the one hand I can quite readily dig deep to assess a problem and generate solutions but on the other hand I may work myself up to an excessive degree on one narrow problem area which engenders issues around opportunity cost, diminishing returns, and general anxiety. Lastly I suspect that my “dedication” is actually more about momentum — I am slow to get going but once I am rolling you had better not get in the way because I am unstoppable; or, less flatteringly, if I am stopped I may be at risk of getting stuck and languishing.
I have been cultivating an assortment of brain hacks to guardrail various of these issues but they require work and discipline. Those struggles perhaps center more than anything on intentionality, mindfulness, and framing. I am striving to be more clear with myself about what I want out of this sport, as well as life, and to that end am fighting to have my higher order self be more thoroughly in command of all my neural circuitry.
When anxiety starts boiling over on the drive to launch I re-frame from “I’m nervous” to “I’m excited”. When I am debating whether to go to launch I strive to time-box the decision process, commit to a course of action, and then put it out of mind lest second guessing allows convenient rationalizations to convert an exciting day into a safe one. When in a rut I regain momentum by engineering a high-density, high-commitment, highly-social “event” that provides the laser focus, sunk costs, and positive energy to get me rolling again.
Perhaps one of the most salient and transcendent mantras in paragliding reads as “look where you want to go”. This works just as well on the ground as in the air. If we fixate on the impending disaster then so do we the more precipitously plunge toward it, whether it be the hard nearby ground after suffering a big wing deflation or the failed engagement with a critical customer in the course of building a business. Will we misapply the Samurai’s admonition to “keep death in mind at all times” and live our lives as “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat” or will we employ it as they intended by leveraging the knowledge of our inevitable death as a spur to work backwards from a good death at the end of a life well spent and then plow forward among the “[hu]man[s] who [are] actually in the arena [and] whose face[s] [are] marred by dust and sweat and blood”?
As I zoom out to my larger life I see a period over the last six years trending toward greater risk and ambiguity. Spanning 2016-2020 I found my feet in four different states — Maryland, Connecticut, Ohio, and Utah. During that same period I repeatedly downshifted my employer size by perhaps as much as 100x at each step — from civilian employee at a massive government agency, to employee at a mid-sized financial company, to a fifteen person start-up company, to solopreneur consultant. Through that lens maybe spending the last ~2 years figuring out paragliding merely represents the latest logical step in accepting risk in exchange for an ever richer collection of life experiences.
From time to time I am tempted by the nostalgia of some earlier era or place but I keep repeating to myself “we move forward” and plow ahead, doing what I can to drive the play instead of just reacting to circumstances. It can prove scary, exhausting, and alienating at times to keep acting like I have over the past six years but it is also exhilarating. Nothing is certain with any of these jumps… nothing except an ever growing curated collection of excellent humans and mind expanding experiences.
Early this year local legend Richard Webb offered me some very pithy advice over dinner — “fly more sites”. It was great specific guidance on its own but I found myself generalizing to a Data Scientist’s caution to avoid “over-fitting the model”. At the time of that conversation I had flown all of four sites — POTM-SS, POTM-NS, Utah Lake for SIV, and the V. In the intervening months I grew my collection of flown sites by more than double, adding six new ones — a site in Piedechinche, another one in Roldanillo, Grandeur Peak here in Utah, and then three different sites in Alaska. The value has proven enormous, taking shape in obliterated assumptions and consequently the flourishing of more general purpose mental maps about how to fly.
And as I zoom out I can see an evolving way of being wherein I am increasingly waging a war on over-fitted conceptual models. I used to operate in professional contexts with risk guidelines and delivery timelines tuned to government work. Now all these years later I instead dynamically tune my engagement style to the case at hand, having become able to do so as the result of a body of work that now spans both public and private sectors, multiple domains, several employer sizes, and varying contractual arrangements. With every new site I fly, every new place I live, every new friend I make, and every new professional partnership I forge, navigating the next one feels that much less intimidating. This feels like progress.
I think my late maternal grandmother would be mortified in the knowledge that I took up paragliding shortly after she departed this mortal plane, but probably the recent trajectory is at least partly her fault, her refrigerator having always been adorned with the following Hunter S. Thompson quote, so be mindful of the influence you may be having on others…
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Holy shit! What a Ride!”
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