A couple weeks ago, if someone had asked me how I was spending my Memorial Day weekend, I would have told them I was driving to Yellowstone National Park with two of my friends, a trip that was five months in the making. And yet here I was on Memorial Day, standing in the doorway of a jump plane over ten thousand feet above Toledo, Washington, strapped to a complete stranger.
I had been waiting on the ground for two hours longer than expected. “It was an overcast morning,” one of the employees had told me, so everyone’s schedule was pushed back. But a little after 4 PM, just as the last wisps of clouds were dissipating, I was geared up and taken to the smallest plane I had ever seen. I squished behind the pilot’s seat (the only seat in the plane), and my instructor, Jeff, followed with two other jumpers who were going to be diving solo. I hugged my knees to my chest in order to make room as we formed the human version of Tetris. And then the door banged to a close and the pilot flipped a couple of switches and we were off.
We were all quiet for the first part of the flight. I looked out the little window to see Mount St. Helens and Mt. Adams on the horizon, the Cowlitz River below us, and the acres upon acres of farmland that made up Toledo. One of the solo jumpers asked Jeff for some advice on a landing technique, but after a few minutes, Jeff turned to me.
“Do you like jokes?”
“Here we go!” The solo jumper laughed and shook his head.
“Sure!” I said, smiling politely.
“What do camping and skydiving have in common?”
“I don’t know!”
“They’re both…in-tents!” I gave him a laugh, partly because my life was going to be in his hands in a few minutes, but also because I was in a general good mood.
“Why don’t blind people go skydiving?”
“I don’t know!”
“Because it scares the dog too much! What’s blue and smells like red paint?”
I paused. “Blue paint?”
“You got it! Here we go,” he pointed towards the door, which one of the divers was swinging open.
It’s been twenty minutes already? I thought as the diver pushed himself out of the doorway. I had heard that everything feels like it happens in an instant when you’re doing your first dive, and now Jeff was strapping his harness to mine and we were crawling after the second solo diver, who was taking his stance on the step just outside the plane. One second later, and he was gone.
I crossed my arms across my chest, hunched my shoulders forward, and put my foot next to Jeff’s on the step, just as he had instructed me before we had boarded the plane. I looked down at the world passing below me, and I waited. Waited for fear to creep into my mind. Waited for the enormity of what I was doing to sink in. Waited for that moment when I would have to force myself to just let go. But there was no moment. There was no fear and there was no forcing me. Jeff pushed us out of the plane without warning, and I was ready.
As soon as my foot was off of the step, I arched my back, again as I had been instructed to do. We somersaulted once or twice after leaving the plane; I couldn’t really tell how many times we turned. All I know is that I was smiling as I watched the world spin around me.
Once we balanced out, Jeff tapped my shoulder and I uncrossed my arms and held them out like wings. We were dropping at 120 MPH. But unlike when we were on the plane, the free fall wasn’t happening in an instant. Time stretched out its fingertips and the world went quiet. None of my problems on the ground seemed to matter anymore. Even Jeff was silent behind me. It was just me and the sky, and there was nothing for me to do except enjoy the moment.
But gravity had to pull me back to reality at some point. After 7,000 feet of free fall, Jeff pulled the cord and the parachute shot up above us. It took me a second to catch my breath after my harness jerked me out of the free fall.
“How was that?” Jeff asked as he maneuvered the parachute with the wind and pointed us in the direction of the landing field.
“It was…” I paused. Is there even a word or phrase that can encompass that kind of experience? “Unlike anything else in life.”
We drifted along quietly until Jeff said abruptly, “This is what we call a big turn!” and pulled us sharply to the right at 180 degrees.
Shit, I thought as I squeezed my eyes shut. It was too much like a fair ride or a fast car ride, when I get motion sick because of a sensory disorder I have. The plane ride and the free fall were fine, but one unexpected turn, and I could feel my face grow warm and nauseous. I briefly wondered if my adrenaline was high enough to keep me from throwing up while we were still in the air. Luckily, the field was straight in front of us now. No more turns.
“Alright, you’re going to lift your legs up so they’re parallel to the ground. We’re going to slide on our butts when we land.”
I lifted my legs, pleased that my flexibility was going to be good for something useful. And before I realized what was happening, my legs were sliding roughly on the ground until we came to a stop. And then it was over. And I already missed being in the sky.
“Well,” Jeff said as he unstrapped our harnesses and we walked back to the base. “What was your favorite part?”
“The free fall,” I said immediately.
He laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “A true adrenaline junkie. You’re our kind of people.”