"I'd just launched from Paiute, a mountain at the north end of the Owens Valley. My instruments were singing a symphony in my ears; the earth began to fall away. My acuity was rising as rapidly as the hang glider. The altimeter read 10,000 feet. In moments, it passed 12,000. I was in a monster thermal, the kind I'd only read and heard about.
My thoughts spun back to 1981. I was leading a tour through the Swiss Alps. We were enjoying lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Liechtenstein and were admiring the magnificent peaks when we noticed, flying high above, a few strange birdlike creatures. But they didn't fly like ordinary birds; they flew like the hawks and eagles I had seen in North America. They were so graceful, and the multicolored wings that carried them along invisible sky lanes were overwhelming. I was mesmerized. I promised that when I returned to the States, I would find a hang-gliding school and learn to fly.
I found Windsports, a hang-gliding school in Van Nuys. When I visited the shop, my first question was: 'Is this sport too young for me?' At 46, I thought that was a reasonable question. 'Too young?' replied the owner, a man 15 years my junior. 'Youth is an attitude.'
I filled out a questionnaire, answering the usual questions about age, address and employment. The owner glanced at the completed form and looked up. 'Are you kidding? I don't think we've ever had one of you before.'
'One of what?' I asked.
'A clergyman. I guess you won't have any problem with the faith thing. Let's see if you can fly.'
Now I was remembering all the beginner take-offs and landings at the beach, the 100-plus launches off the secondary hill at Simi Valley, the first 2,400-foot high-altitude flight at Kagel Mountain in Sylmar. Was it all worth it?
The altimeter had passed 14,000 feet and I was still climbing. Moments later I was above Black Mountain, facing an eight-mile cut across Westgard Pass. Could I make the gap? I didn't know; I'd never done this. And so, speaking to my kite as I would to a friend, I said, 'All right, babe, let's go.'
But it didn't respond. I started to sink, fast. 'Hey, what's the matter with this thing?' I shouted. 'I'm falling!' If I didn't gain altitude soon, not only would my first flight come to an abrupt halt, but I'd be in for a 15-mile hike to the nearest road. For 10 minutes I flew at 100 feet, scratching for any lift I could find, all the time preparing to land. And then it happened--a giant air thermal caught my sail and I soared up to 17,000 feet. I was now flying south once again, in a straight line across the Inyo Whites, a mountain range to the east of the Sierra Nevada. From the top of the world I could see Death Valley to the left, and to the right was Owens Valley, with its historic towns--Bishop, Big Pine and Independence.
Suddenly I spotted a sail-plane pilot coming directly at me. We passed each other 200 feet apart; he was a blur, I was euphoric. I was circling now at 16,500 feet, directly east of Lone Pine, without the benefit of a CB radio. I had to decide: Should I try for a 100-plus-mile flight and land in the middle of the desert? Or should I be cautious, head for the Lone Pine Airport and delight in a first cross-country flight of 72 miles? I chose Lone Pine. I landed with ease and lay in the grass beside my beautiful flying machine. I remembered the great birds I had shared flight with moments before, and then I recalled the promise of the Prophet: 'But they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, and they shall mount up with wings like eagles.' "
PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS